Recently, I participated in a webinar on the topic of benefits open enrollment that reminded me of an important story from one of my HR technology implementations some years back.
At the time, I was consulting for a mid-size organization—perhaps large depending on your definition (say, about 4,000 employees, give or take). As a part of phase 3 or 4 of a massive enterprise systems upgrade, the organization deployed—for the first time in its history—an online tool for the annual employee benefits open enrollment process. During the implementation, my job was to review the requirements from the benefits and HR teams, configure the new system to support the requirements, train the benefits and HR people, manage all the implementation testing and then support the system once we went “live” and employees began to enroll in their benefits. It was pretty straightforward and typical for the lead system implementor for any enterprise technology project.
But just before the go-live, I learned I was to have one more responsibility on the project: as a support resource and to be present at the several (I think there were about eight) on-site open lab times that were scheduled during the enrollment period. These labs were set up in training rooms holding about 20 workstations and were designed to allow any employee to seek help with the new online open enrollment process. Since this was several years ago, and it was the first time where employees at this organization were expected to use the new online system, there were LOTS of employees who showed up.
In theory, I was only meant to be present in the labs in case anyone encountered some technical problems with the system. But in reality, since so many employees attended these sessions, leading to the benefits and HR staff not having enough people in the room to help everyone with their questions, I was volunteered to sit with employees and help walk them through the new enrollment process. It was in these sessions that I came to understand just how important benefits are to both employees and the organization.
Every employee cares about and is invested in payroll. But once they get accustomed to their payroll cycle and their direct deposit cadence, they tend not to think about payroll all that much. It’s important, sure, but it’s a background process, and easily taken for granted after a while. Although an employee’s earnings do impact their personal lives and their families, it is a kind of indirect influence. But benefits are different, with a very direct impact, especially for employees with families and covered dependents. Ensuring that spouses or children were properly set up and confirmed in a benefits open enrollment process is an extremely important matter for most employees. I didn’t fully realize this until I sat down with individual employees.
So many of the people I helped in the labs, with no prompting from me, openly shared their issues and concerns—almost always concerning a member of their family and not the employee himself or herself. I heard literally dozens of stories or questions that started with something like: “My spouse is in cancer treatment, which of these plans should I select?”, or “My son needs regular physical therapy, is that covered in full?’, or “My spouse has surgery scheduled in January and I need to be 110% sure that I am not messing up their coverage with this new system you are making me use.” Finally, just about everyone I helped in these labs expressed at least some level of concern that, when the enrollment was completed, and the confirmation page was printed (it was a few years ago, and everyone still wanted a printed confirmation page) about whether they had successfully completed the process, and if everything was in place for the next year. Working in these enrollment labs was an experience I have never forgotten.
Apologies for the long story, but I thought about that experience while I was preparing for the webinar I mentioned above. One of the other participants, Marilyn Miller, chief people officer at Anaplan, made the excellent point that the benefits programs an organization invests in and offers to their employees are an extension of their unique organizational culture. Benefits programs represent a kind of commitment and promise to employees and, as I learned in the open labs all those years ago, also to their families and dependents. Organizations make financial investments in medical plans, disability coverage, mental health resources, financial wellbeing tools, tuition support and reimbursement, even pet insurance and many other kinds of benefits in order to express their organizational investment in their employees.
After listening to Marilyn’s excellent insights on key considerations when designing a benefits program, I think I finally, after all this time, better understood the importance of the technology side of benefits, and really, and kind of HCM technology that an organization deploys. Modern benefits and HCM technologies are truly amazing, but before they are set up and deployed to reflect what the organization believes in and values, they are akin to a blank Word document or Excel spreadsheet. The technology can do nothing to make employees’ lives better on its own.
The designs and investments in benefits programs represent a promise of the organizational culture and the care we feel for employees and families. Only after the organization makes those decisions can the technology tools that we select to administer these programs serve as the delivery mechanism that enables the organization to live up to these promises. The best HR technology solutions are not about completing transactions and updating field values in some database. Rather, successful tools enable the organization to execute their business and people strategies, inform and support decision-making and—to me, most importantly—express our commitment to the promises we make to the workforce.
It has taken me a long time, maybe too long, to really understand how important it is to have both elements aligned: the organizational strategy, culture and commitment, along with the right technology solutions that enable HR leaders to deliver on all these. HR technology can only be truly impactful as a conduit to live up to and keep the promises that we make as leaders—to our people, to our customers and to our communities. It’s important to remember that, especially during really high-touch, important times like benefits open enrollment season.