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5 Best Practices to Raise 401(k) Plan Participation

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More employees are embracing the opportunities to enhance their retirement savings and better use other workplace financial benefits, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s latest Plan Wellness Scorecard.

The scorecard monitors plan participants’ behavior and sponsors’ adoption of new plan design features and services in its proprietary 401(k) business, which comprises $155 billion in total client plan assets and 2.98 million total plan participants with positive balances as of December 31, 2015.

According to the scorecard, employee engagement with workplace plans grew in 2015 by every metric BofA Merrill Lynch uses.

Total contributions increased 14% from the year before, while the number of employees with balances grew 16% during the same period. The growth in contributions and balances is taking place across pretax and Roth accounts, as employers continue to offer Roths as another savings option in their plans.

During the 2015 calendar year, most employees (84%) who changed their contribution rates increased them, the report finds. “The number of employees who started contributing or increased their contributions to their savings grew 82% from 2012 to 2015, indicating that employees are taking advantage of savings opportunities within their plans as they look to save more and prepare for retirement,” the report states.

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The scorecard also reveals several strategies employers are implementing to increase engagement with 401(k) plans.

“Plan sponsors are taking strategic steps to strengthen their benefits offerings and support employees’ efforts to improve their financial lives,” Gary DeMaio, head of defined contribution product at B of A Merrill Lynch, said in a statement. “We have seen that by working together to enhance both plan design and employee engagement, we can have a real impact on retirement outcomes,” DeMaio said.

According to BofA Merrill Lynch, here are five best practices that employers have been using to boost employees’ positive savings behavior.

1. KISS–The Benefits of Simplified Enrollment

The report finds that the use of well-designed plan features – such as simplified enrollment and auto enrollment – can boost both participation and contributions.

The number of plans using BofAML’s simplified enrollment solution, which it calls “Express Enrollment,” grew 40% in 2015, marking a 203% increase since it was introduced in mid-2013. The “Express Enrollment” feature is successful, BofA Merrill reported, because it reduces the number of up-front decisions employees must make to complete the enrollment process.

2. Auto Is Good–Automatic Enrollment and Contribution Increases

Automatic features also remove obstacles to helping employees save and prepare for retirement. According to BofA Merrill, 47% of its plans use automatic enrollment, and of those plans, 85% combine automatic enrollment with automatic increases in 401(k) deferrals as employees’ salaries increase.

The number of employees utilizing these automatic features has also increased from 2014 to 2015: automatically enrolled employees is up 22%, contributions from automatically enrolled employees has increased 21% and employees using the automatic increase feature is up 23%.

3. More Turns Out to Be Better–Higher Default Contribution Rates

Interestingly, automatic enrollment plans with higher default contribution rates are seeing higher rates of participation as well. According to the report, plans with a 10% default rate have an 88% participation rate, compared to a 78% participation rate in plans with a 3% default rate.

4. Surfing the Web–Plan

Participants Using Online Plan Resources

Employees are increasingly accessing educational resources and plan account information on the web using both the full and mobile sites, the report finds.

“Growth in the use of the mobile site was particularly robust in 2015, indicating that employees appreciate this additional way to engage with their plans,” the report states.

The mobile site garnered a 27% increase in sessions and a 57% increase in unique visitors from 2014 to 2015. By comparison, the full website experienced a 3% growth in sessions and 11% growth in unique visitors over the same period.  

5. Going Mobile–Using Mobile Devices to Interact With Retirement Plans

In particular, employees seem to welcome the opportunity to use BofA Merrill’s mobile benefits site to make changes and updates to their plan accounts.

In 2015, 8% of all 401(k) online transactions took place on the mobile site, even though mobile transactions were only introduced partway through the year.

“Strong growth in mobile usage since then indicates employees are increasingly relying on mobile solutions to manage their finances,” the report states.

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