Communication Is Key to Open Enrollment During COVID-19

This year’s annual benefits enrollment process presents new challenges for benefits professionals as they find themselves in the middle of a pandemic with workers nervous about their financial security as well as their health and safety.

In her article “Communication Is Key to Annual Enrollment Success in the Year of COVID-19” in the August issue of Benefits Magazine, Jennifer Benz offers tips for planning for and communicating during open enrollment this year. Benz is senior vice president and communications leader at Segal Benz.

Communication Is Key to Open Enrollment During COVID-19

Going Virtual

Employers and plan sponsors may need to conduct benefits fairs and annual open enrollment online since many employees are working from home due to COVID-19. When setting a virtual strategy, Benz suggests asking the following questions.

  • How have you traditionally measured success for annual enrollment and events such as enrollment meetings and/or benefits fairs?
  • What is most important to your organization and your people?
  • In this new environment, what needs to stop, continue and improve in terms of the overall annual enrollment experience?
  • What channels are available to you, and how can you best use them to reach and engage your audiences?
  • Going forward, how will you measure success and impact?
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“From there, you can start to look at how various channels and resources will work for distributing information and creating online events. It is easy to get overwhelmed with the number of technology solutions available. By starting with your strategy and needs, you’ll be able to narrow down the tools and channels needed,” Benz writes.

There are many ways to tackle virtual benefits fairs and meetings, Benz notes. Employers can host a series of simple webinars and Q&A sessions, or they can build a very sophisticated online event. “What will be key in determining your approach is to narrow in on your audience needs, your goals and your resource constraints (both time and budget).”

Communicating Benefit Changes

Benz offers the following communication pointers to ensure that communications about benefit changes hit the mark with employees and plan participants.

  • Give space for what’s happening in the health care big picture and help people understand the “why” behind your decisions.
  • Be very specific about the changes that are being made and how they impact different audiences. If you have complex audiences, consider creating targeted or personalized materials that will break down information by audience and make it easier for individuals to see what impacts them.
  • Show comparisons between current and future plan offerings, including costs. Doing this in multiple formats is most helpful. The most important thing is that you don’t make people do the math and figure out what has changed by themselves.
  • Share specific examples that are relevant for them, based on demographics and family situations. One way to do this is by highlighting different personas and building examples of “people like me” to show how things work for those personas.
  • Show everyone how they can save money with their choices (e.g., by moving to a lower cost plan or enrolling in a flexible savings account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA)). Targeted messages can be very helpful here as well.
  • Use a variety of channels to help support different learning styles and ways to reach people. Don’t assume everyone wants to watch a video or read lengthy text. Giving a variety of options will help everyone digest the information.
  • Make sure you have a clear call to action so your people know what they need to do and when. If there isn’t a clear action on every piece, make sure you add it.  

Emphasize What Matters During COVID-19

Benz adds the following additional thoughts to consider when shaping messages about benefits during annual open enrollment.

Focus on value and financial protection.

Health insurance, like any other insurance, provides financial protection for when workers get sick. With so much focus on accessing care, this very important aspect of financial protection often gets overlooked. Encourage employees to evaluate whether they have the right level of insurance, and help them understand the trade-off between out-of-pocket costs and premiums.

Promote missed or underused benefits.

Play up telehealth in communications and encourage plan members to use the benefit for nonemergency health care needs. Share reminders about other niche or voluntary benefits people may be missing out on. Nontraditional benefits, including child care or elder care, legal services, identity theft insurance, pet insurance and education assistance, are likely to appeal to people a lot right now—and likely to appeal to different segments of the workforce or membership.

“Just remember people may be feeling insecure right now and are looking to you for answers. Communicate with them honestly and often. Follow best practices—frequent, simple, bite-sized information that helps them make decisions and take action. By meeting people where they are on a continual basis, you’ll earn their respect and loyalty and provide them the reassurance they need amid all this uncertainty,” Benz concludes.

Learn More

The new International Foundation report, Trends in Benefit Open Enrollment and Communication, discusses best practices for year-round benefit communication, communication related specifically to open enrollment, and how organizations are adjusting their communication efforts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. International foundation members can download the full report at

Trends in Benefit Open Enrollment and Communication 2020 Survey Report

Kathy Bergstrom, CEBS
Senior Editor, Publications at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans

The latest from Word on Benefits:

Kathy Bergstrom, CEBS

Senior Editor, Publications at the International Foundation Favorite Foundation Product: The Foundation magazines: Benefits Magazine and Plans & Trusts Benefits Related Topics That Interest Her Most: Financial literacy, health and wellness programs Favorite Foundation Conference Moment: Hearing attendees sing “O, Canada” at Canadian Annual in addition to hearing the anthem sung in both French and English. Personal Insight: Whether she’s collecting information for a magazine story or hanging out with her family and friends, you know Kathy is fully engaged. Her listening ear and introspective nature provide reassuring presence to those enjoying her company.

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