InFocus: Group Retirement

Growing engagement on employee terms

Growing engagement on employee terms

By Nicolas Heffernan

In the struggle to grow member engagement for retirement plans, the game will increasingly be fought on a playing field of the employee’s choosing.

“It’s really about finding opportunities to enroll employees in ways that make sense for them,” says Nadia Darwish, vice president of market development at Sun Life Financial. “It’s no longer how we think it should go. It’s really about ensuring it resonates with them at a time and a place that makes sense for them.”

By using technology and digital applications, the investment process is made easier and more intuitive allowing member engagement to thrive. At least that’s the thinking of a growing number of HR professionals helping to reshape the way their organizations foster and indeed grow engagement for retirement plans.

A strong marketing plan using social media is an important part of making it easy and engaging for employees. “We’re big advocates of social media. It can be an extremely valuable way for employers to communicate with their employees. The way [members] want to learn and participate in their plan is not much different in the way they’re accessing social media in other areas in their life,” she says.

Sun Life recently launched a game-inspired approach to financial literacy for employees called money UP, leveraging gamification, game mechanics and social media. “It really helps people learn more about their retirement program, and potentially share their results via social media,” she says. “We’ve seen significant results.”

But as important as social media and new technology is, Darwish encourages plan sponsors and employers to continue using traditional approaches. “It’s important to have a layered approach in terms of how you’re communicating with your members,” she says. The company instituted a welcome call program – Sun Life calls the employee on behalf of the employer to make sure the member understands and is maximizing their program. Sitting down in personal meetings with members can also go a long way.

“Often what happens from these sessions is they lead to a more personalized one on one conversation following a meeting or a request to meet with an advisor to get build out a broader financial plan” says Darwish.

By having specific approaches to content for people in different career stages, sponsors are much more likely to engage members. “You really need to speak to the different and unique needs of these groups and try to communicate with them on a personalized basis,” she says. “It’s not about customization, it’s really about personalization. It goes back to making sure it resonates with the reader or the individual who’s using the application in a way that makes sense for them.”

Another way to increase engagement is through auto enrollment. Darwish estimates the overall average participation rate in DC plans with Sun Life at just over 60 per cent. “In the DC world auto enrolment can have a significant impact,” she says. “You see that in Canada where employers have opted for an auto enrollment approach but more significantly in the US where it’s become almost universal.” Amending the Employment Standards Act in each province would  allow employees to deduct contributions from non-participating employees would help extend coverage and help employees begin to save at work on a tax deferred basis , and in many cases they could reap the benefits of an employer matching contribution as well.

While engagement might be strong for corporate Canada, according to one broker, small companies aren’t getting the message. “I have a lot of group benefit plans and I’d say maybe only a quarter of them do have plans and most of them are either white collar or larger blue collar companies where they don’t want to lose their staff to other companies that have these plans,” says Bill McElroy, of William Douglas Group Inc.

McElroy says a lot of these small companies don’t employ HR people, making it more difficult to get businesses to understand the benefits of retirement plans. He also thinks many smaller businesses without plans are waiting to see what happens with the Ontario government’s proposed plan. “I’m not seeing a lot of interest in retirement plans from business owners but I expect that to change with the Ontario Pension law that’s coming down the pipeline,” says McElroy.

The province recently announced it is moving forward with the plan to introduce the mandatory Ontario Retirement Pension Plan (ORPP), expected to be implemented in 2017.

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Sun Life Financial is a leading international financial services organization providing a diverse range of protection and wealth products and services to individuals and corporate customers. Sun Life Financial and its partners have operations in key markets worldwide, including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, India, China, Australia, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Bermuda. As of September 30, 2014 the Sun Life Financial group of companies had total assets under management of $698 billion. For more information please visit
Sun Life Financial Inc. trades on the Toronto (TSX), New York (NYSE) and Philippine (PSE) stock exchanges under the ticker symbol SLF.