Top lessons for improving benefits communications

Need to know:

  • A communication strategy that builds up information over time is vital, because ad-hoc methods are unreliable when it comes to boosting engagement and take-up of benefits.
  • Employers should consider their workforce demographics and job structure, and aim to get information to staff at a time and in a format that will be immediate and attention-grabbing.
  • Modern trends, such as access to mobile and digital technology, and the ability to analyse data, can help employers take a more consumer-like approach to engaging staff.

Over the last decade alone, all forms of communication have been revolutionised, from entering the age of ubiquitous smartphones, to the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) and deep data analysis.

As a result, employers are faced with a broad array of options for reaching out to staff, and the have opportunity to tailor communications by any number of variables, such as workforce demographics, job and industry types, even down to individual preference.

Karen Bolan, head of engagement strategy at AHC, says: “Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach; target [the] audience. Effective communication is all about taking down barriers and employees actually doing what [the employer] wants them to do, and achieving the results [they] want.”

However, with the ability to make minute changes, and the increasing awareness of the effects these can have on engagement, benefits take-up and even business metrics such as turnover, it would be easy to remain paralysed by choice.

So, how can employers ensure they have an effective strategy in place and what lessons about communication should they take from the last decade into the next?

Have a strategic plan  

Sending isolated or ad-hoc communications as, and when, they are needed might seem like an effective approach, but if messages are not part of a broader strategic approach, they may not have the intended effect.

For example, a one-off email might miss some staff and get lost in an inbox, while others may have every intention of going back to read it later but subsequently forget.

James Christopher, principal at Mercer, explains: “[There are] some organisations that, [when] launching a new product, just send out a one-time letter and that’s just it, no campaign, just a short-term solution. It will never achieve the desired results.

“An employer needs to build up awareness over a period of time. Take an employee on a journey; create awareness, develop communication and let employees understand if they need to take action.”

Communications will fail when employees are not engaged enough in the subject matter, adds Howard Finch, managing director at Vested Employee Benefits.

“Employees will get given details of the organisation’s benefits at the induction, a time when the level of information they are getting about everything, their role, the [organisation], is information overload,” he says. “Three weeks later, they will have forgotten what they were told.”

A strategy should not just take the form of a plan for multiple messages to be sent out over a spread of time, but should incorporate an understanding of what the organisation is trying to achieve, how employees might respond, and who is taking ownership of the campaign and information.

For example, a message about benefits might raise questions, and if there is no one on hand to answer them, engagement will quickly dissipate. Senior management should, therefore, be on hand to answer queries, says Christopher.

“How do you engage employees, if they don’t know what the organisation is trying to achieve?” he says. “[Managers] need to know what their role is about carrying this message forward with their teams, to make sure that if employees need to act on it they know how to go about doing that.”

Finding the right fit

In a world in which employees are all time poor, communications must grab their attention instantly, so finding the best medium is key. Employers should consider taking lessons from the world of consumer marketing, where the ethos is to get information out at the time and in a format that will fit best with an individual’s lifestyle.

“I think a lot of employers are following the same routine when it comes to communicating benefits that they did five or 10 years ago,” says Finch. “A large proportion of the workforce aren’t online during working hours, so this standard form of communication just won’t work any more. Times have changed and an organisation needs to move on and find new ways to engage its employees. It’s a natural progression.”

Sarah Robson, strategic consultant at Aon, adds: “We know that employees don’t always read benefits emails. They might get lost in the bank of emails, or employees don’t have easy access to emails. So sending out a mix of media, to their home address or postcard desk drops, increases engagement tenfold.”

It can also be difficult to judge when the best time to send a communication is, particularly as working patterns and workforce demographics are becoming more diverse. However, there are definitely wrong times.

For example, employers should make sure that information is delivered when office-based employees are likely to be at their desks, not at home or with friends, says Christopher: “Sunday at 3pm wouldn’t be a good time to send an email. [Employers should] think about how [they] can be as effective as possible when [they] are delivering communications.”

A simple method of guaranteeing that a message will reach an employee directly, in a format they are used to as a part of modern life, is to make use of mobile phones and digital technology.

“Employees will become more and more ingrained in digital technology and consuming content outside the work environment, and it needs to be a similar experience inside the work environment,” says Christopher. “If [employers are] not integrating digital technology into [their] communications strategy, [they] risk not catching employees’ attention.”

Relevant and engaging

A key message from the information age is that there is a fine line between effective communication of benefits, and overwhelming staff with a mountain of information that may or may not be relevant, says Bolan. The latter is ultimately disengaging, and can be the downfall of a well-meaning communications strategy. 

“The worst thing [an employer] can do is send a communication to someone which is simply not relevant to them, because [they are] putting the burden on [the employee] working out if it’s something that they need to take notice of or not,” says Bolan. “If [the employer] makes [staff] do the work of ploughing through all of the information, some of which may be relevant to them some of which might not, then they’re probably not going to engage very well.”

However, trying to break down information into silos based on demographics, while tempting, can be a double-edged sword; using stereotypes or assumptions, such as that employees of a certain age will, or will not, want communications about parental benefits, for example, can be damaging.

“An employee could be thinking about having a family but does not want to bring it up,” says Robson. “So they would want to know if an organisation has really good family benefits. Therefore, it’s important to showcase everything, but maybe keep it in one place that employees can access if they want to, rather than sending endless communications.”

Measure success to avoid mistakes

The easiest way to find out whether a communication has been successful is not always by monitoring the take-up of the benefit in question, particularly when so many other avenues of measurement are available.

Indeed, failing to measure data tracking employees’ reactions to, and engagement with, communications is fundamentally missing a trick.

“If [an employer] can’t measure the performance [of messages, it doesn’t] don’t get any steps out of it, so is it worth it at all?” he asks. “Employers should track how many emails have been delivered, what [employees] read, what device they are reading it on and what time of day they access the content.”

To create an effective communications strategy for the long term, this data should be used to enhance and understand key trends, rather than make knee-jerk reactions. Disappointing results, therefore, should be used to inform regular touch-points about what is or is not working.

Consider the benefits themselves

Certain benefits may be niche, and although lacking in high take-up, be of great importance to a select few. In these instances, employers should think about communication outside of the context of boosting engagement, and simply aim to provide value and clarity for those few employees.

With this in mind, though, getting poor results from a communications strategy aimed at boosting take-up can shed light on the flaws in a benefits strategy. If a benefit is simply a bad fit, no amount of well-pitched communications will make for improvements.

“It may not be that the information isn’t right or the communication doesn’t pop,” says Robson. “It may be more of a case of, ‘is it right for your employees?’ For example, the bikes-for-work benefit won’t work if [an employee] needs to get on a motorway to get to the office. [Employers have] to take a step back and make sure the benefits mix is right for employees to get the most engagement.”