Benefits Communications: The Basics Still Apply

The signatures of President Barack Obama, Vice...

Just about now, as fall tiptoes ever closer, benefits administrators everywhere are dreaming not of crisp new back-to-school outfits or a bountiful harvest, but of benefits open enrollment. Those dreams are not likely to be the happiest during the best of circumstances, but with regulatory changes big and small brought on by the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare), they’ve probably turned into nightmares for some this year. (Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against Obamacare. I just know it’s giving headaches to a lot of benefits administrators and their communications departments.)

How much your company’s benefits plans and policies will change depends on all kinds of factors, from how big your organization is to what you’ve offered in the past. And it’s likely you’re still scrambling to figure out what many of the changes are going to be, as well as what you need to communicate and when. In fact, if you’re still depending on old-fashioned print for open enrollment materials, this may be the year to explore some more easily-updated electronic formats.

But whether you are communicating via quill pen or Yammer, the cardinal rules of good communication still apply:

Put yourself on the employees’ side of the desk. Chances are, employees will most care about:

  • Cost: Will health benefits cost more (or less) than what I’m now paying, and by how much? Remember that cost usually comes down to numerous factors that not all employees will be considering, so it’s up to you to fill in those gaps. If they choose the new lower-premium plan, how much higher will their deductible be? If they opt for the more expensive plan, will they still be saving as much on co-payments as they did last year? Ideally, give them some concrete examples to illustrate your points.
  • Coverage:  Are there any important differences in service coverage among the different plans I can choose from? Are there any changes from last year? While coverage questions may be a little more straightforward than questions of cost, you still want to be sure to direct employees’ attention to things they might not have considered. Have there been any major changes to the prescription drug formulary? To the networks? Are referrals needed in order to see a specialist?

Remember a key rule of the late, great crime-writer Elmore Leonard and “leave out the parts that people skip.” The things your employees will likely not care to know about include arcane bits of legal mumbo-jumbo. Sure, some of that stuff has to be included in your communications. But, as much as possible, try to get it out of your central text and into fine print or, better yet, links.

Be clear. You, yourself, may eat, sleep and—as I mentioned earlier—even dream in benefits jargon, but many employees wouldn’t know a PPO from an IPO from HBO. Stick to the simplest possible terminology and define it every step of the way. (Remember, this has nothing to do with education or intelligence. Most people not steeped in the benefits world really don’t know how coinsurance differs from co-pay.)

Be detailed. The details you don’t want are those the lawyers want you to include. (Ok, yes, you may have to include some of them anyway.) But the details you do want are the what, how, when and where of benefits enrollment. What do employees need to do, how and when do they need to do it and where can they get more information?

Be available. The best benefits communications, provided in the best possible formats, can’t cover every employee’s situation or answer every question. Set up a hotline or a dedicated email box. Invite employees to text you. Do it however you want, but make a live human being available—ideally not only to employees, but to their family members.

Be honest. If the options aren’t quite as comprehensive as last year or costs have increased (or both), say so up front. With luck, you’ll also be able to communicate that costs are going up everywhere, that your organization is still delivering a tremendous amount of value, and that you’ll continue to look for ways to bring coverage up and costs down. If your company has made a habit of honesty in its communications, your employees may even believe you.

Need some help with your benefits communications? Drop me a line: robin@robinhardman.com or give me a call: 718-628-4753.

I’ve been trying to figure out how the Affordable Care Act is affecting benefits communicators this year. If you have any thoughts to share, please, please contact me and let’s set up a time to talk—on or off-the-record, it’s up to you!

Check out my newly-refurbished website at www.robinhardman.com and, while you’re there, sign up to get this blog delivered directly to your mailbox.

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Writing in Between-Time

Between a rock and a hard place

Hello!

After a four-month hiatus, my blog is back. You might not have noticed the gap, but in case you did—my apologies for the long wait. In a minute, I’ll tell you why it happened and how I might have done things differently, if I’d been just a wee bit more disciplined…but first…

I’m proud to announce my blog has once again received an Apex Award for Publication Excellence in the category of Blog Writing. This is my second consecutive year winning the award and I’m thrilled. 

I’m also surprised, because I assumed I wouldn’t even be in the running, given how long it’s been since I last posted. About that:

Last April, for the first time since I launched this blog at the close of 2011, I became overwhelmed. It was the start of Great Place to Work season, the time of year when I help companies complete their applications to the Great Place to Work Institute, required for consideration on Fortune’s annual “Best Companies to Work For” list. I was helping a number of companies with this process, plus doing some other work, plus trying to upgrade my website (more on that soon). The end of the school year was approaching, followed by (what ought to be) luxurious lazy summer, and my two teenagers, each in his/her own way, needed some time and attention. I was busy night and day, and, more importantly, my creativity was being tapped to the max.

But while all that might have served as an excuse to blog a little less, it was no excuse not to blog at all. Because I am in possession of a magical power, one that I’ve employed in many such situations in the past. It’s the power to get work done—especially writing—without taking up any actual time. If I were to name this power, I’d call it “writing in between-time.”

Writing in between-time simply means getting beyond the “uninterrupted block of time” approach to writing. Yes, sometimes sitting down with a nice open chunk of hours can give you the psychic space you need to think creatively, and the focus you need to get it all down on paper. But you might be amazed at how much you can get done by jotting things down during the moments in between—while you’re flipping through magazines in a waiting room, maybe, or in the ten minutes between checking a task off your to-do list and the start of an upcoming meeting. As a New Yorker, I get an enormous amount of writing done on the subway—and I’m not talking about long rides, necessarily. One of my most common commutes takes about 22 minutes. I’ve gotten a lot written on that one. For the daily car commuters among you, I’d recommend writing during all that sitting-in-traffic time, but the last thing I want to do is encourage distracted driving. Hmm…maybe consider switching to mass transit?

Over the years, I’ve accomplished quite a bit with this trick. I’ve used between-time to revise or proof drafts, or, on occasion, to write entire blog posts. But most often, I’ve used this magical non-time to get past the hardest part of writing anything, the empty page. Without vast amounts of time stretching ahead of me, it’s less daunting to just jump in and get something—anything—down on paper. Once I’m back at my desk, I have a place to start. I type up my scribbled draft, rearranging and refining it as I go, and skip right over the paralysis of the empty screen.

In fact, seen in this light, between-time writing is more than just a trick for busy seasons. It can sometimes be the most effective, efficient approach you can take. You know you have just a few minutes—so you plunge right in. (It’s similar to the effect of waiting until the last minute before a deadline—but with the added advantage that you can do it days or weeks ahead of time.)

I read somewhere about a writer who, when he (or was it a she?) was stuck, would go out for a walk or run an errand, then, upon returning, race to his desk and start writing immediately, without even taking off his coat. (I can’t remember where I read this, and I may have made up the part about the coat, but that’s the way I’ve always pictured it.) Sounds like an SNL skit, on one level, but it resonated with me immediately. He was creating his own between-time.

Of course, it’s not a fool-proof trick, as the four month silence of this blog demonstrates. (Although, in fact, I did do a lot of between-time work during those months—it just wasn’t blogging work.) But it is a useful bit of magic to remember, especially when between-time is the only time you have.

I’m still working out some of the kinks, but soon you’ll be receiving these posts directly from my new website. You can take a sneak peek, if you like—you’ll find it at the same address as my old website: www.robinhardman.com.