Over the last several years we have seen employers increasingly turning to technology for their benefits administration as an efficient and compliant solution to manage the ever-changing world of employee benefits. According to a pre-COVID study,1 a majority of employers had increased their spending on benefits-related technology in the past five years. More than 50 percent expected further increases in the next three years to address their top benefits challenges, including controlling costs, increasing efficiency, ensuring legal compliance, and improving workforce engagement.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic was an inflection point for employers. It led to workplace changes that included remote work, flexible schedules, employee well-being and technology. While advancements in technology were already in motion, the pandemic accelerated this trend prompting the insurance industry to move at a faster pace to help meet their customers’ digital needs in a virtual workplace.
This was particularly notable during Open Enrollment season last year which prompted more organizations to adopt benefits administration and enrollment technology. Research conducted this year2 revealed that more than a third of employers say the pandemic accelerated their organization’s use of benefits technology. In addition, the pandemic spurred more organizations to integrate their existing HR technology systems. Thirty-seven percent of organizations say their HR technology systems are now fully integrated and 52 percent report partial integration, up from 32 percent and 49 percent, respectively. With benefits technology becoming more accessible, we expect this trend to continue as companies move toward different workplace models that include remote and hybrid.
Enhancing the User-Experience with API and AI
Benefits technology is among the fastest growing categories of human capital management (HCM) venture capital. The availability of HCM-related technology is expanding rapidly with investors steering more than $4 billion into software and platforms in 2018 alone. API (Application Programming Interface) and AI machine-learning technology is driving the innovation. For example, the use of API technology by insurance carriers and third-party vendors is growing. These days it’s not surprising to see more platforms and carriers partnering to establish API integrations for a wide range of processes including benefits plan set-up, enrollment and eligibility transactions and updating, and evidence of insurability processing. Research found API connectivity has great appeal among large organizations, as well as fast growing start-ups, retail companies and employers already highly digitized in their benefits administration. Among employers that are confident in the potential of real-time connectivity, six in ten are more likely to recommend switching non-medical carriers to have access to API integrations, if all else were equal (vs. 34 percent on average).
Meanwhile, AI machine-learning technology is taking the user experience to a whole other level. Take for example Nayya, which leverages AI and data science to simplify the benefits enrollment experience by arming employees with a decision-making tool that gives them the confidence to select the right benefits. We all know that, for many employees, open enrollment can be daunting, and it’s not uncommon for employees to auto-enroll without evaluating their benefit options. With an AI enrollment platform like Nayya, employees answer questions regarding their existing medical plan, household, geography, and lifestyle, such as how active they are or are their kids in sports. Within minutes the platform—which is available in English and Spanish—provides employees with a recommended benefits plan for them to consider. Other benefits solutions, such as Flock, allow employers to experience improved data connections, including utilization of real-time API data exchange, plus seamless integration with Nayya for best-in-class decision support during enrollment. This is a win-win for any employer seeking cost-savings solutions and increased efficiencies, especially when research showed that managing nonmedical benefits plans can consume an employer’s staff more than one week per month.
Improving the Employee and Employer Experience
The advantages of upgrading to new benefits technology are too good to pass up. For employees, this creates a user-friendly benefits experience. Seventy-two percent of employees who reported satisfaction with their benefits experience say they enrolled via a digital method. In addition to boosting employee satisfaction, benefits digitalization is also tied to better benefits understanding and satisfaction among employees.
From an administrative standpoint the technology also helps an employer manage benefits administration more efficiently. This is important given the changing workplace and the need for HR staff to focus on workplace initiatives, such as office safety or employee wellbeing, in addition to managing employee benefits. To give you an example, research found that larger firms (1,000 or more employees) spend the equivalent of nearly a full work week, or an average of 32 hours, updating renewal information on their platform due to their size and complexity. The ongoing management of non-medical benefits plans (e.g., dental, disability, life, accident, critical illness, etc.) is also time-intensive, with employers spending an average of 30 hours per month.
