Perhaps the best way to make progress is to ask questions. A few years ago, I gave a presentation at the BenefitsPRO Broker Expo on the importance of asking questions before trying to come up with improvements or innovations. Of course, you also need to decide who will provide answers. Customers are a great source of answers, as are team members who directly provide services to those customers. So are experts in the business. However, while asking questions of each audience, remember they may tell you what they want, rather than what they need.
Early in the year is the right time to consider the important questions about employee benefits we should be asking. That’s the only way our organizations will make progress on the most important items during the year. Here are a few from my list. Think about them and add your own. Decide what is most crucial for your customers and then start realizing your opportunities.
First, there are lots of questions about government regulations. Is the government going to create mandates that remove employer discretion on design and funding of certain benefit-related areas? For example, there is obviously a lot of talk about “universal health care” of some kind. This is likely to continue as a debate for some time, but it may result in a significant disruption of what many employers consider to be their most important benefit — their medical plan. If this happens, will it reduce the ability of employers to compete via better health plan benefits? How do employers and their advisors gain a competitive edge if they have little or no incentive to design and manage more favorable health benefit programs than competitors?
Another area where state and local governments are beginning to create a chaos of mandates is paid family and medical leave requirements. This not only affects the current PTO plans of employers, but also may impact the disability income protection plans offered by employers. How are multi-state employers going to meet the compliance challenges and still offer robust plans for those who cannot work for a longer term than the mandated period due to medical reasons?
Voluntary benefits have been a very effective means of helping employees purchase needed coverage in many areas and they’ve been growing more popular with employers and employees over an extended period of time. The trend has been to add voluntary benefits to the menu for employees to consider during open enrollment; however, are we giving employees too many choices? Are we encouraging employees to purchase too many voluntary products? Does this result in loss of affordability – one of the pillars of voluntary benefit value? What is the right combination of voluntary benefits to maximize satisfying employee needs while remaining affordable?
The pandemic, the movement towards more remote workers, and the accompanying use of technology to provide employee benefit related service, especially the communication and enrollment of employee benefits, results in process-related questions. For example, are we providing the right level of assistance to help employees make good voluntary benefit enrollment decisions? Employee behavior doesn’t seem to match what employees say in response to questions. In surveys, employees consistently say they’d like more benefit-related communications, but in practice, the majority of employees pay little or no attention until prompted by something like an annual enrollment deadline or the need to file a claim. I’ve been a long-term proponent of benefit related communications throughout the year rather than just at open enrollment time, but how do we break through employee behavioral inertia without some kind of prompt to action?
Questions lie at the heart of progress. As we obtain answers to these questions, we can use our “intelligence guided by experience”* to discern the optimum answer for our customers in light of our own organization’s values and resources. That’s where questions result in opportunities!
*Advice often given, quite famously, in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels.
Marty Traynor is an Omaha based consultant in the benefits field. He may be reached at [email protected]