Gone are the days of enrollment brochures and paper voluntary benefit application forms. Today’s employers are dealing with an evolving enrollment environment that demands total online connectivity between employees and providers.

Employees are tuned in and plugged in. Unfortunately, when it comes to technology, often they’re also maxed out. So when enrolling employees for voluntary benefit products, new technology works even better when combined with traditional methods of enrollment that offer a personalized touch.

To understand where we are, and where we’re heading with evolving enrollment processes, it’s often helpful to look back to where we started.

Where we’ve been

Look back even 10 years, and it’s evident we’ve come a long way in enrollment processes. At that time, the primary method of enrollment was on paper. Paper brochures touted the benefits of the product, and employees signed up using paper enrollment forms.

Using either a blue or black ink pen to fill out the application was a must; otherwise, you risked the information not showing up when photocopied. There were a lot of other mistakes made, too. Illegible handwriting caused many application forms to be bounced around, resulting in frustration and confusion for the employee. And if an employee happened to make a change on a form without initialing it, the consequences were even worse–often meaning their form ended up in the valley of lost enrollments, never to resurface (or be issued).

Where we are

A 2007 Eastbridge Consulting Group Inc. Spotlight Report, “Enrollment Practices for Voluntary Products,” noted that although enrollment is “the lifeblood of worksite sales,” few innovations have taken place in this area since the decade began.

About half of the 27 carriers in the survey offered Web and telephone enrollments–the same percentage as in 2000. And these methods were used less than 10% of the time, the survey found.

Still, progress has been made.

Today, insurers are incorporating new technologies into the enrollment process, ranging from laptop-based presentations, Web enrollment and interactive voice response. Most of these are generally combined with paper systems, according an employer’s specific needs.

Companies are also working to make the enrollment process less overwhelming. Often, it’s as simple as prepopulating basic employee data into application materials before enrollment. Another well-liked tactic involves giving each employee a customized enrollment packet containing educational material based on the employee’s needs, including benefit plan summaries and a personalized enrollment form.

With personalization comes a greater level of interest from employees. Without the distraction of having to enter personal data, they can direct their attention to the actual enrollment decision. As a result, they are more attentive to the presentations and videos that detail the benefits of coverage.

At this stage in the game, we’re at a crossroads. People like technological advances, but when signing up for coverage, they’re more comfortable with putting pen to paper and making a connection with an enrollment specialist. More than half the producers responding to a LIMRA International worksite marketing trends study last year noted that Internet enrollment was an indispensable part of the process. Yet, another LIMRA report in 2006 found that employees prefer enrollment on paper forms in a session conducted personally by enrollers, especially when an unfamiliar voluntary product is being offered.

Where we’re going

Where do we go from here? Looking into the employee benefits crystal ball, you can see that responsiveness to employees’ life needs will provide great opportunities. In the future, we’ll likely see a greater emphasis on the boutique-oriented approach to shopping for benefits, wherein products are targeted to each employee’s specific needs and appeal to a more diverse workforce. Older workers, for instance, may be looking to preserve assets and protect themselves because of a longer life expectancy. They might, therefore, see long term care policies as most important. For younger workers, needs will vary depending on such issues as when they start families.

Insurers will also capitalize on the opportunity to use technology to prepopulate Web pages with employees’ personal information, allowing individuals to interact with different hot links, videos or modules focused on their specific life needs.

For example, consider a 28-year-old employee, recently married and expecting her first child. With this prepopulated information in the system, she could gain quick access to modules designed with her specific situation in mind. It would help answer her questions, for instance, about coverage she might want to have as her family grows.

As the industry moves toward this development, voluntary benefit providers will need to place a major emphasis on preserving the privacy of personal information. Employers and their advisors will be walking a fine line between privacy and focusing on the demographics of benefits-related information. A potential compromise may come in the form of a self-steering approach, which would allow individual employees to navigate to their appropriate need category.

Even further down the road, we’ll also be evolving from a workforce made up mostly of the Star Wars and Sesame Street generations to those who are growing up with You Tube and My Space. As a result, the workforce will become increasingly familiar and at ease with technology.

Technology is important, then. But evidence shows the ultimate key to achieving success–and employee satisfaction–with the voluntary enrollment experience is to stay focused on needs identification and personalization. And ultimately, a personal connection with an enroller will most likely seal the deal.

Marty Traynor is vice president of voluntary benefits at Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company. He can be reached via e-mail at