December 10, 2020

Insights from the Nava Benefits Advisory Council: Kelley Elliott - Managing Director, Global Total Rewards, Delta Air Lines

We're fortunate to be guided by the Nava Benefits Advisory Council, a group comprised of healthcare and benefits experts at America's most employee-centric companies who collectively design, influence, deploy, and manage benefit plans for over two million employees and their families. With their knowledge, insights, and perspective, we're able to democratize the benefits playbook of the Fortune 50 so that resource-strapped employers can provide world-class benefits for their employees at a price they can afford.

In this post, we're introducing you to Kelley Elliott, Managing Director of Global Total Rewards at Delta Air Lines, who shares why employers should focus on the employee experience, above all else.


Tell us about your role at Delta Air Lines:

I lead our Global Total Rewards team, where I manage compensation for broad-based employees as well as benefits for all 70,000 employees globally. My team operates as a center of excellence; we manage policy, plan design, and governance, and then partner with our HR Service Delivery team on the administration and rollout.


You spent a number of years in consulting; what drove you to move to the employer-side, and to benefits specifically?

I spent 15 years as a consultant at Willis Towers Watson, focused on employee benefits and really enjoyed my experience there. With consulting, you spend a lot of time researching and developing recommendations, but you don’t often see what happens next. That always felt like a disconnect. I’m the kind of person who finds fulfillment from seeing something all the way through – being part of the decision and delivering on it. So, the move in-house came from a desire to be fully part of something and have ownership over an outcome. This move also allowed me to expand from solely focusing on benefits to now understanding how complementary areas like compensation and employee experience all work together towards a total rewards strategy.


What’s Delta’s philosophy on employee benefits?

The Delta culture is one where we truly live and breathe putting our employees first. We want our people to know and feel that we care for them, so that in return they can put their all into delivering a great experience for our customers, which in turn drives business results. We’ve seen this approach play out, even during a time like this.

At its essence, our culture is rooted in listening to and acting upon employee feedback at all levels of our organization – our open-door policy applies all the way up to our CEO. And that focus on listening and responding is especially important when you’re talking about benefits since most people just don’t like the topic. They don’t  like to think about their healthcare plans until they need them, and it’s often an emotionally charged moment when they need to rely on their healthcare plans.

In addition to this balancing act of managing a benefits program and responding to employee feedback, we’re spending a lot of our time focused on user experience so we can drive plan awareness, literacy, and usage among our people. So far, we’ve collected a vast trove of insights on how employees extract the most value out of their plans, and have been able to drive significant change by focusing on feedback versus cost as a main driver in plan design. If cost isn’t the driving force during a time like this – in the airline industry, no less! – then it’s not going to be the driving force during the good times, either.


You've spent the last year transforming Delta's benefit program with a focus on wellbeing programs. Why and how is Delta moving in in this direction?

Our transformation started mid-2019 with an initial focus on plan design and affordability. As COVID-19 hit, the pandemic brought to the forefront our need to support employees by giving them the tools to focus on themselves and their wellbeing. This desire to transform how we support our employees inspired the blueprint of our new benefits platform. Through this new platform, wellbeing is intrinsically linked to our health plans. We offer a menu of incentives for employees to take ownership over their health, including getting a physical, meeting with a mental health coach, undergoing a biometric screening, completing a financial check-up – all of this behavior is rewarded through the platform. We designed a platform that’s personalized to an employee’s given situation, customized to actions they could take, and easy to navigate and understand.


We know that getting employees to actually want to proactively engage with and participate in wellness programs is a major challenge. How are you planning to address this?

Benefit programs can’t achieve their goals if employees don’t know about and understand them. We’ve learned this first-hand, and are now investing heavily in designing a unique marketing program that combines local champions and broad-based technology to drive awareness and engagement.

Our narrative focuses on rebuilding after COVID-19, both as a company and as individual employees. However, for this rollout, we’re not just focused on marketing the platform itself. Rather, we’re focused on what outcomes the platform helps deliver. As a part of this, we are overhauling our    wellbeing program to better connect incentives to the health plans. If you participate in our wellbeing program and take customized recommendations, you can make a significant dent in your out-of-pocket responsibility. We’re fortunate in that we’ve had some level of wellbeing programs in the past, so this isn’t a totally new concept for our people.

In addition to talking about the linkage between wellbeing incentives and financial benefits, we’re highlighting the personalization available through the platform. Our employees are able to go in and experience something completely custom to them and their wellbeing needs, providing a cutting-edge digital experience. This includes questionnaires to determine your ‘real age’ based on lifestyle choices and habits to self-selection of areas of focus and improvement, which end up feeling more like a sophisticated recommendation engine on an e-commerce site than a benefits portal.

Beyond the digital marketing that’s happening on a global level, it’s also about instilling a culture of wellbeing locally, especially when you have a workforce that’s highly mobile.  We will continue to rely on our network of wellness champions across the organization whose job it is to nurture that culture and drive awareness of our program. In action, a wellness leader at a given station– let’s say, Miami – will initiate conversations and activities on the ground that bring employees together.


Healthcare costs have been rising at 5-6% per year for almost a decade now — 2x wage growth and 3x inflation — which I think we can all agree is unsustainable. What do you think is the biggest driver behind the spiraling costs?

The healthcare system in and of itself is not easy for any one person or company to crack. The relationships and incentives between parties – providers, patients, physicians, employers, insurers— don’t always work towards the same goals. They are all incentivized to make money in their own ways, are measured on differing (and sometimes conflicting) KPIs, and are often preoccupied up by the labyrinth of politics involved in healthcare. Who exactly is incentivized and structured in a way drive costs down and keep care quality high? Since there are so many different stakeholders all focusing on a different part of the puzzle, it's hard to align on even where to start solving these major issues.


What role do you see benefits brokerage playing in the fixing of the American healthcare system?

The benefits brokerage plays an incredibly important role, especially for smaller employers who need help navigating the growing complexity that is healthcare. I’ve seen great brokers who help their employers break out of their comfort zone and continually challenge whether the plans they have in place are truly the best out there. A knowledgeable broker can ensure they’re quickly adapting to changes in the marketplace – with an emphasis on really taking advantage of their local market – to get the best outcomes for their people.

What do you hope to accomplish being part of Nava's advisory board?

In addition to exchanging notes with some fellow benefits and healthcare experts, this opportunity allows me a chance to share my experiences with the next generation of HR leaders. I’m fortunate to have a great team and the resources needed to tackle the bigness and complexity of benefits at Delta – but there’s no utility in keeping that knowledge to myself. Working closely with Nava gives me visibility into another lens of healthcare I don’t necessarily see. I’m excited to advise Nava on its offering roadmap and say I had a hand in helping employers all across the country make better decisions for themselves and their people.

Nava is approaching benefits from a new vantage point and is thinking differently about how to solve employer challenges and frustrations. I’m excited to be part of an organization that’s challenging the norms.

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