Open enrollment is right around the corner and this year poses different challenges for both employers and employees. COVID-19 has forced businesses to embrace technology and get creative not only when it comes to day-to-day operations, but also meetings, conferences and events. Open enrollment for employee benefits will be no different. COVID-19 has impacted benefit plan design, healthcare costs and may have financial impacts on employees. While COVID-19 provides unprecedented challenges for employers, it also creates opportunities to make a difference.

The effects of COVID-19 on healthcare and benefits will be top of employees’ minds heading into open enrollment season and the current environment will be a point of stress for many. Employers should address the impact of coronavirus on health benefits head on and explain how it’s affecting benefit packages, while encouraging employees to select a financial and wellness path which best suits their individual needs.

Phil Mason is the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Institutional Banking and director of Healthcare Services for UMB Bank.

A recent BenefitsPro survey of more than 150,000 employers found that there were dramatic changes in employees’ prioritization of their financial goal’s since COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, the majority of employees chose “taking a vacation” as their number one financial priority. When asked again, 90 days from when lockdown orders started, employees’ priorities switched their priorities from vacation to “setting up an emergency fund” and “saving for retirement”. Employers should keep this shift in mind during their open enrollment season. The current state of the economy has changed many people’s behaviors, and this means employees are more stressed and are starting to think more about long-term challenges. For employers, this is why wellness programs and health benefits are becoming more important, as they can enable employees to invest to meet their long-term needs, not just short-term wants.

Below are some ways that employers can better prepare and plan for a beneficial and virtual open enrollment session this year.

Plan early

As employers gear up for open enrollment, it can be beneficial to pause and reflect on the past year. Talk about what was effective – this can help frame the conversation around this year’s format and any plan changes. Be sure to think about and understand the benefits employees need now versus this time last year, and the impact of COVID-19 on benefit goals. Highlight benefits that might be more useful during the pandemic such as telehealth, mental health services and coverage for COVID-19 testing and treatment.

Consider conducting a survey or quiz to employees before open enrollment to gauge what aspects of a benefits package they are most interested in learning about. Employers can create presentations and highlight certain features based on those results. Remember, this is a chance to make the process more personal than in the past. By taking advantage of new technology that enables one-on-one, face-to-face interactions, benefits teams can actually provide more support on-demand and have the opportunity to make the experience more beneficial and perhaps better than before.

Consider a virtual benefits fair

A virtual benefits fair can engage all employees, including those working remotely. Create an agenda and consider hosting multiple sessions to ensure that these sessions fit in with all employees’ schedules. Send out reminders and outline what employees can expect at the fair, including highlights and changes to any benefits packages or offerings. Keep the presentation simple and straightforward. Even if the benefits fair goes as planned, employees will most likely have questions. It can be helpful to create a benefits FAQs digital handout for employees that covers basic questions and can be a valuable resource for employees before they ask questions.

Employers may also consider inviting vendors to attend and participate in virtual benefits fairs. They can provide specific information and guidance if employees have unique situations they would like to discuss. Employers can also host breakout sessions through virtual breakout rooms for employees to join if they have additional questions or would like to learn more about a certain topic.

Provide on-demand support

Most employees are still working from home, but that shouldn’t mean that they don’t have access to enrollment help and guidance. Employers should make it possible for their employees to virtually stop by their desk for help. Think of what a traditional open enrollment fair or kick-off would typically bring, such as office hours or a time after the presentation in which employees can ask questions, and figure how to provide the same support virtually. To avoid being inundated with calls or emails, employers should consider working with their HR team use a calendar tool where employees can book times with staff members to talk through considerations, ask questions and make the process more personal.

It’s important to invest in technology and test it out in advance. Be sure to provide benefits decision support and education tools to make this process as seamless as possible. Consider sending text alerts or emails to your employees about enrollment and record the primary information session so that employees can access it at a later date for a refresh or if they missed it.

Focus on engagement

Try to focus on creating more communication and make it interesting so that it catches employees’ attention. Employers should try to focus on key changes to benefits. If employers decide to move forward with an employee survey to gauge plan aspect interest, this is where employers and the HR team can focus on those results. Host one-on-one virtual sessions and ask for feedback. Measure the success of virtual enrollment by measuring engagement before, during and after the process.

Make it personal

Employees expect personalized communication and will want their specific questions to be answered rather than receiving generic content. Employers should focus on personal messaging and creating space and options for employees to feel heard and have their questions answered. While this is a challenging time, employers should expect to have a more successful enrollment when they connect with employees about their individual situations and allow employees to make better choices when participating in programs. Educate employees on the benefits available, how they work and what type of value they should expect. In turn, this will build benefit awareness, financial hardship support, resource directives and a caring culture.

It’s not too late to start planning and executing a successful virtual benefits enrollment. Keep in mind that COVID-19 is changing the benefit-covered population as well as goals and priorities. Be prepared to adjust strategy as the current environment is always changing. Claims data can help identify trends and potentially any gaps in care that need to be addressed. Invest in technology, support and education tools for your employees. Remember, a good financial wellness platform can ensure that the employee is making an informed decision based on their benefits package and their specific circumstances.


Phil Mason is the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Institutional Banking and director of Healthcare Services for UMB Bank. He can be reached at