Tips for engaging employees in plan design changes

When employers are making changes, such as introducing a new benefits or pension offering, scaling back health benefits or changing plan design, it’s important to engage employees and give them a chance to share their views.

In our day-to-day consumer interactions, we’re constantly asked for feedback. Have you bought a pair of shoes online? Review your purchase. Have you taken an Uber? Rate your driver. Have you stayed at an Airbnb? Share the details on social media.

So not asking for input, especially in areas as sensitive as pension or benefits changes, just doesn’t sit well with plan members.

Read: Why you should hire a change management specialist

The good news is, there are simple, low-cost ways to tap into employees’ ideas and experiences, get them onside with proposed plan changes and build rapport and trust in the process. Whether it’s through surveys, focus groups, town halls or even individual interviews, asking employees to share their views serves a few important functions:

  • It makes them feel like they’re part of the process. No one wants to feel left out of important decisions. Bringing plan members along in the process, especially if the changes are perceived as negative, makes it more likely they’ll support the outcome and increases the likelihood of a successful rollout.
  • It provides a wealth of useful data. Getting feedback on plan members’ benefits needs, priorities and preferences may provide fresh perspectives. Also, take the opportunity to get their insights on other matters, such as their preferences on the frequency, method and timing of communications.
  • It helps pinpoint potential risks, barriers and pain points. The best way to overcome obstacles is to identify and plan for them in advance. We’ve worked with companies that have gone back to the drawing board once they clearly understood how much backlash they were likely to get from members on proposed changes. Even if the decision is made to forge ahead, understanding the risks will help employers to focus their communication strategy and more effectively target their messaging.

Read: Employee benefits plan design: Five reasons for change

Soliciting feedback from employees through a survey or poll must be done properly. Here are a few tips to ensure plan members are effectively engaged: 

  • Provide appropriate context. Employers don’t have to tell plan members all the details, but making sure they have the right frame of reference (i.e., changes are being considered and employee input is an important and valued part of the process) is important.
  • Use clear, simple language. Avoid long, complex questions and acronyms so members don’t get lost in the jargon.
  • Ask the right questions. Carefully worded questions that prompt a clear response are generally easier to act on. For example, consider the difference between these two questions:

a) How do you feel about your benefits plan? ___________________________________________

b) How well does the current benefits plan meet your needs?

Very well

Somewhat well


Not well 

Not at all well

Option B will provide employers with more clear and precise data, and will also make it easier to compare responses when tabling the results.

Read: Using benefits design to drive employee engagement

And employers that are considering running focus groups among members should consider these tips:

  • Engage an outside moderator. Having a human resources leader or executive team member to guide the sessions may prevent employees from providing honest, candid feedback, which defeats the purpose of the exercise. 
  • Use polling for sensitive questions. Live polling software allows people to respond to questions online or via text message instead of verbally. Since responses are only shown in aggregate, this can be a useful tool to draw members into the discussion. It also makes it easier for them to share potentially controversial feedback.
  • Avoid directing the conversation or judging the quality of the responses. Focus group discussions often reveal startling gaps in members’ knowledge and understanding of the plan, but remember, there are no stupid questions. Identifying these gaps creates a unique opportunity to educate members on the plan and help them appreciate its value.

Plan sponsors may be afraid to ask for member input, but the risks of not asking can be even greater. Member engagement matters, especially in a situation where plan changes are taking place. In fact, it’s critical to the initiative’s success.