A Quick Guide to Making Open Enrollment Easier for You and Your Employees

It's about that time of year: open enrollment season, when employees get to choose or tweak their benefits options for the coming year. As an HR pro, it's your duty to guide employees through the process and help them choose the benefits that best meet their needs. Depending on what your organization offers, though, that may be easier said than done. Health, dental, life insurance – even, in some cases, pet insurance and retirement savings: It's a lot to keep track of, let alone explain to employees.

The good news this year is that SHRM has your back, with an extensive resource page dedicated to helping you and your organization navigate enrollment season smoothly and successfully. The page contains a lot of information, and it's pretty much impossible to summarize it all in any useful way, so today, we're simply going to take a look at some of the most important points:

What's New This Year?

SHRM put together a video featuring its vice president of human resources, Bettina Deynes, that gives a quick overview of what employees should know about open enrollment this year:

One key point the video mentions is that experts predict employee-shouldered health care costs could rise by as much as 5 percent this year. The video also points out that health savings accounts (HSAs) are growing in popularity. The percentage of organizations offering HSAs increasing by 7 percent in the past year.

Benefits: A Critical Recruiting and Retention Tool

According to the forthcoming 2016 SHRM Strategic Benefits Survey, 61 percent of HR professionals say they've adjusted health care benefits over the past year to help retain employees. Similarly, 65 percent say they've made changes to help recruit new employees.

The message here is clear: Benefits aren't just a nice thing your organization does for employees; they're also powerful business tools that can help your company build and maintain a productive team of top-tier talent.

"People are generally paying more attention to the employer's benefits package than in the past, especially as it relates to health insurance post-ACA implementation," Deynes told us via email. "Continuous, effective communication of total compensation beginning during the recruiting phase is important."

By "total compensation," Deynes means all the ways in which an organization remunerates employees. While benefits are important to recruitment and retention, they are not the be-all and end-all.

"Other factors such as compensation, professional growth opportunities, and a flexible work schedule also are significant influencers," Deynes explained. "The value of these factors will vary based on culture/generation. No one size fits all."

The key takeaway here is that benefits are one piece of the puzzle when it comes to talent management. Put some thought into them, but not so much that you gloss over the other equally important factors.

Communicating With Your Employees

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all during open enrollment season is communicating various benefits options to employees – especially at larger companies. Deynes said that communication is particularly important in the event that your organization is making significant changes to its offerings this year.

"One challenge will be for HR to have ongoing and clear communication with staff," Deynes said. "Any significant change in an organization's plan coverage or employee cost should be communicated well in advance of the open enrollment period. HR professionals need to be prepared to discuss the possibility that employees may have to pay more for their benefits."

Deynes noted that it may be helpful to frame this discussion in terms of national trends – e.g., rising health care costs, the impacts of the ACA, and so on. That way, you can help employees understand that your organization isn't raising costs out of cruelty or carelessness, but rather because of the realities of the market.

When it comes to the actual method of communication for disseminating benefits information, Deynes recommends using a variety of tactics and media to ensure every employee is reached.

"It's best to use a number of approaches when communicating benefit options, including in-person meetings with HR and the health insurer representative, virtual meetings for remote staff, and signups for individuals who may need one-to-one assistance," Deynes said. "Emails with link to a benefits landing page and a computer lab set up for real-time enrollment facilitated by HR also may be helpful."

That being said, Deynes cautions against going exclusively digital with your benefits communications.

"Although the tendency is to have all materials presented electronically, consider a printed catalogue," she said. "For many, this is a big family decision. Having the materials to take home will be essential for some."