Faces of HR

Benefit Expert Advocates an Important Part of Your Benefits Communications

Communicating benefits to your employees is a critical component of any employee benefit strategy. Today’s “Faces of HR” guest discusses how she approaches these communications, including via benefits advocates—that is, people who use certain benefits who share their experiences as a model for educating other employees about individual benefits. We are very pleased to have with us today Gianna Driver, Chief People Officer at BlueVine, to kick off the content portion of the HR Daily Advisor’s Employee Benefits Week.

To get started, how did you find yourself in HR?

What’s interesting about that, Jim, is that I didn’t grow up dreaming of a career in HR. I wanted to be in business, but what I started to discover was that early on in my career, I was drawn to the people-centric and human-centric parts of businesses. That meant getting involved in mentorship programs, incentive programs, the hiring process, the performance management process, all of that. Then, in reflection, I realized these things I was drawn to are housed in this function called HR. That’s really where I started to lean into the HR field. Today, I think of myself as a business professional who happens to do HR and people operations, not necessarily an HR person who happens to do a little bit of business.

I want to focus today’s discussion on benefits because this is the HR Daily Advisor Benefits Week. The first question I have for you is: How do you get employees talking about benefits?

Simply put, you ask them questions like, what would they like to know more about? What are the things that may have served them in the past but, given the changing world in which we live, might not be as interesting and valuable to them now? I believe strongly in the value of having well-trodden paths of communication with our employees.

I understand that getting employees to engage with benefits is the number one goal and sometimes not that easy. Did you see an increased interest in benefits by employees over the last year?

Definitely. What we noticed is that 2020, which was a year of untold hardship—from a pandemic to natural disasters to political unrest and racial injustices—put a strain on our employees like they’d never had before. On top of that, employees were in situations in which they were not only working from home but also working while having children learning from home and partners at home, too; this created a lot of stress. We realized our employees had a need for more mental health benefits, benefits that go well beyond your traditional employee assistance program (EAP) types of benefits.

Did you have any issues securing those benefits? I know there’s been kind of a lack of availability of mental health professionals because so many people are in the same boat.

It was with a lot of work and intentionality that we were able to find benefit offerings and providers that offer not only mental well-being types of benefits but also things like coaching and therapy sessions. They do exist, and we, thankfully, were able to find a wonderful provider, and we’ve been very happy.

Any advice for other employers that are maybe struggling to get started in that particular realm of benefits?

First, I encourage them to speak with their benefits brokers because they’re often on the front lines of this and have those contacts. At the same time, do your own research, go out there and speak with other industry professionals, listen to podcasts like this, and start asking the hard questions. This needs to be employer-driven whereby we as HR professionals go into the benefits brokerage spaces and say, “My employees want mental health benefits, and I want to provide those. Please give me options.”

That’s good advice. Other than the increase in mental health benefits, what are you seeing as far as the change in what your workforce needs with regard to benefits?

Mental health and wellness are certainly up there. One of the other things we realized is that financial literacy and empowerment are also very important. At BlueVine, we focus a lot on having a diverse and inclusive workplace. Having that, we also realize we have individuals from all different walks of life—people who’ve been exposed to varying amounts of financial literacy—and it’s important to us to provide an equal platform of knowledge for all of our employees. We’ve started to offer financial literacy and well-being classes and seminars to help explain to employees information about wealth and financial management vehicles. We’re really excited about this offering, and the feedback from our employees has been very positive.

It’s really important to understand that it’s for the employees. Every time we publish an article on financial health and financial knowledge, we always get a couple people who get mad at us; they say, “Well, we don’t need education. We need to get paid more.” Or, they get cynical about what the goal of all that is. What would you say to those people to let them know what the real value of this is?

Part of it is first understanding the world of finance and wealth creation. My mom used to always tell me that it’s not how much you earn—it’s how much you spend. I think there’s a lot of wisdom and truth to that. What we’re trying to do with our employees is help them understand what the terms actually mean and what options they have, whether that’s saving for their children’s education or understanding the difference between a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA, or understanding how to think about a budget. Additionally, at BlueVine, we’ve had a 401(k) since the early days. At the beginning of 2020, we were deciding between expanding in-office perks or adding a 401(k) match. We ultimately decided on the match because we know the long-term benefits for our employees are far greater than better snacks. These types of benefits are often overlooked by tech companies today, but I believe a strong financial future is the best benefit a company can provide. 

