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Jon Stuckey May 10, 2016 6 min read

Avoid underground spreadsheets: 5 Ways to improve Leave of Absence communications

Leave of Absence (LOA) benefits are becoming such a significant differentiator for companies competing for talent that they’ve made it into the sights of mainstream media. Netflix, Microsoft, and Adobe’s progressive new approaches to time away from work have all been the subject of recent coverage.

It’s an exciting time for many employees. At the same time, the evolving LOA benefits landscape, coupled with ever-changing federal, state, and local legislation—including San Francisco’s new parental leave law—make it a confusing time for employees and managers. But it’s also an ideal opportunity to improve your LOA communications for employees.

The Problem

LOAs are not a frequently used benefit. Employees and their managers may deal with a leave situation once or twice during their careers but not often enough that they know what’s involved. And, for a variety of reasons, employees don’t get the support they need to navigate the complex maze of programs they must choose from when taking an LOA. Without good tools or help, they’re left to fend for, and consult among, themselves—one sure way LOA misinformation can spread throughout your organization.

At many companies, “underground” LOA spreadsheets circulate covertly among employees. They’ve been created by analytical employees, desperate to make sense of all the different leaves and benefits available to them. Although they’re not company-sanctioned, these spreadsheets are an effort to help employees understand and calculate how their leave benefits work and coordinate with each other. Sound familiar?

Benefits professionals typically think of LOA in terms of policies, programs, or insurance products. In California, for example, these would include State Disability Insurance, Short-Term Disability, Family Medical Leave, Parental Leave, California Pregnancy Disability Leave, California Family Rights Act, California Paid Family Leave, floating holidays, and sick time.

As a result, they often organize information for employees and communicate with them as though employees were experts—that they would understand the difference between California Paid Family Leave and Family Medical Leave, for example. To answer the questions employees ask, they point to Summary Plan Descriptions filled with legalese and wish their colleagues “good luck.”

The harsh reality is that it is almost impossible for employees and spouses to find clear answers and direction when it comes to taking a leave of absence. Most people don’t think in terms of “short-term disability” or “family medical leave.” Instead, they’re looking for information about specific scenarios, such as, “I’m having a baby” or “I need to take care of my ailing mother.”

The Opportunity

It may seem like a daunting task to improve your LOA communication, but doing so presents a huge opportunity to make so many issues around LOA easier for your employees, HR staff, and call centers. Leave education and administration is a high-touch, personal, and emotional process for all involved. In addition, it is a content area that is perfect for just-in-time delivery solutions—you only really care about maternity benefits when you or your partner is having a baby!

It is important to triage, or layer, your leave content—providing the right level of detail at the right time—based on information the employee needs, when they need it. Before pointing employees to the details, first address their most pressing questions, such as:

  • How much time off can I take?
  • What happens to my pay?
  • What happens to my benefits?
  • Will I have a job when I return?
  • How do all these different leaves/benefits coordinate with each other?

Developing and managing this sort of triage process in real time is quite a challenge. But what if we could leverage technology to make it simpler for employees to engage in the LOA process and get the right information at the right time?

Consider this scenario: An employee comes to your office and asks, “I need to take some time off, but I’m not sure which leave I should take. What should I do?”

You probably wouldn’t give them an answer right away; first, you’d ask some probing questions, like “Why do you need to take time off from work? Do you live in California? What is most important to you?”

Based on their answers to your questions, you’d gently guide them through the differences among the leaves available to them, explain how the leaves coordinate with each other, and give them a personalized checklist of the actions they need to take.

Using technology, we can now replicate these personal one-on-one conversations and scale the conversations in a consistent way that gives employers the opportunity to provide company-approved guidance to help employees make sense of a very complicated subject.

Despite some improvements in the tools offered by LOA administrators, LOA remains a major pain point for many employers (and employees). Companies are beginning to step in and offer point solutions to fill the void in the market. Jellyvision, for example, just released a new short-term disability tool in February.

The Solution

Here are five tangible ways you can leverage technology to improve your employees’ leave experience:

1. Assess where you are today. Do a quick, targeted survey of employees who have recently gone through the leave process (don’t forget their managers, too!). You’ll be amazed at the insights you can gain simply by listening to what’s broken, where the gaps are, and what the quick wins are.

2. Update your resources. Chances are, you need to reorganize and rewrite your leave content in a holistic way that is centered on employees’ needs and goals. Remember to layer the content and plan for just-in-time consumption. And, ideally, make that content easily accessible on your company’s intranet or—better yet—external benefits website. With good base content in place, you can look at adding videos, infographics, and other helpful ways to explain the complex topics.

3. Uncover your company’s “underground” spreadsheet(s), make it better, and distribute it to all employees via your benefits website or intranet. Finding “Joe’s spreadsheet” won’t be that difficult, and putting a nice interface on it and adding well-written instructional text won’t be too tough, either. When you do, you’ll have a company-approved modeling tool that you can keep current, going forward, as programs, policies, and laws change.

4. Identify which of your administrators’ decision support tools and resources you already have access to (that you may not be aware of), evaluate them, and implement the best ones you find. If you already have something in place and it isn’t meeting your needs, work with your administrator to improve the tool or find a better tool!

5. Build a custom interactive tool to solve for your specific pain points. Each organization is unique, so the right solution for yours will depend on your goals and pain points. It could be an interactive maternity calculator, or an online wizard that guides employees through the leave process and gives them personalized guidance. Other tools, like custom videos, can explain the process, as well.

Whether you start small with incremental improvements, or you decide it’s time for a complete overhaul of your LOA communications, rest assured that any improvements you make will go a long way toward improving the employee and manager LOA experience.

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Jon Stuckey

Jon Stuckey, VP Creative Technology and Innovation, provides strategic vision, guidance, and solutions for our largest clients.