Open Enrollment Survival Guide for HR Professionals

Posted by Kendra Lusty on Feb. 20, 2024

Have you visited your Human Resources department lately? Chances are, it’s not pretty.

Ceiling-high stacks of papers waiting to be filed threaten to crush those beneath under the weight of their importance. A mug of coffee grows cold, forgotten as another wave of tasks beat down the doors and pour in through the windows. HR professionals shuffle past, unfocused eyes ringed with dark circles. Can they even see you past the deluge of emailed questions and technical issues flooding their computer screens?

No, it’s not the zombie apocalypse. It’s just open enrollment.

Your favorite folks in HR might feel a little worse for wear at the moment, but you should be proud of them. They’ve survived another grueling open enrollment season.

Open Enrollment: Defined According to HR Professionals

Open enrollment means something very different to HR professionals than it does to every other employee in the company. To employees, it’s the short window of time (typically 2 weeks, maybe up to a month) they can sign up for and/or make changes to their employee benefits without any qualifying event.

To HR Professionals, open enrollment is an entire season with months of preparation, decision making, coordination with upper management and service providers, etc., before the main event even begins.  

Then finally, the window closes and they can breathe a sigh of relief, right?

Ha! HR has another month or more of active effort to sort out and finalize every last detail. Add to that, the 77% of companies that hold open enrollment in October or November are simultaneously tasked with holding holiday parties, annual reviews and other typical year-end events.

At this point, you may consider HR’s open enrollment season officially closed. However, open enrollment is just one part (albeit a major part) of a company’s benefits administration strategy. In order to make employee benefits an integrated part of your employee engagement efforts, benefits administration takes consistent, year-round effort.

Is it any wonder burnout is especially high among HR professionals during open enrollment?

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In this article, we’ll discuss why open enrollment deserves so much of HR’s attention. Then, we’ll try to help make this challenging season a little easier by breaking down the many tasks into a manageable timeline. Below is the timeline at a glance. Feel free to click on any item to read more. At the end of the article, you’ll find a downloadable checklist to help you rock your next open enrollment season. 

A Crucial Component of Employee Engagement

As an HR professional, why do you care so much about one 2-week period that you spend up to half a year focused on making it a success?

The biggest reason is that employees care about their benefits. A lot. Behind only wages, benefits are the second biggest factor employees look at when considering accepting a position at a new company or staying with their current employer. If you look at pay and benefits together under the term “total compensation,” then this is by far the most important factor to employees.

Open enrollment is a great time to showcase your benefits, announce new perks and remind your employees how much you care about them. The quality of a company’s benefits can have a profound effect on employee engagement, on employee recruitment efforts and on employee retention.

Consider these statistics from the past year that show the power of well-received benefits:

  • Employees who are satisfied with their pay and benefits are 13% more likely to continue working for their current employer for 3+ years. (Source: Qualtrics)
  • 1 in 10 workers would take a pay cut to have access to better benefits. (Source: Forbes)
  • 83% of organizations believe their benefits package has a positive impact on worker productivity, 84% that it enables them to recruit top talent, the highest percentages ever reported. (Source: Aflac)

Interestingly enough, as much as employers think their benefits are well received, other studies suggest it may not be the case:

  • 80% of organizations believe their employees are highly satisfied with their benefits while only 58% of employees say the same. (Source: Aflac)
  • Employee satisfaction with benefits is at a 10-year low, reaching 61% in 2023, down from 64% in 2022. (Source: Metlife)

This could be due, at least in part, to employees understanding their benefits less than employers expect, according to several studies:

  • 35% of employees (and more than half of millennials) don’t understand the benefits they choose during open enrollment. (Source: HR Morning)
  • 76% of companies think their employees understand their health care costs well; however, only 52% of employees said they do. (Source: Aflac
  • 67% of benefits-eligible Americans spend 30 minutes or less reading through information for the current open enrollment window. (Source: Voya

People tend to procrastinate complex decisions, even for something as crucial as healthcare benefits-- even when a mistake means they have to wait a whole year (or for a life event) before they can make changes again.

