factory workerJosh Stevens is CEO of corporate wellness company Keas

[Editor’s note: Stevens Comcast Ventures’ Michael Yang will be debating the topic of educating employees on health benefits at HealthBeat 2013 next week. See Yang’s story: “Health assistants can make patients smarter and employees healthier.”]

I have met with over 200 enterprises in the last year. About half did not provide PCs, smartphones or Internet access to their employees. At first, this may not come as a surprise, because many roles in corporate America do not require online access to “do the job.”

However, a lack of online access to help employees enroll for benefits, change their healthcare plan or modify their 401K means that employees are far less likely to use or even be aware of the benefits they have. This digital divide hurts the employees and the company they work for.

This is particularly true when it comes to health care. The companies I visit with are self-insured, paying for their employees’ healthcare. When I visit with a CEO, CFO, or CHRO, it’s usually to consult and help the company drive up employee participation in and use of the health and wellness benefits available to them.

When I ask, “How many of your employees have email and online access?” the conversation usually gets awkward as the employer realizes that many employees who are eligible for benefits don’t have effective online access to understand and use them.

A number of enterprise employers are still communicating with digitally unconnected employees via posters in the cafeteria like they did a decade ago.

Why is this a problem?

Those who have online access have access to tools and resources about how to improve their health and lower their risk factors. Those who don’t are left in the dark and may therefore be at higher risk.

Today, the average American self-insured employer pays $10,000 for an employee’s health care per year. Seventy percent of that amount, or $7,000, is absolutely preventable. But that that requires an effective wellness and prevention program.

Our estimate for the cost of getting employees online is about $100 per employee per year.

Netted against the $7,000 of health costs that can be prevented, the investment is well worth the opportunity — up to a 70x return.

Company-wide initiatives, such as biometric screenings and HRAs to lower healthcare costs, can’t achieve meaningful impact if the most basic communications can’t reach the workforce.  Those unconnected and at risk are blue-collar workers — kitchen staff, drivers and janitors — who often comprise a large part of a company’s workforce.

Here are five tips for designing and implementing company-wide information access systems that reach everyone in the organization:

  1. Understand that access is key
    Company-wide should mean company-wide. Ensuring communication reaches every employee is essential. That may mean putting a smartphone, tablet, or mobile device in the hand of every worker.
  1. Develop a plan to get connected
    Determine the best online program to implement and the best strategic approach for rolling it out to everyone in the organization. Create a detailed roadmap and assess possible barriers to widespread adoption.
  1. Provide hands-on interactive education
    Engage the workforce with inclusive classes and step-by-step instruction. Make it fun, get people interested, foster group involvement so everyone can learn the same way and understand what the benefits are.
  1. Find applications that are easy to deploy
    Program upgrades and enhancements must be simple to roll out company-wide in a timely way.
  1. Provide tracking and reporting to see where it’s gaining traction
    Have a program that tracks progress in a clear and compelling way, and decode that data to identify best practices and areas for improvement.

photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives via photopin cc