Lauren Winans, CEO and Principal Consultant, Next Level BenefitsLauren Winans, CEO and Principal Consultant
Providing employee benefits enables companies to attract and retain the best talent and subsequently attain an edge over their competitors. Well-managed, comprehensive employee benefits plans engage employees to participate in well-being programs, save for retirement, and also provide access to affordable healthcare coverage. Crafting a benefit program that is truly meaningful to employees takes time and effort, and Pennsylvania-based Next Level Benefits delivers employee benefits expertise by acting as an extension of HR and Benefits teams.

In a conversation with the editorial team at Manage HR, Lauren Winans, CEO and Principal Consultant of Next Level Benefits, speaks about the company's background, the major challenges their clients face and how Next Level Benefits addresses them, a customer success story, and lastly, what’s to come in the future.

Could you provide a brief introduction about how you started Next Level Benefits?

Prior to starting Next Level Benefits, I worked for 18 years in various organizations as an HR professional and had dedicated my HR career to managing employee benefits plans and programs, as well as the internal administration of those plans. Several times throughout my corporate career, I searched for temporary benefits help for my teams, either during our busy open enrollment season or when we were swamped with projects. But there just simply weren’t any reliable sources I could locate that were available to provide short term assistance when I needed it. I realized then that someday I could fill that gap in the market. I want to leverage my experience to help organizations and their HR teams by providing strategic advice and tactical support. This led to our company's inception in 2019 to offer our clients access to benefits expertise, whether it be on a consulting, contracting, or project management basis. We partner with our customers to identify their gaps and how we can help. Our goal is to provide whatever employee benefits expertise that is needed, whether it be guidance, short-term leadership, or tactical execution. Think of us as a “Benefits Team On Call” that acts as an extension of your HR team when you need it most.

What are the major challenges and pain points that your clients generally face, and how does Next Level Benefits solve them?
We noticed that our clients' most common painpoint is not having enough bandwidth or depth of experience on their team to tackle all the various benefits projects they have on their plate each year. For example, an organization may have to delay sweeping changes to their retirement plan or changing medical insurance carriers because they are stretched too thin to handle that heavy project workload. Companies approach us to guide and help accelerate their benefits projects— to help them achieve what would normally take them years to accomplish —in an effort to more quickly create impactful and meaningful results for their organizations and their employees. And what makes us different from other consulting firms is our deep HR background. We have served in various benefits roles at several high-profile organizations and understand the HR struggles and challenges faced by employee benefits teams. We are uniquely qualified to assist HR teams in a way that a consultant or outsourcing partner cannot.

Also, in the U.S., several companies have introduced more paid time off for both paternity and maternity leaves for parents, which is a welcome change by organizations to contribute toward the overall health and future of their employees. On the other hand, it results in an employee gap where a benefits team member remains out of work for a longer period—making it hard for organizations to accomplish their business goals and objectives. In such situations, our company offers assistance to clients by stepping in and temporarily filling the gap on their Benefits team. We can provide leadership and administrative assistance, regardless of the benefits position. When the employee returns from leave, they are able to step right back into their role without having to juggle a new addition to their family and a backlog of work. We provide piece of mind to both the organization and the employee that the benefits projects and tasks will remain on track.
Could you shed some light on how Next Level Benefits' expertise and employee benefits services are designed to achieve meaningful, measurable results in less time?

In our first interaction with our clients, we conduct an exploratory conversation to learn more about their objectives, the challenges they face, and how workload is distributed on their team. We then determine the various ways we can add value and collaboratively work with the client to determine what role they would like us to serve – strategic advisor, project manager, temporary leader, or administrative support. We can work as consultants, contractors, freelancers or project managers to assist and add value to their team. Quite frankly, the choice is theirs and because of the depth of our benefits experience, we are comfortable providing whatever level of support is necessary to help clients achieve success. For example, one of our clients had multiple priorities, needing help with temporarily filling an open role and redesigning their benefits open enrollment communications. We provided administrative support for two months to cover the responsibilities for the open role and simultaneously spearheaded the project of overhauling their benefits communications within six weeks. Instead of hiring an additional headcount or brinigng in a temporary employee without employee benefits experience, we stepped in to solve their problems. They now periodically use our services throughout the year to accelerate projects and add extra manpower when deadlines are approaching. We are happy to share our knowledge and expertise when our clients need it most.

Too often, HR and Benefits teams set projects aside due to a lack of internal resources or a bandwidth shortage. That’s where Next Level Benefits comes in. We use our HR background and benefits expertise to help you achieve your strategic goals faster and make your job easier

Could you cite a case study wherein you enabled a customer to overcome their challenges and attain desired outcomes?

We helped one of our clients while their benefit leader was on maternity leave for four months. Simultaneously, the organization had multiple benefits projects in flight, such as preparing for open enrollment, changing their medical insurance carrier, and overhauling their paid time off plans. We stepped in and analyzed the situation thoroughly and assisted their benefits team during those four months and continue to be available to the team as they wrap up their remaining projects this year. As we served as project manager, we ensured that the Total Rewards leader and CHRO were kept up to speed on the evolution of the projects, and all the projects were completed on time.

During our engagement with the client, we were also able to redesign their employee benefits guides for their approximately 30,000 employees. Adding to that, during the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, we helped them prepare their employee response to the pandemic situation. We helped their team to tackle and manage its employee benefits projects under the most unique of circumstances.

In the future, what are some of the developments that you are looking to make for the company?

We are in the process of expanding our network of employee benefits professionals so that we can assist even more clients. We serve clients nationwide primarily on a virtual basis, which makes us accessible to any U.S. organization in need of short-term benefits expertise.

We are also partnering with other HR consulting firms to ensure that our clients have access to high-quality HR professionals to assist them with all of their HR needs. From employee engagement and development experts to compensation plan specialists to recruiting services, we can refer our clients to experts in all areas of HR to help supplement their existing HR teams in whatever way makes sense for their organizations.

Lastly, I am participating in more speaking engagements and panel discussions on the importance of health equity and healthcare provider diversity within employee benefits plans and programs. I am passionate about bringing awareness to the ways in which an employer can construct their benefits plans to ensure all ethnicities and demographic groups have access to quality healthcare, without financial and geographic barriers getting in the way of good care.