In other words, human resources professionals are often expected to take open enrollment seriously enough for the entire company.

How to Survive Open Enrollment -- with Your Sanity Intact

how to survive 600With so many expectations (and so many negative consequences that can come from not living up to those expectations), HR professionals are highly susceptible to year-end burnout. Therefore, we turned to our own in-house human resources director, Lisa Oyler, to break down the massive task list into more manageable bites. With proper preparation and steady effort, open enrollment doesn’t have to drain the life out of you. 

Before Open Enrollment

Before your open enrollment window can open, everything must be in place behind the scenes. Starting the process as early as you can will help ensure you have everything prepared by your goal date. This is especially important for companies that hold open enrollment in Q4 for two reasons. Firstly, every day of delay brings you closer to the holidays (meaning you’ll have to compete for your employees’ attention). Secondly, you’ll have a tighter turnaround before your benefits year begins to complete your post-enrollment tasks.

“When it comes to open enrollment, every ounce of preparation before the big event pays out in pounds,” Oyler said. “Employees will face a torrent of information, but your efforts can give them a well-lit path by which they can navigate the choices. The work is worth it when it gives employees a better chance of choosing the benefits that will best fill their individual needs all year long.”

Gather Your Information

Will you stay with your current health insurance provider? Will you need to search for a new one? Will you need to change the plan structure? Before you can decide, you’ll need some crucial pieces of information:

    • Next Year's Pricing from Your Current Insurance Partner. Begin the process by reaching out to your existing insurance provider for two things: usage data from the previous year and the pricing structure for the upcoming year. You can start asking about halfway through your benefits year, because providers typically need 6+ months’ worth of claims from your employees before they calculate pricing for the following year.
    • Employee Data and Demographics. Compile a comprehensive dataset encompassing employee information, demographics, and any recent life changes that you know about. The better you understand your workforce and their specific needs, the better you can choose plan options that will serve them, and give them a good reason to stay.
    • Company’s Projected Budget. Experts are predicting health insurance premiums will increase a median of 7% in 2024 following a trend of yearly increases for the past 7 years. Who will absorb the added costs? Will the company increase their budget, will you pass the cost on to employees, or will both need to share the burden? Ask for access to the budgetary decisions made by company leaders. This financial blueprint will be instrumental in aligning benefits offerings with the company's overall strategic goals.
    • Last Year's Retrospective. Reflect on notes from the previous open enrollment, focusing on both successes and challenges. Use these insights to inform your strategy, capitalizing on what worked well and addressing areas that need improvement. If you’ve never written a post mortem before, learn how to start this year below. See section: Write a Detailed Retrospective

Negotiate with Your Current Provider OR…

After you’ve had a chance to analyze this information, answer important questions like: Does the provider’s pricing for next year fall inside your budget? Do the options still adequately cover your current workforce? Was your benefit provider helpful and responsive?

From there, you can negotiate with your current provider to fine-tune next year’s quote. If employee needs have evolved, for example, learn whether additional inclusive benefits and/or more robust coverage fall inside your budget. Alternately, you can try to make the benefits more affordable for everyone by negotiating the contract, sacrificing unused features, adjusting deductibles, etc.

bid signs small…Get Bids from Other Providers, if Necessary

If you’re unhappy or unsure about next year’s pricing from your current provider, going out to bid from other providers can be an efficient way to keep costs low without sacrificing options. Whether you’re working alone or with a broker, seek out quotes to present to your company’s decision makers.

Choose Active Enrollment or Passive Enrollment

Decide on the enrollment approach, whether it's an active enrollment (requiring all employees to make selections) or a passive enrollment (existing choices roll over unless otherwise specified). This decision shapes the dynamics of your communication strategy. Many employees favor the ease of passive enrollment because if they like their benefits, they don’t have to do anything to keep them going. On the other hand, active enrollment may take more effort for everyone, but it provides many opportunities to education and engage employees throughout the process.

Prepare for Employee Questions

Once you’ve signed the contract and locked in your choices, it’s time to create your benefit guide. This is a summary of options and pricing for your employees to use as a resource when selecting their coverage.

