One Size Does Not Fit All

The defined contribution industry spends millions of dollars each year on communication materials designed to educate plan participants about the importance of saving for retirement.

Much of that money goes to technology enhancements that provide new ways for many plan sponsors to reach and educate their employees. But is escalating the use of technology the right path for all plan sponsors to follow? Industry experts think there is a better way. “Education has to be customized to fit a specific employee base and engage them in a way in which those employees will relate and respond to the message,” according to Warren Cormier of the Boston Research Group. With this notion in mind, ”one size fits all” may not be the best path for all plan sponsors to follow.

Zachry Holdings Inc. is a San Antonio, Texas-based firm with more than 85 years of history delivering highly specialized engineering, construction, and maintenance support to some of the world’s most sophisticated clientele. Zachry’s 20,000 employees serve the power, refining, and process sectors around the globe—and the vast majority of the workforce does not sit behind a desk or even in an office. Engaging with this dispersed population presents a unique set of challenges.

Given the highly secure and challenging nature of the company’s job sites, technology like mobile apps, text messaging, social media, and even Internet access are not necessarily feasible. Plus, many of its skilled craftspeople are constantly moving from one long-term job site to another. Faced with these daunting challenges, Zachry’s plan administrators get creative. The result? They effectively elevate the DC plan as a valued benefit for all employees.

Cynda Reznicek and Andrea Will of Zachry apply the firm’s business model of “plan, build, renew” to their participant engagement and education campaigns. What follows are their insights on adapting “traditional” methods of communication and developing highly customized, extremely effective communications that target successful outcomes.

Face-to-Face Communication

How do you reach employees who don’t necessarily speak the same language, work in disparate locations, and may have limited access to technology? And how do you engage people in a discussion about the importance of maximizing a 401(k) benefit and building their financial futures? “Nothing works like face-to-face communication,” explains Will, Zachry’s supervisor of retirement plans. “It’s not very modern, but we don’t do it to be modern. We do it to be effective.”

Put another way, a plan sponsor must evaluate available employee points of access and seek the most effective option. Zachry saw this challenge as an opportunity to build a program based on in-the-field interaction between well-respected peers and employees, visibly demonstrating a corporate commitment to their well-being. “You don’t wear high heels to the job sites, you wear boots and a hard hat,“ Will says. “You also gain a new respect for what they go through on the job.”

Therein lies a critical component for plan sponsors wishing to engage employees about the benefit of the defined contribution plan. Zachry understands not only the challenges of reaching employees but also how those employees relate to and earn respect from other employees. By embracing these cultural nuances, the firm was able to customize a program built around the workday of its employees and start from a foundation that would build rapport with current and future participants.

Benefits Meetings

In this environment, aligning with employees’ schedules and concerns about retirement is essential to delivering the message successfully. “Getting face time on the job site can often be a significant challenge,” Will says. “The Foreman is working under an extremely tight project timeline, and the highly skilled work involved makes these big earning years for a lot of these folks.” So it is critical that Zachry impress upon the Foremen the importance of benefits meetings and get them to buy into the program. To accomplish these goals, Zachry created a specialized position for someone familiar to the craftspeople and Foremen. “It was critical to find someone who had the background, the skill set, and, most important, the relationships on the job site,” says Reznicek, director, Compensation and Benefits. The position remained open for about six months before Zachry found the perfect candidate. Soon Reznicek contacted the supervisor for the post and said, “I really need him. I think he’s the link I’ve been missing!” Finally, Zachry had the communication specialist to educate its employees about enrollment and saving in its retirement plan.

“The gentleman we hired for this role has the relationships with the Foremen and the job site managers,” Reznicek adds. “The benefits staff can talk all day, but if employees don’t see support from the supervisor or somebody on the job site nodding along saying, ‘this is good stuff, you need to sign up,’ then we’re dead in the water.”

Zachry’s manager of benefits communications, Oscar Martinez, is fluent in English and Spanish, and knows how to build consensus. “One of the many things he did that I’m really excited about is getting our vice president of safety to agree that the safety managers at all the job sites would align with our messaging,” Reznicek says. “We now have people directly on the job site called Wellness Champions, with this holistic idea of foundational well-being, and your wellness includes both your physical and financial health.”

Payroll Stuffers

Stuffing enrollment forms in payroll envelopes may sound dated, but Reznicek and Will aren’t chasing trends. They’re focused on what works for Zachry’s employees.

When the firm recently acquired another company, the two determined an old-school communications tool would be the best way to communicate with the new employees. “After considering various options,” Reznicek says, “our primary vehicle for communication is going to be payroll stuffers. The folks on the job site are in and out, working long hours. The only way to get to them is in that payroll check. When employees have questions on the job site about their 401(k), they have two local points of contact—the safety manager or the payroll administrator. We make it our priority to make sure those people are in a position to give valuable answers.”

Effectively communicating with employees and engaging them on the value of a defined contribution benefit plan takes more than the latest gadgets or artfully designed materials. Zachry promotes the overall well-being of its employees through a thoughtful program that can relate to each participant. As Winston Churchill so eloquently stated, “It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.” In Zachry’s case, the firm is doing what is required to ensure employees have the opportunity for success in their career and beyond.

This article was originally published by Dimensional Fund Advisors in their Winter 2014 DC Dimensions magazine.

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