This is time consuming, but with API integrations the platforms will ease the administrative burden and dramatically improve the benefits administration experience for employers and their teams. However, a lot of employers need help. A majority of employers want and expect a benefits broker to help guide their decisions about technology solutions. Organizations most likely to rely on a broker to help source and manage their most recent technology platform installation are typically small to midsize firms that are still mostly dependent upon paper processes and feel managing benefits is increasingly complex.
So, what should brokers be thinking about to best prepare their clients who are making the transition to an online benefits administration platform or enhancing their current one? As you explore options for a platform that is suitable for a client, it’s important that you keep in mind the following:
- Establish Client’s Objectives: First, clearly identify your client’s primary motivation for reassessing its benefits technology strategy and evaluating potential solutions. Is it moving away from paper (e.g., first time using a benefits technology platform) or is it a result of being dissatisfied with current benefits technology platform capabilities, service, or cost structure? It’s important to scan the market for new technology and ensure the current platform is still the best fit for your client.
- Ask the Right Questions: Once you are clear on the client’s objectives, make sure you ask the following questions: Are you looking for an open enrollment solution only or a year-round platform? Does your current payroll provider offer benefits enrollment solutions? If not, do the platforms you are considering integrate with your current payroll provider? Are your group eligibility rules simple or complex? (Benefits administration platforms offer varying levels of flexibility to support different group benefits eligibility requirements; therefore, it’s important to understand if the vendors you are considering can support a client’s eligibility requirements.) Are you looking for a low- or no-cost solution? Asking the right questions and involving your client in the process is critical to not only help with decision-making but to ensure you are coming back with the right solutions.
- Assess Level of Platform Management/Support: Evaluate to what extent your client’s team will need to be involved with the initial setup and ongoing management of the platform. Benefits technology platforms offer either a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model or full-service support. Employers say that managing benefits is becoming increasingly complicated, with 59 percent in 2019 claiming that they are challenged by complexity, up from 47 percent in 2012. As a result, it’s important to understand the level of service the provider offers.
- Understand Services Your Client May Need: Every organization is different and there is no one-size-fits-all. It’s important to evaluate what services your client needs to help provide efficiencies and improve the user-experience. If you are helping a client navigate this, ask the following: Do you need more than one Human Capital Management module, e.g., in addition to benefits enrollment, is your organization also looking to integrate payroll, talent acquisition, and/or performance management? Benefits administration vendors are generally either stand-alone platforms or part of a broader HCM platform. Are they looking for ACA reporting, spending accounts, and/or COBRA administration, call center support, etc.?
- Understand the Cost Structure: Technology is an investment that will ultimately help an employer not only create efficiencies but create a user-experience that will benefit employees. However, there is a lot that goes into understanding the cost structure for a new platform. Here are questions you should be asking: What is the PEPM fee? Are there monthly minimums? What services are included for this fee? Are there fees to build out or update EDI feeds? Are there fees charged at renewals? What wraparound services are available and at what cost?
- Ask for a Demo: Request a demo of the software to fully understand the platform’s strengths and weaknesses to ensure it will meet your client’s needs. And once you land on the right solution to recommend, it’s important your client also sees a demo so that the process is collaborative.
There is no doubt that the digital revolution is sweeping across the insurance industry, and with the pandemic, timelines have been expedited to best meet employers’ needs. While it can be overwhelming, the role of the broker is more important than ever. Familiarizing yourself with workplace benefit technology trends and becoming a subject matter expert will tremendously help your clients, who are most likely evaluating all of their technology needs from benefits administration to collaborative workplace tools. And lastly, partnering with the right carrier who can help you navigate the process from end-to-end and offers various benefits technology solutions can make a difference. As we are seeing in the industry, technology is changing every aspect of how we deliver insurance, and it’s up to us to help our customers have a first-in-class digital experience.
Unless otherwise noted, the research/data in this byline are from Guardian’s 9th Annual Workplace Benefits Study Digital Overdrive and Guardian’s 10th Annual Workplace Benefits Study Inflection Point. Material discussed is meant for general informational purposes only and is not to be construed as tax, legal, or investment advice. Although the information has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, please note that individual situations can vary. Therefore, the information should be relied upon only when coordinated with individual professional advice. Nayya and Flock are neither subsidiaries nor affiliates of The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America.