How to Improve 401(k) Plan Sponsor and Participant Experience

May 9, 2024
0 min read
401(k) Plan Sponsor Experience
Table of Contents

Learn how recordkeepers can boost 401(k) plan sponsor experience, simplify compliance, accelerate onboarding, and reduce admin work with payroll API integrations.

At a time when nearly half of the American households have no retirement savings, we can no longer rely on plan practices that were introduced 40 years ago. Today’s service providers are increasingly becoming aware that participation in retirement plans hinges on how easy it is to access and manage those plans—especially for small to midsize business (SMB) sponsors. This makes the 401(k) plan sponsor and participant experience vital for recordkeepers, third-party administrators (TPAs), and advisors.

A seamless user experience spans from sponsor onboarding to day-to-day plan management.  Poor user experience often stems from cumbersome data access methods, largely because they slow everything down and make more work for everyone involved. Manual processes like SFTP have long burdened sponsors with unavoidable admin tasks, increased compliance risks, and dampened employee participation. 

But change is on the horizon. Employer expectations are shifting rapidly. Plus, with SECURE 2.0 fueling the rise of SMB sponsors, recordkeepers are at a junction to redefine and automate operations to lighten the administrative burden on sponsors.

Why the 401(k) plan sponsor experience is more important than ever

Delivering a top-notch 401(k) user experience is crucial. But to truly nail it, you need to understand what’s shaping plan sponsors’ expectations of their digital retirement service providers. These include:

  • New regulations like SECURE 2.0 and state mandates 
  • Surge in new, first-time SMB sponsors
  • Increasing need for connectivity
  • Mounting complexity of staying compliant

New legislative updates

SECURE Act 2.0 shook up the retirement game for sponsors, participants, and service providers alike. SECURE 2.0 aims to boost accessibility, bridge coverage gaps, and amp up individual retirement savings. With perks like auto-enrollment and expanded eligibility criteria, it's leveling up employer-sponsored plans. SECURE 2.0 also rolled out new plan types, like Pooled Employer Plans (PEPs), offering more options and coverage than ever before. 

Recordkeepers who simplify auto-enrollment and contribution escalation and support new plans like PEPs are poised to attract more clients. Without these features, sponsors face the headache of manually enrolling employees and adjusting contributions every year. Any slip-up here can result in fines and penalties—which greatly reduces the user experience. Sponsors now want hassle-free plan setups and seek to be minimally involved in plan management. Recordkeepers that meet these demands will succeed in customer acquisition and retention in the long haul.

The influx of new SMB sponsors 

Federal incentives like startup tax credits and state mandates are pulling in a flood of new SMB sponsors to the retirement scene. Unlike big corporations with hefty HR departments, these smaller employers need more support from their recordkeepers and TPAs. Employees at these companies wear a lot of hats, so they have limited bandwidth to administer the plans, meaning they're eyeing recordkeepers who can lighten their load—especially with tasks like SFTP setups or payroll file uploads. 

Plus, SMB sponsors are cost-sensitive, meaning they want top-notch service on a budget. To remain competitive and profitable, recordkeepers need to trim down their operational overheads while outsourcing much of the administrative work of these sponsors.

Related reading: Challenges of Managing Small Business Retirement Plans 

Increased need for connectivity

Today, an average organization has more than 16 HR solutions in its tech arsenal. As the tool count climbs, employers are prioritizing integrations more than ever. In a recent survey of over 1,000 HR professionals, a whopping 97% said they want their systems to work seamlessly with others, and 51% confessed that juggling multiple employment systems throughout the day leaves them feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, or stressed. Today’s sponsors know that integrations can help them improve the employee experience as well as boost plan participation.

Increasing difficulty of compliance

Streamlined compliance is crucial to keep 401(k) plan users happy. But manual processes, heavy workloads, and tricky regulations make it tough for sponsors and recordkeepers to stay compliant. Old-school methods like SFTP and manual file transfer don’t work in real-time. Both make compliance difficult by causing delays in data exchange, and manual methods like sharing data via email or tools like Dropbox are both insecure and increase the likelihood of typos and errors. 

Compliance is even trickier under SECURE 2.0, with its complex plan designs and nuanced eligibility rules. Plus, retirement regulations are always changing, requiring constant monitoring and adaptation from recordkeepers. Any mistake, delay, or oversight can result in heavy penalties for sponsors and diminish their experience as users. It’s safe to say that recordkeepers need efficient, automated ways to minimize risk and manual tasks when sharing vital employment data.

How recordkeepers can use API integrations to optimize the 401(k) plan sponsor experience

Easier access to payroll data can solve nearly all of the challenges associated with plan management and enable recordkeepers to optimize the user experience.

