Many employers are changing the way they approach their annual benefits fairs in 2020. This includes Businessolver, a provider of benefits administration technology and services. Mike Meyerring, who leads the company’s Benefits Innovation Group, shares some strategies they developed in moving this traditionally in-person event to a virtual delivery model in June.
The day was March 13—a Friday, no less—when the Businessolver Executive Team announced that our entire workforce of 1,200+ employees in eight locations across the U.S. would start working from home the following Monday to help slow the spread of COVID-19. This included the 180+ Solvers in our Member Services Teams.
I’m glad I wasn’t working in IT that day, I can tell you.
But I felt even worse for the Solvers working in human resources. You see, our plan year begins on July 1, which meant that the HR team would have to prepare for annual enrollment in a completely remote environment. And quickly!
To make things even more challenging, we decided to introduce several big changes to our plans that employees would likely have questions about. And, we were planning to hold a completely active enrollment this year: Solvers who didn’t select a medical plan by June 12 would be unable to enroll in benefits until the following year.
Clearly, we couldn’t afford to drop the ball on educating our employees prior to annual enrollment.
An in-person benefits fair was, of course, out of the question. So, we did what we always do. We innovated. We held our benefits fair virtually.
Well, perhaps “innovated” isn’t the right word. The truth is, virtual benefits fairs have been around for a while—ever since the infrastructure allowed HR teams to deliver online experiences using interactive applications. Companies with a significant portion of remote workers or those with employees in multiple offices have been using virtual benefits fairs long before the pandemic.
At Businessolver, where employees participate in daily team meetings, we’d never sensed a need for holding a companywide virtual benefits fair. And, considering that we serve nearly 14 million members on our Benefitsolver platform, we figured our workforce was already pretty benefits-savvy.
But that was before.
This year was different. Not only were we introducing several changes to our plans, we knew people needed additional support. Honestly, our Solvers were anxious. In just a few short weeks after the start of the pandemic, they would have to make benefits decisions that would impact their finances and sense of security for the next 12 months—a period that is still marked by a great deal of uncertainty.
No, really, thanks! It’s challenges like these that present us with the greatest opportunity for growth. At Businessolver, we embrace those opportunities. And just as importantly, we share what we learned. Here are four strategies for holding a virtual benefits fair that we picked up along the way.
Before pitching the idea of a virtual benefits fair to your executive team, do research to see how other organizations have approached events like these. In our case, all we needed to do was listen to our clients.
As a provider of benefits technology and services, the topic of benefits fairs often comes up at our weekly meetings, especially prior to annual enrollment. In years past, most of our clients have held in-person events, but some had already adopted a virtual delivery model. Among those who held virtual benefits fairs, we identified three approaches.
Socially driven, where the focus is on replicating a live event by helping employees connect with one another through social channels, speak directly with carriers, and earn prizes by participating in games or other fun activities. This option maximizes employee freedom to “move about” the fair at their own pace, as if they were at a trade show.
Education-driven, where HR teams are primarily interested in providing employees with an interactive learning experience (e.g., webinars, FAQs, videos, etc.) as they explore things like coverage options, costs and carrier support. Compared to the socially driven approach, this model facilitates a more linear and guided employee experience.
The hybrid approach, which incorporates components of the other two models based on employee expectations and strategic HR goals, combining interactive engagement opportunities with social features like those found at in-person events.
This was relatively easy for us. Because of our research in workplace empathy over the past five years, Businessolver’s Executive Team has a pretty good sense of how activities like virtual benefits fairs can demonstrate that the organization truly cares about its employees.
If your leaders are less likely to embrace the idea of a virtual benefits fair, start by highlighting how your employees must be feeling right now. You can refer to employee surveys conducted pre- and mid-pandemic or refer to third-party data. In our case, we used data gathered from the MyChoice™ Recommendation Engine, our proprietary decision support tool in Benefitsolver.
Like Businessolver, about 20% of our client base holds their annual enrollment in the summer. So, we dug into the data we’d received from the thousands of employees who had used the Recommendation Engine in the first few months of the pandemic. And what we found was startling. In May and June, 44% of employees said they “did not know” how they would pay for a large, unexpected expense, compared to only 16% the year before. And, among those who responded they would “use cash savings,” only 34% claimed this was an option in the first few months of the pandemic, compared to 63% the previous year.