As we move further into 2021, some people are starting to see some hope on the horizon and perhaps the end of the pandemic. I was feeling somewhat cautiously optimistic myself.

Me, as well.

How is that going to change things? What are the benefits going to be over the next year and the next years that are really going to be essential?

Well, going back to financial literacy and mental health, I do think those benefits are here to stay. I would add that telemedicine types of benefits are also here to stay. In the future, there will no longer be just in-person types of visits; you’ll have either telemedicine or reimbursement programs, like what we have–a One Medical reimbursement program that’s been very popular because it allows employees to seek medical care in their local neighborhoods as opposed to having to seek other sorts of options. We’re also looking at ongoing benefits, like providing time off for COVID vaccinations. Additionally, instead of having trucks on-site that allow employees to get their flu shots, we’re looking into having COVID trucks come on-site and possibly also go to neighborhoods in certain locations where we have high concentrations of employees so they and their families can get COVID vaccinations.

We’re also looking at how to have more of a flexible hybrid model when we go back into the in-person office environment. That’s a benefit that’s been very important to our employees.

A lot of benefits packages are very wide-sweeping and inclusive, with part of the goal there being to attract candidates. Do you guys do custom benefits per individual? Do you try and meet them on an individual-needs basis?

Our approach has been to have as robust and comprehensive a package as possible and then allow employees the option of choice. They can choose from a pretty robust selection of options, kind of like an a la carte menu, the things they would like to have. I do believe that is a trend that is here to stay. I think that’s something we’re going to increasingly see employers offer in terms of benefit packages down the road.

What’s your process like for getting people up to speed on what you have available, and when does that start?

A lot of it starts during the recruitment phase, before someone is even an employee. The talent team starts to engage in those conversations during the interview process. Then, the candidates who become employees get a lot more information during new hire orientation, and then we have our annual open enrollment time, when there can be benefit changes and updates to elections. In addition to that, what we’ve learned during the pandemic is that regular communication with our employees is critical.

It’s critical to let them know these benefits exist, but then also to have advocates who use those benefits and talk about the value they derived from them. What we want to do is destigmatize some of these things. It’s great that someone has attended a mental coaching or mental wellness session with someone. It’s wonderful that people are engaging in financial planning classes or one-on-ones with coaches.

We’re focused on destigmatizing and normalizing all our benefits.

That’s so true. It’s a conversation I’ve had with my coworkers plenty of times. It’s like, “Oh, would you go for or have you ever used the whatever, the FSA? What are the advantages and disadvantages?” The more you educate people when they’re having those conversations, the better that information is as it gets around. What’s something you would want HR managers to know about benefits or an insight that you might have?

As we look to the future, this human-centric focus on personalization is going to be very important. I would encourage HR managers, people managers, directors, etc., to work with their benefit offerings and their benefit brokers to come up with plans that allow for that a la carte menu that we were talking about.

I would also encourage them to think outside of their standard normal set of benefits and consider whether there are enhanced benefit offerings that could be optional for folks, like fertility treatments and gender transformation support. Things like that that are well beyond the scope of your traditional benefit packages that take care of the holistic wellness of an employee, I think are part of what’s going to be important to success and to attracting and retaining amazing talent in the future.

That’s one of the things we like to do is find new kinds of benefits and then talk about them because it’s not the same old, same old. There are some funky ones, too. Pet insurance I know is quite popular, and so is student loan assistance. People needed to keep innovating. It never really stops because we need that innovation as employees. Sometimes we need a little bit of extra help.

For sure. What’s interesting about benefits is there’s a beautiful win-win when we as employers can find additional benefit offerings that might not break the bank, hopefully, but that have high-perceived value by our employees. That’s magical. Right? So when we’re able to offer these benefits, they might not appeal to everyone, but for the employee population to whom they do appeal, it actually really matters a lot. Those are wonderful opportunities in the benefits space!