Employee engagement is one of four critical drivers that contribute to a successful retirement plan, along with plan design, plan management and investment solutions, according to a white paper from TIAA-CREF, “Retirement readiness starts with employee engagement.” An employer has direct control over these last three drivers, but without an effective employee engagement strategy, their impact will likely be diminished.
In addition, employee engagement plays a critical part in fulfilling a plan sponsor’s fiduciary responsibility to help employees achieve the best possible outcomes. According to the paper, the good news is plan sponsors are in a position to positively influence their employees’ behavior, as 81% of employees trust the financial advice provided by their employers, according to TIAA-CREF’s Investment Options Survey.
In addition to the white paper, TIAA-CREF offers a checklist of five steps to successful employee engagement.
Establishing Plan Goals and Benchmarks
Accurately defined metrics can help sponsors set objectives for an employee engagement strategy, according to the paper.
Ed Moslander, senior managing director and head of institutional client services at TIAA-CREF in New York, explains that there are two kinds of metrics—macro and technical. On the macro side it’s about defining retirement readiness. “For us that means income replacement ratio, and what level of after-tax income the plan sponsor is looking to provide either through the plan itself or in conjunction with Social Security,” Moslander tells PLANADVSIER.
Moslander says establishing the level of retirement readiness plan sponsors are shooting for is a good start, but it doesn’t change much. That’s where the technical metrics come into play, he says. Plan sponsors should set goals for the things that can change—participation rate, deferral rates, investment types, default fund, and advice offerings. For example, Moslander says TIAA-CREF has worked with plan sponsors to examine their plans and determine which participants are clearly misallocated in investments, so plan sponsors can enact change that can affect them.
Use Tailored Communications
Customized messaging can also help sponsors target and influence their key audiences, according to TIAA-CREF.
“This is the thing that probably has the potential to affect the most change,” Moslander says. “Historically, we’ve been using ‘one-size-fits-all messaging,’ and it hasn’t been tremendously effective.” TIAA-CREF suggests plan sponsors segment participants, not just by age or gender, but by lifecycle and interests.
In the white paper, TIAA-CREF segments employees into five distinct groups:
- Focusing on daily expenses. These employees live paycheck to paycheck and have limited financial flexibility. They are likely to be most responsive to communications about budgeting and meeting immediate financial needs.
- Starting to put money aside. These workers are moving toward planning for financial stability, but they need help balancing short-term goals—such as buying a home, paying or saving for education, and enjoying leisure activities—with long-term retirement planning.
- Continuing to save and invest. These workers are relatively well-off but are eager for help as complex financial circumstances make decision-making more difficult.
- Nearing retirement. These workers need to formulate a plan for transitioning to their post-work years, including strategies for lifetime income.
- Living in retirement. Having stopped working, these plan participants need to understand how to turn their savings into income, and also need help with topics such as health care savings and estate planning.
“The 35-year-old with a mortgage and other debt and trying to save for college should not be getting the same message as the 55-year-old getting ready to retire,” Moslander states.
According to Moslander, group sessions are effective for some cohorts of similarly situated people; when put into similar groups, participants may feel comfortable opening up and asking things they wouldn’t usually.
TIAA-CREF urges sponsors to engage with participants by using the right channels to enhance their retirement planning experience.
“For some people, it’s about leveraging technology; for some, there’s nothing like a face-to-face conversation,” Moslander says.
According to the white paper, mobile traffic at TIAA-CREF doubled in 2013, with three million visits from its participants (19% of the total) coming from tablets and smartphones. The firm has found technology is more popular with younger people, and has leveraged gamification successfully. It’s about meeting people where they are, Moslander says.
On the other hand, he points out, when it comes to those participants close to retirement, there’s no way to set up an income stream without talking to someone. “That’s a complicated thing. They may be transitioning into retirement or jumping off a cliff into retirement. They may have a spouse’s income [to rely on]. So, talking to an objective counselor is necessary,” he states.
Make Guidance a Priority
In addition to investment advice, sponsors may choose to offer guidance by providing participants with investment recommendations.
According to TIAA-CREF’s white paper, guidance is provided via workshops, printed or online materials, online tools and calculators and one-on-one consultations with financial experts. Guidance may be enough for some employees, but others may want or need more direct help in making retirement planning and investing decisions.
Advice is the answer for those employees looking for specific fund recommendations that are tailored to their individual circumstances, and that are immediately actionable, the paper says. Advice, as defined under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), comes with a fiduciary duty, which is one of the reasons plan sponsors often offer advice through their financial services provider or another third-party provider.
There are different times when specific investment recommendations are most appropriate, Moslander notes. “How much to save, when to begin, how to allocate, what specific funds, setting up an income stream at retirement—these are times advice is important,” he says, adding that advice should consider the participant’s complete financial situation. “For example, you can’t just tell a 35-year-old to max out their savings, they may have a lot of other things going on.”
Moslander adds that TIAA-CREF has found advice really works; among employees who tapped in-person retirement advice in one recent five-year period, 68% chose to either save more, change their future allocations or rebalance their portfolios.
Monitor the Effectiveness of Your Strategy
TIAA-CREF says sponsors also must recognize that employee engagement is an ongoing process, so an ongoing partnership with plan providers is key to monitoring and achieving success.
“In a sense this is the most important thing,” Moslander says. He explains that TIAA-CREF has seen the most success engaging employees when the employer is really engaged. “You can’t get participants engaged if the employer is not committed to making it work.”
Once an employer is engaged and agrees on approaches to reaching participants, it stays engaged by monitoring results and making corrections. The same approaches do not work everywhere, Moslander notes. Plan sponsors can figure out what works and with whom by looking at the data about participant engagement in communication efforts. “You do this so that, with limited resources—dollars or people, you can target your energy where it is more effective,” he says.
Moslander concludes that employee engagement has been a struggle for the financial services industry and plan sponsors, and the solution revolves around segmentation, technology and multi-channel communications, and advice and guidance—the three components that can turn things around for unengaged participants. He adds that a big change in the past few years is the technology to meet employees where they are. “That has helped us get results.”