Many forward-thinking recordkeepers are changing the game with API-based payroll integrations. These integrations let recordkeepers fetch data straight from sponsors' payroll systems, skipping all the manual steps. 

API integrations have several advantages when it comes to improving 401(k) sponsor and participant experience. They can help recordkeepers:

  • Simplify sponsor onboarding and auto-enrollment
  • Reduce administrative hassle for sponsors
  • Make compliance easier
  • Automate routine tasks 

Simplify sponsor onboarding 

To craft a winning user experience, recordkeepers need to start by simplifying the onboarding journey for sponsors. But it's no walk in the park. With employee census and payroll data locked away in their HR and payroll systems, recordkeepers either need to collaborate with both the sponsor and their payroll provider to establish an SFTP connection, or they need to rely on the sponsor to routinely download data from the payroll system and share the files in a timely manner. 

Building SFTP connections can drag on for months, and manual file transfers are prone to delays and bad data. Recordkeepers need to implement a simple, more efficient way to make it easy for sponsors to authorize access to their employment data. A smooth onboarding process builds trust with sponsors from the get-go and paves the way for an exceptional user experience.

Related reading: How to Simplify 401(k) Sponsor Onboarding 

Reduce administrative burden for sponsors

Sponsors are over the manual grunt work that comes with managing a 401(k) plan, like data entry and creating CSV files to share with recordkeepers. Replacing antiquated data-sharing methods like SFTP with payroll API integrations enables recordkeepers to ease sponsors' workload, cutting down on admin tasks, eliminating constant back-and-forth, and streamlining data transfer.

By granting secure and direct access to their HRIS and payroll data through direct integrations, sponsors arm recordkeepers with the accurate and timely information they need to run the show efficiently. Better yet, API integrations are a one-time task for sponsors—once they’re granted access to the payroll system, the recordkeeper can pull all the data they need without ongoing involvement from sponsors.

Increase participation with auto-enrollment

Since SECURE 2.0’s passage, the 401(k) sponsor experience has become closely tied to how efficiently employees can be automatically enrolled into specific plans upon eligibility. This is also critical for increasing plan participation and engagement. Vanguard plans with automatic enrollment features had a 93% participation rate, compared to 70% for plans with voluntary enrollment. 

But without payroll integrations, auto-enrollment gets dicey and cumbersome. New eligibility criteria for part-time and older employees introduced in SECURE 2.0 make this situation even trickier for recordkeepers that follow a manual approach. But with direct access to sponsors' data, recordkeepers can program their systems to spot when employees are eligible to join the employer's plan as well as send out automated notifications—further boosting the user experience of 401(k) sponsors and participants.

Make compliance easier

Even when the recordkeeper isn’t to blame, compliance penalties can have a harsh negative impact on the sponsor’s opinion of their provider. Manual data-sharing methods are rife with typos and errors; plus, the recordkeeper rarely has control over when they receive the data from the sponsor, which can adversely impact when contributions are made. 

API integrations give recordkeepers the power to fetch all required data in real time, ensuring no eligible employee is overlooked and that their investment contributions are correct and made on time. With a 360° payroll integration, recordkeepers can even update deduction changes directly within the sponsor’s payroll system, reducing the risk of compliance slip-ups.

Automate routine tasks

As user experience becomes a top priority in 401(k) plan management, recordkeepers must focus their efforts on delivering a standout digital experience. To do this, they need to first free up their operational and engineering bandwidth that is currently spent on inefficient manual processes and building technical bridges between systems. API integrations streamline regular data pulls from sponsors' HR and payroll systems. That way, the recordkeeper avoids otherwise manual tasks, including tracking down files, data validation, eligibility verification, enrollment, investment calculations, and so on. 

Improve 401(k) user experience with payroll API integrations

Bottom line, integrating with sponsors' HRIS and payroll systems is no longer a choice, but a must for recordkeepers to operate faster and better. 

However, building and maintaining API integrations with multiple payroll systems is costly, resource-heavy, and often not scalable. This limits recordkeepers’ ability to automate processes. Using integration tools like unified APIs to scale payroll integrations can help recordkeepers access data from hundreds of payroll systems with a single integration, reducing the time and cost associated with integration builds. 

Unified APIs also help recordkeepers save further operational bandwidth by standardizing fetched data into a common, more manageable format that’s easier to work with. These benefits are ultimately paid forward to the users, creating a best-in-class experience for sponsors and participants alike.

Check out our latest whitepaper, "The Changing Retirement Landscape," to dive deeper into these industry trends and discover how recordkeepers can adapt and thrive in the era of SECURE 2.0.

97% of HR professionals say it’s important for your app to integrate with their employment systems

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97% of HR professionals say it’s important for your app to integrate with their employment systems

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