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Catharine Hamrick August 22, 2023 5 min read

5 Things I’ve Learned About Employees and Their Benefits from Online Focus Groups

For the last three years, I’ve had the pleasure (and privilege) of listening in while employees talk about something near and dear to all of us—their benefits. How? By using an innovative online platform that allows us to have a live conversation with up to 1,000 people at the same time. It all takes place via text. Of course, we can ask simple poll and ranking questions, but the magic really happens by gathering answers to open-ended questions and having participants vote on each other’s answers. The platform uses the voting exercises and artificial intelligence to analyze and organize the responses in real time. Then, after a “live” session, we’re able to provide a link to other employees that further increases participation. Not only do we get results quickly, but it’s also fun—for the employers and their employees!

After facilitating these online focus groups with a wide array of participants, including bus drivers, elementary schoolteachers, college professors, administrative assistants, scientists, and technology manufacturers, I can say with confidence that the following five things are true of most employees.

1. Employees Don’t Know What Benefits They Have or How to Use Them

I live and breathe benefits every day because it’s my job. Guess what? Employees are focused on their jobs too. And, in most cases, those jobs don’t have anything to do with benefits. That’s probably why we see stats like this:

If you or a dependent wanted to talk with a therapist, would you know where to turn?

Yes 50%
No 50%

When asked whether people were familiar with a particular benefit offered by their employer and if they would visit the vendor’s website and mobile app:

Eighty percent agreed with the answer “I don’t know.”

Sadly, the vendor had recently sent home a mailer about their services just a few weeks before!

We also regularly see comments like this one:

“I am honestly overwhelmed by how much work the siloed nature of how we work causes. You almost need a Ph.D. in many services to even use them as an employee.”


2. Employees Don’t Know Where to Find Information About Their Benefits

Once you’ve accepted that your people don’t know what benefits they have, you hope they know where to go when they have questions. However, stats like the ones below suggest that, unfortunately, this is not the case, regardless of the type of organization. In the best case (shown below), one-quarter of the employees who responded didn’t know where to find answers:

  Corporate Public Sector Higher Ed
Yes 15% 10% 11%
Somewhat 60% 47% 53%
No 25% 41% 36%

And these are the types of comments we hear:

“Ideally, I would like to be able to find all of the info online so I can look it up whenever.”

“HR does a good job at trying to put the information out there. There is so much information that I tend to ignore it till I need something.”

At least they recognize that efforts are being made, but there is a lot of room for improvement.

3. Employees Don’t Understand the Terms

On some level, we know it’s important to stay away from jargon. But it hits differently when you see it up close. In an online focus group, we may ask employees to define terms that we regularly use when talking about benefits. These are some of the responses we get.


“Money in my insurance coverage that can be used to cover emergencies.”

“Price reduction in order to balance fund.”

“I don’t remember.”

Oh dear.

Health savings account:

“For me it means scrambling around at the end of the year trying to buy things to use up the money. I do see the benefit, but it's not for everyone.”

“I don’t like the time limits, it made me have to rush to use the money or lose it. Savings account with no time limit would be nice.”

Sounds like they would like an HSA if they knew, and actually understood, what it was!

4. Employees Are Not All the Same

While we can make some generalizations about employees and their benefits, it’s important to look for the differences.

Regardless of how people like to use a benefit or receive communications, there are likely segments of your population who are not like the others. It’s not always what you expect—and it varies by employer.

For example, a client wanted to know whether their employees were visiting doctors online:

While a similar percentage of men and women said yes (approximately 60%), there was a significant difference in whether they had accessed telehealth via a vendor or used it with their own physicians. Forty-three percent of women met with their own doctors online. Only 14% of men did.

Another client wanted to better understand communication preferences. Here’s what we found when their employees were asked to rank 6 different modes of communication:

Employees Age 54 and Younger Employees Age 55 and Older
Email 1:1 session in person or on phone
Website Meeting or webinar
1:1 session in person or on phone Email
Meeting or webinar Website
Podcast or video Podcast or video
Social media Social media

Do you know how your employees would respond?

5. Employees Like Being Asked for Feedback

This is especially true if you share what you learned. Clearly, understanding your employees’ relationship with their benefits—what they understand and value about their benefits, as well as communication preferences—helps you perform your job better. What you may not have considered is the goodwill it generates when you ask for employee input. The caveat is that they want you to report back what you heard and what you plan to do with the information.

Take a look at some comments (there are many more where these came from):

“Thank you! I hope that our input really does have an influence on the decisions that get made!”

“I like that the county is asking for our input. I feel valued.”

One additional bonus: Employees report that these sessions help them learn more about their benefits:

“I learned that my employer has a lot more benefits than I am aware of, and I need to do more research on my own to take advantage of them.”

“This was a very helpful session to really make me think about my benefits. Thank you!”

Ready to Get Feedback from Your Employees?

Every organization can benefit from asking their target audience—employees, participants, members, and their families—what works best for them. Having channels to gather feedback regularly is one of our 10 keys, and it’s crucial for successful communications.

We’re proud to work with organizations that value their people. If you want to learn more, we’d love to talk



Catharine Hamrick

Catharine Hamrick, VP Senior Consultant, has been an HR communications professional for more than a decade, passing along her expertise to many of our largest engagements.