The Importance of Virtual Training During COVID-19

Flexible schedules are expected to continue post-pandemic, resulting in better access to coaching for more retirement plan participants.

Recordkeepers have adapted their services this year, with the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world, to offer more remote counseling and training for retirement plan participants. And many plan sponsors with remote workforces, or with employees who work multiple shifts, are beginning to realize that this convenience can be critical for their workers on an ongoing basis. It can also mean that plan sponsors who are available virtually are able to serve more participants through the tools and services in their plan than they could in person, which can be limiting.

Michael Knowling, vice president and head of client relations and business development at Prudential Retirement, notes that when Prudential first offered virtual training to its retirement plan sponsor clients last year, 25% of participants participated in these programs. Since March of this year, when then virus started sweeping across the U.S., the uptake has been 100%, he says.

“This year has not been like anything anyone could have predicted,” Knowling says. “It has produced uncertainty in every facet of our working lives and has required us to assume different thinking in terms of supporting participants.”

Prudential first tackled this new challenge by asking its advisory board to assess how participants are feeling. It came back with the responses: “anxious, cautious, fatigued, uncertain, stressed, fearful and frustrated,” Knowling relates.

Prudential also turned to its call center counselors to find out what participants were asking. “They told us that what they are hearing from participants are questions about how the presidential election will impact the markets and what they should do with the assets in their retirement account,” Knowling says.

Taking this information into account, Prudential then considered the two main types of services that retirement plan participants typically want, Knowling says. There are those who want information to support decisions they primarily make on their own, and then there are those who want to rely on the advice of a counselor, he says.

To serve the former, in March, Prudential created a special Market Volatility Communications Center within its websitewhich can also be accessed via mobile appswhere participants can find articles and videos on market volatility.

“Then there are those who prefer to meet with someone,” Knowling says. “Some of our plans operate in multiple states and have multiple shifts and experience gaps in reaching their participants. That was the genesis of our virtual training, which we rolled out last year. Twenty-five percent of the participants in our plans took advantage of that in 2019. That went to 100% in March, with participants taking more than 60,000 virtual meetings with us since the beginning of the pandemic and the Market Volatility Communications Center receiving 220,000 hits.”

Knowling says he expects that many of Prudential’s clients will continue to embrace virtual training, even when the virus is eradicated. He notes that when sponsors want to conduct in-person one-on-one or group sessions with their participants, they are burdened with having to schedule a time that is convenient for a large group of workers, having to find a physical location to conduct the meetings and providing the security to protect their information.

With web-based or phone meetings, workers can schedule sessions any time that is convenient for them, and from any location, and they can also include other family members, Knowling says.

Prudential has noticed that participants are having longer meetings with counselors right now than they did before the onset of the virus. “Participants really want to understand what is happening and what action they need to take—how to stay on track for their retirement goals,” Knowling says.

Since the beginning of the year, for instance, 25% of participants have changed their contribution rate, and, of this group, 72% increased their contribution rate, and 27% decreased it, Knowling says.

Jill Vaslow, managing director, global benefits and employee well-being at Cigna Human Resources, says more of the company’s employees have been taking advantage of the one-on-one virtual counseling Prudential offers as its financial wellness provider. “We didn’t always see regular participation prior to the pandemic,” Vaslow says. “Since March, 240 employees have participated.”

She notes that the scheduling flexibility that Prudential is now offering to its employees is welcome. “Two-thirds of our U.S. workforce work in some capacity in a pharmacy fulfillment center, on the phone or behind the scenes processing claims,” she notes. “They work a wide variety of schedules, some of them on the weekend, so having 24/7 access for employees to be able to schedule a meeting with a coach when it makes sense for them is a valuable part of the service Prudential offers.”

Cigna’s workers also say that besides the convenience of these sessions, they are comfortable knowing that the meetings are private, Vaslow says.