The Loop

Customized Benefits

Filed under: Benefits

Generally if you throw out a very wide net, you'll catch a lot of fish. However, smaller fish can slip through holes in the net. Remember this when developing and communicating a benefits program for workers.

Today, workers span a wide variety of generations. In addition to Baby Boomers (ages 54-72), Generation X (ages 38-53), and Millennials (ages 22-37), the workforce is bookended with others due to from economic and physical changes. For example, many people in the Silent Generation (ages 73 and up) are still working; some because they can't afford to retire and others because – given today's longer lifespans – they simply can and want to.

On the other end of the spectrum, many young folks coming out of high school (Generation Z) are heading straight into the workforce to forgo the burden of college loans. In fact, this cohort of workers is likely to embrace opportunities for employer-sponsored tuition reimbursement.

This is why it's important to build a benefits package that is both wide and deep to engage the interests and needs of an extensive population of workers. However, if employers don't make the effort to customize and target communications to specific demographic groups, many of those workers will slip through cracks – never even knowing the benefits offered that could greatly improve their lives.

It's a classic example that "if you build it, they will come" does not necessarily work when it comes to employer-sponsored benefits.

Voluntary Benefits
Voluntary benefits are generally offered above and beyond the traditional benefits of a retirement savings plan and life, health and disability insurances. Typically, voluntary benefits are optional and paid for by the worker at a group-discount rate compared to buying them in the individual market.

Voluntary benefits generally provide convenient resources to help workers achieve better work-life balance. Not only does this help relieve stress that can affect productivity, but voluntary benefits are increasingly cited as important recruitment and retention tools.

The following is a sample of voluntary benefits in various life-enhancing categories:

• Buying and Banking options – prepaid cards, short-term loans, employee purchase programs, employee discount programs, credit union and flexible spending accounts
• Lifestyle and Convenience options – childcare, eldercare, pet insurance, auto insurance, adoption assistance, identity theft insurance and legal assistance
• Personal care and Improvement options – financial counseling services, wellness programs, employee assistance programs and tuition assistance programs
• Financial Safety Nets – home warranty insurance, homeowner's insurance, identity theft protection and long-term care insurance

Customize Voluntary Benefits
Developing an extensive cache of benefits allows different workers to pick and choose the ones that best fit their needs. Note that there is a wide range of demographics, lifestyles and personality types, from graduates with student debt to dog lovers to fitness gurus to single parents to pre-retirees needing financial advice to older workers looking for a less arduous schedule while still earning income.

Trying to establish a wide array of benefits to meet a plethora of needs can be challenging; customizing them can be even more so. However, customizing packages and communicating those benefits to individual workers can be the key to maximizing engagement. It takes time, resources, and a true commitment to making voluntary benefits work for your workforce.

One strategy for customizing benefits is to assess worker needs within the employer's specific industry. Some industries are more manual-labor intensive, so workers may have a greater need for accident and short-term disability coverage. On the other hand, workers who spend most of their days in an office and/or hunched over a computer may benefit from ergonomic office equipment, lunchtime fitness options, and wellness benefits.

When developing a benefits package, consider how most workers work – are they on their feet all day? In a car? Do they have a long commute? Do they have breaks when they can get personal chores done with access to a computer? Start with these industry and company-specific questions and go from there.

Another way to discover industry-specific benefits is to research what competitors are offering by asking benefit management companies, new job applicants and current workers recently hired from the competition.

Consider your organization's demographics. Do they trend toward being younger, with an interest in tech devices, education benefits and debt problems? Are there many young families with children? Middle-aged workers with caregiving responsibilities for both young and older family members? Consider the needs of your specific workforce – even survey them to find out what kind of benefits that they will use.

If your main location(s) is in a temperate climate with lots of outdoor activities, consider benefits that will help your workers be able to afford and take advantage of these venues. If locations don't tend to be vacation destinations, think about how you can help workers use their vacation time to travel and truly unwind. Consider ways they can accrue extra paid-time-off, offer travel discounts, and even a company-affiliated travel agency to help them plan trips.

One trap many employers fall into is developing a rich benefits package that few workers are aware of. It's important not just to customize voluntary benefits suitable for your workforce, but to customize the way you communicate those benefits.

Consider using enrollment data from traditional benefits to help stratify demographic characteristics (such as life stage or career needs) to create targeted messages to specific worker groups. The more targeted your communications, the more effective they will be. However, make sure to house information about each and every benefit you offer at a readily accessible location for all workers, such as the company intranet.

It's also important to give workers access to a benefits manager who can answer their specific questions. Whether internal human resource staff or an external phone or online resource, be sure to provide readily available contact information where workers can get one-on-one interaction for information and answers.

The best scenario is to have benefits counselors available in person or by phone who can walk a worker through the maze of both traditional and voluntary benefit options best suited for his situation. Be sure to advertise this personal guidance option both during the enrollment process and throughout the year. Your enrollment materials should utilize a variety of enrollment channels to reach a multi-generational workforce, including print, online, and mobile vehicles, as well as large and small group meetings.

It may seem like a contradiction, but it's important to offer a diverse selection of voluntary benefits without overwhelming workers with choices. Use various tools to help them whittle down the options based on their needs, such as an online questionnaire that automatically provides a list of benefit recommendations derived by their answers. For example:

• Are you interested in daycare, after-school care, or night-time babysitting for children?
• Are you interested in caregiving resources for a special-needs person, such as a disabled child or elderly parent?
• Are you interested in pet resources, such as sitters, health insurance, or discounted food and supplies?
• Are you interested in wellness benefits?
• Are you interested in education/student loan repayment benefits?
• Are you interested in resources that provide financial advice?
• Are you interested in resources that provide legal advice?

Obviously, the more benefits you offer, the better. However, benefits are effective only if they are used. The best way to engage your workforce with voluntary benefits is to help them quickly and simply narrow down the options to the ones that best fit their needs.

With that said, it may be best to avoid cookie-cutter packages offered by some benefit managers. Throwing in extraneous benefits that lack appeal to major demographic groups is more likely to be perceived as cherry-picking for certain groups without comparable options for others.

Recent research has revealed that job seekers often give as much consideration to an employer's benefits package as to wages when considering a job offer. Likewise, many workers continue to work for an employer that offers benefits not likely to be found elsewhere – so it never hurts to be creative in your benefits in order to establish a niche for loyalty and retention.

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