(Photo by Ozgurdonmaz/iStock by Getty Images)

A bottle containing a hazy beverage makes an appearance in Kate Kennedy's Zoom window. Kennedy, who is the VP of employee benefits at USI Insurance Services, has been drinking a concoction that is one part orange juice to seven parts water as part of her daily wellness regime. Ever since her work at USI went remote, she and her colleagues have been taking care of their well-being by setting hydration goals–water with diluted orange juice tastes more interesting than plain water–and taking on weight-loss challenges.

Kimberly Young, the VP of global benefits at Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE), sees virtual fitness challenges as a way to keep employees engaged "as we find ourselves working remotely and not connecting for [over] a year," she said during a From Day One webinar titled “Fostering Employee Engagement in Healthcare Through Technology,” moderated by Fast Company contributing editor Lydia Dishman.

In fact, as we see employees embracing such challenges as keeping up 10,000 daily steps or escaping the four walls of their at-home workstations, it has become apparent that the workforce's health and well-being has become a priority for employers–and not just as a means to stave off worker isolation. However, many employees are unaware of the extent of their benefits, so they’re missing out on opportunities. One solution? A multi-pronged communication strategy rooted in data but with an underlying human component.

Making Delivery More Flexible

As each day of remote work became a “Blursday,” an asynchronous approach became a way to maximize engagement. Toby Fleischman, director of total rewards for Cleveland-based MetroHealth System, recalls that, once so many workers went remote, shifting the company's fitness classes from a live format to on-demand resulted in skyrocketing engagement. "That freed people from an office-hours schedule," she said. "Time becomes that variable that nobody has enough of. The more flexible you can be in the delivery, the more people will grab onto that."

Speaking on health-care engagement, top row from left: Kimberly Young of Pacific Architects and Engineers and Eric Parmenter of League. Center row: Toby Fleishman of MetroHealth Systems, Matthew Kaye of Deloitte Consulting, and moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company. Bottom row: Kate Kennedy of USI Insurance Services (Image by From Day One)

While flexibility in health-care and benefit services is a good sign of the industry catching up with consumer trends, it's important to take an omni-channel approach. "There's two dimensions here: different consumers have different channel preferences," said Matthew Kaye, managing director at Deloitte Consulting. "There are also consumers that engage on multiple channels, and so it's important that health-care companies share data across channels, so that if [customers] call an agent, the agent is aware of a log, a chat exchange."

In fact, while a chatbot is ideal for a basic request with a complexity similar to tracking a package, there should be a human component when a situation is more complicated than that. "Making an inquiry regarding someone's benefits is a lot more complex than "track my package," said Kennedy. "The trick is making sure [there's] a real-life human and, once the issue gets to that degree of complexity, being able to pivot over to that."

Towards a Customer-like Approach

"People are looking more and more for a consumer-grade experience, [similar to] online/retail experience," said Eric Parmenter, VP of health solutions at League, a digital health-care platform. Parmenter observed that calling a customer-service hotline now often feels outdated and likely to breed frustration, since “unusually high call volume” now seems to be constant and callers are often bounced from department to department.

Like retail consumers, employees are more likely to use resources that are personalized, but that calls for a holistic approach: What is a consumer's channel preference? What is their socioeconomic situation? What is their location? "People with different conditions are more likely to engage in different ways," said Kaye. "If you have someone with a chronic condition requiring a daily engagement with their health, it's important to give them an app," he continued, taking into account the hurdle of behavior change. "Behavior change through a digital channel, if you're not already a digital user, is hard."

To find out more about employee needs and preferences, MetroHealth took a multi-pronged approach: handing out surveys to determine the social determinants of their health, having the surveys completed through the wellness program, and sharing the resulting aggregate data with community partners. "The most important thing is to make sure we close the loop, so that the data everybody gets can be seen by everyone," said Fleischman. "Platforms should be reactive to the info you put in. It's a constant dialogue even with a system. The best inputs we have are human, the voices of employees in the moment."

One of the biggest dilemmas for employers is how to invest their budgets: do they focus an overall communication campaign that can unify these programs and convey general information to employees? Or, knowing that 5% of 10% of employees have the most health-care claims, should employers take a more targeted approach to the high-needs group?

"We focus on the entire population, because high claimants will be different from year to year," said Parmenter. "Spreading the peanut butter is hard to do, but at the same time, that goes back to personalization–to tailor and curate a set of resources regardless of what their risk profile and demographics are, and engage them in a way they prefer to be engaged."

A "Brand Voice" Has its Benefits

Developing a voice is a critical component as health-care and benefit platforms seek to keep up with the times. "We started implementing bi-monthly communications, so employees can see benefits they can use when they're well, especially in daily life in the wellness sphere," said PAE’s Young.

In general, communication has shifted more towards preventative care. MetroHealth has taken a thematic approach to communication, which is meant to keep people engaged year-round, as opposed to just nudging them awake during open enrollment and then leaving them to their own devices the rest of the time. For instance, a “Women’s Health Month” will touch on such topics as mammograms and financial wellness. "We're very much focused on the integration," said Fleischman. "What we did for the pandemic was to pivot everything we had in an online repository that could be accessed any time."

An effective voice is also a more straightforward one. "If you need a separate slide just to explain acronyms, it's not a good start," said Kennedy. "I've seen greater usage of multimedia. We regularly embed videos. I am seeing ways we can embed multimedia into communication so people can better understand concepts and make things simpler."

Despite the upsides of personalization, choice overload should be avoided. "We do have to be mindful of too many choices, we have to be mindful of jargon, so that even though the choices may seem complex and overwhelming, if they're couched in a conversational manner, that goes a long way," said Parmenter, who advocates the use of decision-support tools. "Benefits are complex. Using the technology that's available to us to make it more clear is a step in the right direction."

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.