Need to know:
- Employers should not be afraid to embrace new technology in benefits communication strategies.
- Utilising employees’ personal technology, such as smartphones, tablets and laptops, can help to reach and engage a broad audience.
- New technology should complement, not replace, traditional forms of communication
Employers are faced with the ever-present challenge of identifying the most effective ways of communicating and engaging employees with their benefits offering. As it continues to develop at a rapid pace, technology is a great enabler to communicate with employees, using data, algorithms and virtual reality to bring benefits alive.
With many employees now working virtually the challenges of communicating to a workforce becomes even more of a challenge, says Jon Bryant, director, online and communications at Aon Employee Benefits. “The old way of communicating on paper doesn’t work anymore; it’s out of date when it’s sent, employees don’t read it [and] they’ve got busy lives,” he says. “[Employers] are trying to communicate pensions and benefits to people who are too busy checking out videos of pandas falling over. That’s what we need to overcome. We need to make it easy for employees to access [information] and we need to make decisions easy too.”
Embracing new technology
Online guides, video and audio are now commonplace in benefits communication strategies, yet more advanced forms of technology are still up and coming in the employee benefits world.
According to Aon’s Benefits and trends survey, published in January 2018, 42% of respondents said they are willing to invest further in communications this year, with technology being a key area they were considering.
Although, investing in more cutting-edge forms of technology, such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality and block chain, is one way of enhancing a benefits communication strategy, most employees already have the tools to access digital communications via their laptop or smartphone. However, if communications are driven by emails and a portal, cost might not be the only reason there is wariness from employers to trial new technology.
Taking the first steps is key and can be a big step, says Jack Curzon, head of scheme design at Thomsons Online Benefits,. “I tell [employers] to do something brave, use technology, record a video on a phone and send it to people, but do it in conjunction with 10 other communications and measure its success rate. Don’t just use the portal to send the communication but to measure it: when it’s sent, [which employees] received it, [how many employees] opened it and how they’ve looked at it.”
Another hesitation may be the reception new technology will receive from a more mature workforce. The perception in some organisations may be that employees prefer more traditional methods of communication.
However, concerns that the older generation is not ready for new technology need to be quashed, says Jamie True, chief executive officer (CEO) at Lifeworks. “The older generation uses Amazon, Google and email, and is getting personalisation from all of these platforms,” he explains. “What is actually happening is they are being spoilt with the user experience and now expect it. Employees are used to getting a user experience which is slick and intuitive, whereas traditional HR platforms are structured. Times are changing and employers need to realise that employees expect a congruent user experience because that is what they are used to. The beauty of it is anyone who has a smartphone can access these new forms of communication easily.”
The newest forms of technology
Aon’s aforementioned survey also found that almost a third (32%) of respondents see new forms of communication technology, such as augmented reality, playing an important part in employee engagement in 2018, with just over one-tenth (13%) thinking technology does not have a place in benefits communications.
Alexa, Siri and Google have made an impact in employees’ homes but this technology has the capability to move into the benefits communications arena, says Bryant.
“They are so cheap to provide and connect to platforms,” he explains. “They use apis which are data pipes, so when you talk to Alexa and say ‘find me this track’, all that Alexa is doing is sending that request and at the same time the algorithm is sorting through the data in its search engine and matching you up with what’s in the database.”
However, there are limitations and the knowledge stored in the database may not be extensive enough to deal with complex tasks, says Bryant. “If employees use robot advice, they’ve got a small selection on what the engine is searching for. [The industry] is in its infancy at the moment; it works but only a small [limited] selection.”
Some organisations have already introduced virtual reality as part of a benefits communication strategy due to its ability to bring benefits to life in an informative and exciting way. Virtual reality has a role to play in educating employees on a wide range of areas, particularly their own health and wellbeing, so ultimately organisations will progress down that route, says Mark Ramsook, sales and marketing director at Willis Towers Watson.
However, advancements in technology will not come without its hurdles, especially when using systems that rely on employees feeding in information to get the best results, adds Ramsook. “All the research that [Willis Towers Watson] has done [demonstrates] that a lot of employees are somewhat hesitant or resistant [about] sharing data with their employers, particularly [because] we’ve seen some US employers penalising employees in terms of certain components of their health care plan or adding costs, so it depends on how the information is used. For example if it’s to pre-empt health issues or raise awareness and educate employees [that’s] fantastic and employees will probably feel less cynical [about] what those data sources are going to be used for.”
Now is the time to look at incorporating new technology, adds Bryant. “If [employers] don’t do something, they’ve got to ask themselves, what’s the risk to the business of not doing anything. Time is critical.”
Technology can take a lot of the hard work out of communicating benefits. Cognitive automation which includes artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, can be used to augment complex tasks and personalise information taking this task away from an organisation’s human resources or benefits team and making it more of a unique user experience.
This means data can be used to enable benefits communications to focus on groups in more detail rather than generalising them by generations, for example, says Curzon. “It’s almost getting to a place where employers can use technology predictively to pre-empt what [employees] will do and enabling [employers] to communicate to them in a way that supports them in the way employers think they want,” he explains. Using predictive analytics and capturing data in the same way that cookies work online, or Siri or Google work at home, [employers can] get an idea of what [an employee wants]. We’re not quite there in the employee benefits communication space but we’re not far away. [Employees] don’t necessarily engage with flat communications, they engage with a programme.”
Using new technologies, employers have the ability to really drill down and send employees personalised communications, says True. “Using data that can help employees is key in a communications platform. For example, employees don’t necessarily want to open up [to] communications about nutrition when they are depressed, they want to be educated about depression. The key to really good communication and re-engagement is relevancy and personalisation. Organisations spend a lot of time on this and technology makes it easy. [Employers] can get a lot of data and information on [employees] and need to make [communications] relevant for them.”
Future technology versus traditional methods
So, should benefits teams be looking to replace traditional forms of communication, such as emails, booklets and posters, with new forms of communication, or is there still a place for more traditional methods?
According to Curzon, employers shouldn’t rely on new technologies alone because not everyone is ready to embrace it completely. “Don’t hang your hat on it because employees will still want the email, still potentially want the poster, they’ll still want a CEO communications or somewhere to find it on their benefits platform,” he says. “If [employers] give [employees] 10 places to find information, they know they can get through to everyone.”
However, an organisation might find that introducing new technology can increase take up significantly, says Bryant. In his experience, apps have been far more successful than telephone or online signup options. “The biggest variable factor in take up is access, ” he says.
On the other hand, with employees digesting information in their day-to-day lives on tablets, smartphones and laptops, some would prefer the option to move away from paper, says True. “[Paper communications] look old. There’s no harm in [employees] printing on paper but [employers will] find more employees are coming into meetings and not wasting paper, [instead viewing] things on their iPad. More employees are not wanting to use paper or booklets, especially if there’s an app on their phone for them to communicate.”
So, while times are changing, employers should ensure they move at a pace that suits their workforce. As Curzon says: “There’s a difference between invention and innovation. Invention is creating something new and innovation is improving something that already exists I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using new technology, such as virtual reality or augmented reality, but some [employers] would question whether it’s a gimmick. Doing something new and exciting is great but if it doesn’t deliver the message, is it the right thing to do?”