Employees aren’t just anxious. Most also lack the benefits literacy necessary to navigate such a complex topic.
Data gathered in 2019 shows that 82% of employees are “confused” about benefits. This includes hospital indemnity, critical illness and other coverage options they may have never considered prior to the pandemic.
Clearly, 2020 has made a strong case for benefits education so employees can make optimal decisions for themselves and their covered dependents in the coming plan year.
Once you’ve made your emotional appeal, it’s time to talk dollars and cents. In our case, we prepared a side-by-side cost comparison of a virtual solution versus the expenses associated with an in-person event, such as HR staff time, travel expenses, event space rental, printing, etc.
With fewer than 1,300 employees, we discovered that the investment in a virtual solution was just about the same as the cost of undertaking a series of in-person events or dedicating time at our daily all-employee meetings. Depending on the size of your organization and the number of worksites at which you typically hold benefits fairs, you may find that a virtual solution is less expensive.
This being our first virtual benefits fair, we knew the importance of planning. With the help of Studio B, our team of in-house creative and strategic engagement experts, we invested approximately 35 hours in planning our event. I should point out that we were able to take advantage of templated materials and a website format that had been produced for other employers; had we created everything from scratch, the planning stages would have required a lot more work.
As we prepared, we also took some time to create contingency plans. Unlike their in-person counterparts, employees can participate in a virtual benefits fair whenever they like over the course of several days. This allows HR teams to assess the fair’s effectiveness each day and pivot as needed. For example, lower-than-expected attendance rates might present the opportunity for additional promotions, while the popularity of one type of content over others might make a good case for featuring that content more prominently on the event hub.
In both the planning and execution stages, we found the secret to a successful event was keeping a laser-like focus on those we serve—our fellow Solvers and their family members who might also attend the virtual benefits fair. I guess you’d say we thought of this whole effort as an “employee journey.” It begins when annual enrollment is the last thing on their mind, to curiosity about their available options, to participating in the fair, to finally enrolling.
To help you prioritize and schedule your activities before, during and after your event, ask yourself employee-centric questions.
This is not an exhaustive list of questions to ask yourself. As you think of others, be sure to make them employee-centric. After all, it’s all about their journey.
During our first virtual benefits fair, we quickly discovered a huge advantage of this delivery method over the traditional in-person model—data. Lots and lots of data. As mentioned above, keeping an eye on certain metrics during our fair allowed us to make small adjustments to ensure our employees were getting the right information in the right place and at the right time.
The data we gathered in 2020 will also help us plan for future events and establish baselines by which we can measure success year over year. For example, we know that 58% of our employee population visited the virtual benefits fair hub this year. That certainly leaves room for improvement. But we also saw that 100% of employees impacted by major plan design changes did, in fact, complete their enrollment on time. That’s a major win that makes a strong case for holding our benefits fair virtually next year as well.
And speaking of next year, there’s a reason virtual benefits fairs may become the new normal for many organizations. According to a May 2020 report, 30% of the American workforce is expected to permanently work from home following COVID-19. That’s three times higher than the number who worked from home before the pandemic.
So, whether you’re planning for next year or trying to increase the effectiveness of this year’s event in real time, our advice is to let data be your guide. But first, you need to ensure your IT department, marketing team and/or virtual events vendor has the analytics and reporting tools you need. Here’s a short checklist of metrics you should ensure you have access to:
I guess the key takeaway from holding our first virtual benefits fair is this: 2020 presented us with a unique opportunity to do things differently—and better—than before. Yes, this was relatively new territory for us, but it was the right thing to do for our Solvers and our organization.
If you have a fall enrollment coming up, I hope you consider hosting a virtual benefits fair. As a demonstration of employer empathy, your employees will almost certainly appreciate any step in their direction regarding their benefits—that inextricable link between you and your employees’ quality of life and sense of security.
For more advice, check out the guide, Ten Strategies for a Successful Virtual Benefits Fair.
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