It’s safe to say that when the year started, no one could have foreseen the impact COVID-19 would have on our way of life. The workforce needed to quarantine, financial markets swung wildly and businesses across all industries were forced to adapt rapidly to an ever-changing situation. Looking back on 2020, retirement plan sponsors can learn several lessons for managing their plan, and take a few key actions now to help them better prepare for the year ahead.
1. Expect the unexpected — and manage through it. A global pandemic may have been unexpected, but the potential for disruptions to the ways we conduct business is not. Situations that significantly challenge your business are inevitable over the long term, making it wise to prepare a holistic retirement plan strategy in advance to manage through them.
The first step to navigating uncertainty is to acknowledge these situations will happen, and educate your employees to expect them, too.
Second, establish the type of plan-design flexibility that will be helpful to your participants in multiple economic climates. Finally, building a network of strong providers and resources to rely on during times of uncertainty or volatility can help you act swiftly and prudently.
Action for plan sponsors: When things are calm in advance of disruption, vet your partners. Have you set up your fiduciary structure and plan design to handle rapid change? Do your providers have the depth to withstand it or the reach to be involved in conversations at the highest level? Who do you trust?
2. Your employees look to you in times of financial uncertainty. The economic uncertainty illuminated by COVID-19 has caused financial worries among Americans to grow. Recent polling data revealed that 46% of households across the nation reported facing serious financial problems during the coronavirus outbreak (NPR/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health).
For many workers, the benefits provided by their employer are integral to their overall net worth, like the assets within their retirement account or their access to important financial advice provided by service providers contracted with their companies.
The pandemic accelerates a trend that we’ve seen in recent years, of workers requesting more support with strategies that can help improve their financial security and address concerns like debt management, student loan repayment and saving for emergencies, in addition to longer-term retirement planning.
Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace” report showed that “more than ever before in our history, employees want employers to be partners in their well-being,” and we anticipate that financial wellness will continue to be a rising trend.
Action for plan sponsors: The financial benefits that employers offer are more beneficial — and necessary — than you may have ever realized. Focus on creating a strong foundation with your retirement plan offering, and then build on it through additional benefits that support employee well-being.
3. The world is changing, and your participants may want your plan to reflect that. Societal trends have a history of driving investor behavior, and this year has been no exception. 2020 amplified these trends and brought them into the spotlight, solidifying the discussion of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors on retirement committees’ agendas.
Support for ESG varies, especially in the retirement space. For some, it’s seen as a way participants can align their investment strategies with their personal values. Others caution against introducing alternative goals, like supporting a mission, into a retirement plan where the primary focus should be on ensuring participants will have the funds needed to maintain their standard of living when it’s time to retire.
In October, the Department of Labor (DOL) published the “Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments” after much discussion around its focus on ESG considerations. While the final version of the rule does include some protection for the use of ESG investing, the DOL cautions fiduciaries to factor in “pecuniary” elements when assessing investments of any type.
Action for plan sponsors: Rely on best practices whether your lineup permits the use of ESG investing or not. For any investment strategy to be successful, you need to focus on factors that create a balance between the investment and return. If ESG principles are important to your organization, consult with your advisor and review the DOL rule to further understand how a framework may be applied.
4. Be proactive in an increasingly digital world. When the world shut its doors in response to COVID-19, many American employers adopted remote work environments. This shift in how we conduct business has heightened our reliance on technology, increasing both efficiencies and potential risk.
In the retirement industry, the use of tools like online scheduling applications or video conferencing platforms has given providers more opportunities to educate participants and facilitate more meaningful interactions during those sessions.
Suddenly, participants could work through financial challenges with an advisor from the comfort of their own home. Increased privacy during conversations, coupled with the ability to access important documentation or even family members when appropriate, has enabled advisors to further drive participant outcomes.
While technology has certainly been our friend this year, it still has the potential to be a foe. Proactive approaches to securing data have taken on new importance this year in light of participants’ increased use of tech in unique locations.
Action for plan sponsors: Take advantage of the connectivity and digital tools offered by your providers to ensure you make the most of your retirement plan — even in a remote environment. However, don’t lose sight of cybersecurity. Make sure your providers meet your minimum security standards, and train your employees on how to stay safe when accessing their retirement accounts.
5. Reimagine partnerships to make the most out of your plan. This year, the retirement industry has seen the consolidation trend from 2019 continue, if not increase. We saw major players join forces across the board — from recordkeepers to mutual fund leaders and even advisory firms.
While mergers and acquisitions can create some potential challenges for plans during transition, there are many ways that plan sponsors could benefit from this continued trend. It’s no secret that larger providers can frequently offer expanded services at lower price points, but they can also provide scale for staying power, investment ability, technology development, cybersecurity and more.
That’s not the only way plan sponsors can benefit from scale. This year has also brought more discussions around “Pooled Employer Plan” models, a key provision in the SECURE Act designed to make it easier and more economical for smaller employers to work together to realize the value of buying power, reduced fiduciary liability and flexible plan design.
Action for plan sponsors: Consider the impact of scale, not only in your plan but in the partners with whom you work. Scrutinize services, price points, technology and resources to identify ways to benefit from economies of scale.
Stan Milovancev, CPA, QKA is an executive vice president at CBIZ Retirement Plan Services and is associated with CBIZ Investment Advisory Services as a financial advisor. He works with plan sponsors to help them meet their organization’s retirement plan goals and manage the personal liability associated with being a fiduciary to a qualified plan. He provides consulting services to private and public…