Can you anticipate where employees might get confused or need additional instruction? If so, you can avoid answering the same question over and over again by developing comprehensive FAQs. You’ll probably need two sets: one to cover the registration process and another to keep on hand when it comes time to use their benefits throughout the year. For best results, the “explain it to me like I’m five” sentiment applies.

In addition to FAQs, other at-a-glance resources like summary snapshots, rate sheets, cost comparisons, list of in-network locations, glossary of benefits terminology, short videos, etc., can make large amounts of information less overwhelming.

Test Enrollment Systems Well Before Rollout

Nearly a third of employees procrastinate selecting their benefits. You can help prevent last minute scrambles by ensuring the enrollment process is seamless and user-friendly instead of frustrating.

After you’ve selected your provider and options, but long before official rollout, the enrollment system will need to be thoroughly tested. For many, that looks like multiple taking test runs through the diverse options your employees may encounter. Play the part of a 43-year-old male with a large family, a single 26-year-old female, a married 64-year-old currently working part time, etc. As you go, look for technological glitches, incorrect information, issues with pricing, or anything else that could frustrate the process.

Hold Company Meetings

Give every employee a head start on their decision-making by providing information in the weeks before your open enrollment window, such as educational information for each benefit or flyers from providers. In those same weeks, meeting together as a company gives you the opportunity to announce changes and invite questions in a collaborative atmosphere. Many companies also find it helpful to invite their benefits providers and vendors to come on site (or Zoom in) for company-wide meetings, one-on-ones or consultations with spouses/significant others. Those who want extra clarity on benefit options often find these to be very helpful.

During Open Enrollment

After months of researching, testing and studying every minute detail, you as the HR pro are now the expert when it comes to benefits options. But remember, the rest of the staff are not, and the short window doesn’t give them enough time to become one. Is it any wonder that 77% of employees have expressed they just want someone else to tell them what the best plan is for them?

New call-to-action“HR is in the perfect position to act as translator between employees and the intricate world of health benefits,” says Oyler. “Education + encouragement = empowerment for every employee to make the right decision for themselves. Plus, every interaction during this time is another chance to make employees feel appreciated.”

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Reminding employees about deadlines is one of the most important things you can during the open enrollment window.

The great news is, ANY communication that talks about an aspect of open enrollment will naturally turn employee attention back to the task at hand. The topic is so large that you can easily send several communications a day without repeating messages or feeling pushy.

For best results, mix up the message AND the mode of communication. Here are some ideas:

    • Give explanations of common voluntary benefits like life insurance, vision insurance, etc., and reasons why a person might like to opt in.
    • Call for questions, and remind of the channels available to ask.
    • Remind employees about available resources and provide links, attachments or physical copies of those documents.
    • Send invitations to meetings and events
    • If you have a budget or can get donations from providers, offer prizes or a drawing for those that complete their enrollment early.

Open Your Door

An open-door policy can actively encourage employees to seek clarification and assistance. This isn’t limited to opening your literal office door, though that’s part of it. If you leverage multiple channels of communication, employees can find help using the method that makes them comfortable. Some options include: face to face, over the phone, through email or via a public Slack or Teams channel.

Roll Out Other New Benefits

Open enrollment is a great time to roll out all your new benefits, remind about continuing perks, and if necessary, remove some. This helps keep the focus on the benefits package as a whole being a part of one’s total compensation.

Many popular supplemental benefits and lifestyle benefits pair well with healthcare benefits. For example, gym stipends encourage physical fitness, EAPs support mental health, and employee discount programs aid those seeking wallet wellness.

Often, your benefit offerings will naturally complement your workplace culture. “One of the benefits we offer is a U.S. National Parks Annual Pass,” said Oyler. “This benefit and others reflect our company’s dedication to wellness, family time, the environment and the beautiful state we are based in. Every time we remind our employees about their benefits, we reinforce the culture that attracted them to us in the first place.”

