Open Enrollment 2020: Employers Explore New Ways to Communicate Benefits

As if open enrollment wasn’t already challenging, 2020 is throwing employers and employees for a loop. The latest International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans survey report, Trends in Benefit Open Enrollment and Communication, asked U.S. employers about pandemic-related changes impacting staff communication and implementation for this year’s open enrollment.

In the height of a health pandemic, familiarity with health benefits is essential, but only one-third of employees (34%) have a high level of understanding of their benefits. Over half (52%) have a medium level of understanding, and 15% have a somewhat or very low level of understanding. Employers are pivoting their efforts this year by using new virtual tactics and topic-driven communication.

Participants Level of Understanding Employee Benefits

Going Virtual for Open Enrollment

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused organizations to make some major adjustments to how their open enrollment process will operate. About one in five (21%) organizations has made changes to their open enrollment procedures because of the pandemic, and nearly all the changes involve shifting from an in-person experience to a virtual option.

I spoke about this with Julie Stich, CEBS, VP of Content at the International Foundation. She said she’s been hearing from many organizations that in-person meetings and benefit fairs have been canceled or moved to a virtual space. Organizations are reducing printed materials (like posters and signage) and instead are sending more emails or mailing information to participants’ homes. Many are getting creative by making videos or developing more interactive websites to educate workers about their choices and the open enrollment process.

Developing Solutions for Deskless/Nonwired Workers

Several organizations indicated they were concerned about communicating open enrollment information with deskless/nonwired workers (workers without regular access to a computer or email), especially considering the absence of face-to-face events this year.

Julie said that one employer mentioned that some of their employees lack access to a computer to complete the enrollment process—Those computers are normally provided during benefit fairs, which are going virtual this year.

Of organizations with deskless/nonwired workers, 43% find it challenging to communicate to that population. Whether it’s providing a mail-in option this year or modifying face-to-face events to accommodate social distancing recommendations, these organizations are working to find new solutions for their workers.

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Emphasizing COVID-19-Related Topics

The number one challenge facing employers has held steady for the past five years, regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic: Employees do not open and read employee benefits communication materials or access resources—reported by 76% of employers who took the survey.

To further encourage employees to read their open enrollment materials, employers are focusing on more COVID-19-related topics when communicating benefits this year. Most employers said their main topic of focus is health care, including telehealth/telemedicine benefits (87%). Noting the importance of mental health resources during this time of uncertainty, 74% are communicating specifically about mental health benefits as well. Organizations are also emphasizing employee assistance programs and flexible work arrangements.

Examining Health Care Options

Most organizations stated that the average participant will continue to have the same number of health plan choices available to them as they did in 2020. Nearly all organizations will maintain or increase access to virtual health care options in 2021. However, most (70%) organizations anticipate that the cost of health benefits for average plan participants will increase compared with 2020.

Expected Changes in Health Care for Plan Participants 2020-2021

Learn More

The Trends in Benefit Open Enrollment and Communication: 2020 Survey Report discusses standard 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

Anne Patterson
Social Marketing and Communications Strategist at the International Foundation

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Anne Patterson

Social Marketing and Communications Strategist at the International Foundation

Favorite Foundation Product: The innovative member survey efforts and results from the research team.

Benefits-Telated Topics That Interest Her Most: Health care, nontraditional wellness initiatives, employee benefit communication.

Personal Insight: It’s all about balance with Anne. She loves to run and enjoys a good culinary adventure. She’ll jump at the chance to travel or to spend fun times with family and friends, but she’ll also take time to catch her breath with an occasional Netflix binge or diving into a classic novel.

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