401(k) Participants Value Digital Planning Tools

A study found general education sessions are ineffective, and employees said digital tools would get them more engaged in their retirement planning.

A study backed by Forrester research and commissioned by Betterment for Business found employees in the study didn’t understand how fees for their 401(k) plans worked, were unlikely to get much value out of employer-provided education sessions, and mistrusted their plan providers—which they think are primarily responsible for decision-making about the plan.

Nearly 70% of employees agreed that online platforms that provide financial advice, help them see all their wealth in one place, and are transparent with fees and investments will better help them invest for retirement. Increasing employee and employer access to information and empowering oversight can help reduce risk for employers, the research paper says.

One significant area of employee confusion around 401(k) plans is the role and responsibility of the employer versus plan provider in managing a company’s offering. The study found that nearly half of employees believe their employers are not very or not at all involved in selecting 401(k) investments. In addition, 62% said they believe their employer holds no legal responsibility for ensuring that the financial advice provided to the employee around 401(k) investments reflects their best interests. Fifty-six percent of eligible participants said they were skeptical that their provider would have their best interests at heart.

Most employers interviewed did not have visibility into what contributions or fund selections their employees were making on their accounts. Because overall retirement readiness involves considerations outside 401(k) participation—such as IRAs, spousal income, and other investments—employers said they had no way to effectively track all of these variables to help ensure their staff were prepared for retirement.

The most common way employers seek to change employee behaviors around retirement savings is through employee education sessions. These sessions are typically run by the provider or by their third-party advisers, either annually around enrollment time or quarterly. Two of the employers interviewed offer additional one-to-one guidance with an adviser representative for an additional fee, payable by the employee.

Overall, the employers had mixed reviews of the impact of these sessions. While many of the employers we spoke with said they had every indication the sessions were a success, others told us they were confused when the sessions didn’t have a greater impact on employee participation.

NEXT: Employees want more digital tools

Forty percent of employees in the study said they didn’t have access to education sessions or didn’t know if they were available, and one-third of employees who had access to the sessions decided not to attend them anyway. Only 55% of employees in the study who attend 401(k) education sessions said they found them valuable or very valuable. When taken together, employee-provided education sessions are only about 20% effective.

The study suggests there is considerable appetite among employees for enhancing digital touchpoints to provide more holistic, guided, and personalized experiences and advice. Fifty-five percent said having access to tools that gave the kind of personalized, contextual advice advocated within digital money management research would make them more active participants. Sixty-eight percent of employees said they would be more likely to review and manage their 401(k) plans if they had access to tools that would aggregate all of their financial information in one place, and the same number said tools that made it easier to understand and navigate financial decisions would drive more personal 401(k) management activities.

Employees who were least confident in their retirement outcomes were more likely to say they thought these kinds of tools would drive engagement with their 401(k) accounts. They were 19 percentage points more likely than retirement-confident employees to agree that tools that aggregate all accounts in one place would drive more engagement with their 401(k) plans, 16 percentage points more likely to say the same of tools that provided tailored advice, and 16 percentage points more likely to actively manage their plans with tools that made navigation and decision-making easier for them.

Forrester conducted an online survey of 305 full-time employees in the U.S. whose companies offer a 401(k) plan and interviewed seven benefits and compensation decision-makers or influencers at US companies. More findings from the study may be found here.