Prioritize Your Own Wellness

stress ball smallThe stress of open enrollment compels many HR professionals to run full speed for months, staying late and working extra hours to be ready. Then, to add insult to exhaustive injury, cold and flu season arrives at the same time as most companies’ open enrollment windows. What do you need in order to run at peak performance? Vitamin C, stress ball, blue light filtering glasses, guided meditation, extra sleep… grab all your favorites and schedule the time you need for self-care.

Plus, before you burn the midnight oil yet again, consider this: a survey of HR professionals showed a high correlation between those who routinely didn’t go home on time and those who were dissatisfied with many other aspects of the job. A healthy work/life balance is not just for the employees you serve.

After Open Enrollment

Once the window closes, HR still has a long list of tasks to complete. The months after open enrollment are filled with tiny details: double-checking each and every selection to make sure they’re correct. It’s easy to get lost in the minutia and lose sight of the big picture.

“When the goal for providing employee benefits in the first place is to retain and engage employees, the last thing you want is for people to ignore those benefits 90% of the year,” said Oyler. “Now that they’re done choosing, let’s get them using their benefits.”

Double Check Every Detail & Correct Those Errors

Once all the selections are locked in for the benefits year, HR acts as the link between all the various systems that have to get every detail right. Payroll is the first system that requires an audit in order to ensure everyone’s first paycheck of the benefits year have the right deductions. You may have to channel your inner investigator if the confirmation statements don’t match the deductions.

Secondly, once the first bill from the benefits provider arrives, it’s important to go through it line-by-line (tedious and time-consuming as that may be) to ensure every employee is enrolled in the correct plan. Your vigilance in the immediate aftermath can save a lot of headaches down the line.

Lastly, make sure each employee received a new card, the correct written materials and everything else they need to succeed. Once you’ve reconciled all these systems, the bulk of the work for open enrollment is finally complete!

Survey Your Workforce

The best time to solicit feedback on process and options presented at open enrollment is while it’s fresh on the employee’s minds. You can ask questions formally through a survey, or as informally as chatting as you pass employees in the hallways.

Try to keep the conversation focused on the things you can control, and possibly improve in the future. For example, it might be helpful to ask: Was the technology easy to interact with? Did the provided information explain the benefits at your level of understanding? Did plan options adequately cover your unique needs? Should the conversation devolve into complaints about the cost of healthcare in general (which, unfortunately, you can’t control), here are some ideas on how to address employee concerns.

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A separate round of surveys will come in handy later on. Once everyone has had a few months to use their benefits, they’ll be that much better equipped to tell you specifics of what they like and dislike about their coverage and current provider.
Gathering this information at the right time will arm you with quality information to better guide your choices next benefit year.

Write a Detailed Retrospective

HR is bound to have many valuable insights into open enrollment, having been immersed in it for many months. These insights should be recorded before they’re forgotten.

What slowed you down? What was your most helpful technology aid? Which written resources are being used and which are not? How responsive is the benefit provider and how quickly do they resolve issues?

Perhaps the most useful thing you can do is investigate where things went wrong. If an employee missed a deadline, ask why. If multiple people misunderstood the same information, discover if there are holes in your communication. All these notes will save you time in the future because you can begin with the strategies that worked and avoid those that didn’t.

Continue Employee Engagement Efforts

Studies have shown benefits that can’t be used may actually detract from employee satisfaction. The minute those benefits are live, break out the balloons, confetti and your best game plan to encourage usage. For example, a fun wellness challenge uses the principles of gamification to encourage employees to use their benefits early and often.

During the Off-Season

The open enrollment off-season is free of the urgent tasks that require your immediate attention. However, there are still plenty of goals to shoot for. Easily completed any time of year, checking off these tasks early will help you enter the next open enrollment without having to cram in all the work at once.

“In HR, we’re constantly immersed in all things employee benefits,” said Oyler. “Employees are not. A topic this massive is best served in small slices throughout the entire year. If our education efforts are limited to once a year, it could feel like we’re force-feeding them way more than they can digest at once.”

Continue Employee Education

benefits-lg-1Every time you remind employees about their benefits, it’s another chance to engage and encourage usage. But reminding shouldn’t be the only goal when discussing benefits. Focus your communication to become education. Do employees know when to use an instacare location instead of the ER? Do they know where to find a list of in-network providers to choose from? Have they scheduled preventative care visits for the year?

