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Employee benefits software expanding HR tech applications

To retain increasingly mobile workers, employers are using technology-based tools to expand the scope of benefits options, including wellness and personalized plans.

Employee benefits software is enabling employers to make once esoteric options such as telemedicine and wearable activity tracker-based health and wellness programs more common offerings.

The giant insurer Aflac, in its most recent annual survey of employers and employees, indicated that employers are not only focusing more on benefits to retain workers, but also using employee benefits software to lower healthcare costs.

The 2016 Aflac Workforces Report found that while employers and employees are often at odds in their perspectives toward benefits, they tend to agree about the value of wellness programs and that such programs are fast becoming popular.

Employee benefits software fuels telemedicine

Among the survey findings:

  • More than half the employers surveyed, 54%, have company-sponsored wellness programs, up from 30% in 2012
Benefits are boring. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, 'Great, today I get to enroll in my benefits.'
Chris Brucefounder, Thomsons Online Benefits
  • 19% of employers reported their companies are using wearable devices to track health metrics; of those, 62% said the service has reduced overall employee health costs
  • 18% of employers said they are offering telemedicine services to employees; 59% reported the option has cut health costs

One key area of conflict between management and workers, the study showed, is that while employees want better and more benefits, employers are reducing benefits and asking employees to shoulder more of the costs of benefits.

Other non-specifically tech-oriented findings from Aflac regarding corporate health and wellness programs are the increasing popularity of on-site medical clinics, pharmacies and medical services such as blood pressure screenings.

Fast growth in benefits digitization

Meanwhile, Chris Bruce, founder and managing director of Thomsons Online Benefits Ltd., an employee benefits software vendor and consulting firm, maintained that the digitization of benefits is seeing explosive growth akin to that which is transforming human capital management (HCM).

"The digitalization of an incredibly manual set of processes is changing what is a pretty horrific, very paper-intensive and confusing experience for the employee and a painful and high-risk process for employers," Bruce said in an interview from London, where Thomsons is based. "The digitalization of the way benefits are managed and understood is a pretty obvious trend."

Chris Bruce, founder, Thomsons Online BenefitsChris Bruce

Bruce said employees more and more are expecting a personalized, consumer-grade experience to learn about and enroll for their benefits, one that is similar to how they consume social media, retail and financial services.

"A 90-second YouTube video clip probably tells your average millennial more than they would ever learn from a 10-page brochure," Bruce said.

Also, employee benefits software developers are starting to move in new, innovative technology directions such as incorporating augmented reality to engage employees in the benefits election process.

For example, Bruce said, some employee benefits software apps enable users to point their smartphones at, say, a cartoon picturing the benefit offering against the visual backdrop of their work setting.

"Benefits are boring. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, 'Great, today I get to enroll in my benefits,'" Bruce said. "Anything we can do to make benefits engaging and cool is going to get people interested in a subject they wouldn't necessarily otherwise engage with."

Cautionary view of tech wellness program penetration

HCM expert Michael Moon, CEO and principal analyst of HR tech consulting firm ExcelHRate Research & Advisory Services, agreed that both the HCM and benefits sides of HR are undergoing rapid transformation, particularly in the rise of wellness and well-being programs.

"There's a huge shift in this space," she said. "What we're starting to see is, rather than well-being being thought of as a part of healthcare, well-being is being considered a part of how you manage the culture of the organization … and how you manage the impact of technology on people."

A big plus of wearable-based wellness programs is that they automate to some degree the collecting of health and fitness data, Moon noted.

Michael Moon, CEO, ExcelHRate Research and advisory ServicesMichael Moon

"The less that the employee has to go in and enter how many steps they had or how much exercise or how much water they drank or how much sleep they got, the better," she said. "We don't have time."

But Moon questioned the overall penetration so far of tech-based wellness and health programs as indicated by the Aflac survey, and also the reliability of the survey's methodology, in part because of the relatively low sample size.

Lightspeed GMI conducted the study on behalf of Aflac, analyzing responses from 1,500 employers and 5,000 employees.

Moon said some of the tech-oriented findings seemed a bit amplified.

The Aflac study, however, made clear the company's view of its own research.

"For companies of all sizes, the message is clear: To hire and retain top employees, they must get smarter about their benefits plans," the report said.

No one from Aflac was available to comment on the report.

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