By turning our focus to educating employees on how to be better healthcare consumers, you can not only keep benefits awareness high today, but also build a future where premium costs stay lower for everyone.

Continue Your Own Education

The world of benefits, especially healthcare benefits, is constantly evolving. Staying ahead of the learning curve could make all the difference in the war for recruiting (and keeping) the best talent in the industry.

Research Laws & Regulations in the Pipeline. At any time, federal, state and/or local governments can pass laws that will affect employment and employee benefits. For example, in 2023 a major federal law passed that required many businesses to revamp their 401K protocols in order to be compliant. A proactive approach—like keeping a watchful eye on bills and proposals so you’re not blindsided if they do get voted into law—can save a lot of grief in the long run.

Government pages like this one and this one can help you find relevant bills currently under review.

Research Potential Technology Aids. Every year, there are more and more resources aimed at making HR’s job easier. As AI technology rapidly improves, it promises even more timesaving aids in the near future.

Where are your biggest pain points? Perhaps a bit of research can lead you to a technology solution: advanced analytics to find insights in your employee data, AI chatbots to help field common questions, software to help you write compelling user guides. This year, Lisa Oyler implemented the education platform Brite to help employees feel more confident learning what benefits are right for them.

Likely, every task on your list could use an upgrade. Researching options during the off season gives you extra time to not only select a few aids, but also test and implement them. When you pick the right technology, it’s an investment that could not only save you time and effort, but could vastly improve results too.

Take Your Vacation Days

Did someone say spring break? For HR reps with a January start to the benefits year, post enrollment reconciliation should wrap up sometime in February. That makes spring and summer the perfect time to use up all that PTO that has probably been building while you burned the midnight oil.

Rest. Recharge. Kick up your feet at home, in the mountains, across the ocean, on a beach… just make sure you leave your work in the office where it belongs.

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Better yet, if your company offers employee discounts on travel, dining and leisure, then use those to build yourself a sweet vacation. Go ahead and tell your inner workaholic that you’re “testing the benefits for the sake of the employees” or that you’re “setting an example of good benefits usage.” As long as you’re recharging your battery at the same time, that’s okay.

Research Wellness Programs and Other Lifestyle Benefits

With health care costs continuing to rise, more and more of an employee’s check goes to paying for premiums.

Creative benefits can potentially make a big impact with a much smaller price tag than salary and other types of compensation. When you research new benefits in the off-season, you give yourself the time to thoroughly vet benefits providers you want to partner with. For example, employee discount programs are very popular, but they are not all created equal. The best employee discount programs help stretch employee’s budgets on purchases they make every day. A discount program will be most relevant to your staff if it provides deep, local discounts on common expenses like food, clothing and services (and also some fun ones like travel and entertainment).

You can even provide helpful links to free programs like GoodRX to help provide a positive experience to those who decline health insurance benefits.

Clear Your Plate

The best way to start next year’s open enrollment season is with a fresh perspective and a clean plate. Are there any of your other regular tasks you can complete so they’re off your mental checklist entirely? Are there any of your many hats you can place on a shelf for a few months until the next offseason? Of course, issues and emergencies can happen any time of the year, but a proactive approach to predictable responsibilities gives you a better chance at a focused and streamlined process.

Don’t Just Survive – Thrive!

zombie at computer 600Just for fun: look to your right, and imagine that the first item you see is your only protection for the zombie apocalypse. Could you survive?

Luckily for you (and the company you serve) you have A LOT more tools and resources to not just survive open enrollment season, but make it a raging success too. Besides the survival guide above, we’ve got other articles (listed below) full of tips to bulk up your arsenal. By next open enrollment season, you’ll be ready to face any challenge.

To all you HR survivors, we salute you.

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Topics: employee engagement, employee retention, Recruitment, Employee Benefits, open enrollment

Kendra Lusty

Written by Kendra Lusty

For over a decade, Kendra Lusty has been a writer for Access Development, and currently focuses her research and writing on topics related to loyalty and engagement.