How to allocate your reward investment dollars for maximum employee engagement

Josh Strok, Director of Rewards, Talent and Communication, Towers Watson

Every employer considers foundational rewards — base pay, benefits, retirement packages and paid time off — when working to attract and retain employees. But there’s more to it than that, if you want your employees to remain engaged in their work, says Josh Strok, Director of Rewards, Talent and Communication at Towers Watson.

“You should consider performance-based rewards, such as merit-based pay, bonus plans and recognition programs, which help differentiate performance and reward top performers,” says Strok. “These rewards focus employees on the company’s priorities, as workers see where the organization is putting additional dollars. There are also career and environmental rewards, which include career development opportunities, training, mentoring, corporate social responsibility and wellness programs.”

Smart Business spoke with Strok about how employers can use total rewards optimization to allocate their reward investments for maximum return.

Why should an employer create a total rewards program?

We know organizations have placed additional burdens on employees since the beginning of the recent recession. In our 2011/2012 Talent Management and Rewards Study, nearly two-thirds of organizations have employees working more hours over the past three years, and over half of the companies expect this to continue over the next three years. Coupled with the increasing difficulty to attract and retain top performers and people with critical skills, crafting appropriate total rewards programs is more important than ever.

Employers are worried they might not be able to meet employees’ expectations as the labor market heats up and workers gain more negotiating leverage. By evaluating your total rewards offering now, you can determine how to strengthen your organization’s employee value proposition — and minimize the risk associated with losing critical-skill talent.

Most employers know that a highly engaged work force is a leading indicator of strong financial performance. So they’re working to deliver an employee deal that engenders workers’ rational, emotional and cognitive commitment to the business. When committed fully, employees are more willing to make a discretionary effort to go above and beyond the minimum that’s required.

Has total rewards optimization been overlooked?

Yes, until recently. In the past, employers typically started from a compensation and benefit standpoint, which addressed foundational and some performance rewards. However, they developed and managed the various components as very separate programs. Today, more companies recognize the power of blending these reward programs and looking for ways to reinforce the overall total rewards deal.

CHROs and CFOs know they have one pool of money to spend on all aspects of total rewards — health care and retirement benefits, job training and base pay increases. With limited dollars, they’re trying to figure out how to get the biggest bang for their buck. The challenge is to offer the right deal to the right employees — a deal that will keep top-priority workers highly engaged — within the confines of the company’s fiscal constraints.

In putting together a total rewards optimization (TRO) program, how should employers begin?

Start by looking at what you have in place and how you spend your dollars, and determining whether that’s competitive against companies with which you compete for talent.

Next, understand your employees’ preferences and use employee surveys with conjoint analysis to determine which rewards have the biggest impact on employee attitudes and behavior.  Segment your work force and ask employees in each segment what they want and what they’re willing to trade off. For example, if you can spend $100, would employees rather have a lower health care deductible or a better training and development program? Or more base pay or a better retirement program?

Based on that feedback, you can look to shift your investments among programs (i.e., portfolio optimization) to create total reward portfolios that deliver the highest return. The goal is to invest finite reward dollars across the work force in a way that balances organizational and employee interests creating the highest possible perceived value at the most economical level.

For instance, if employees say lower health care costs are more important to them than the retirement program, explore the opportunity to invest more in health care programs if you reduce your 401(k) match. If so, employees will be more engaged with that deal, because you tried to construct a total rewards program in light of their wants and needs.

Rebalance your allocation, and make trade-offs you can live with. You’re not going to eliminate your 401(k) plan, but maybe you can spend less there to better invest in areas your employees value more.

How do employers determine whether the total rewards optimization program is succeeding?

After a year or two with the new program in place, you should assess its effectiveness. This is an ongoing part of an effective total rewards strategy.  Be sure to check with employees. Do people feel better about their jobs and about what’s going on in the company? If you were trying to address unwanted turnover, look at the hard metrics. If you formerly had 8 percent turnover and now have 4 percent, clearly what you’ve done is working. If you were looking to save money, did you do so at the expense of reduced engagement?

The issue isn’t only about deciding whether to spend more or less in total. The real questions are whether you know what your employees value, and whether you can adjust your total rewards investments accordingly. You don’t have to do it all at once in a full-scale redesign. Many employers do it in steps and focus on big-ticket programs or areas that earn the least employee value.

Josh Strok is Director, Rewards, Talent and Communication at Towers Watson. Reach him at [email protected] or (818) 623-4577.

Insights Human Capital Solutions is brought to you by Towers Watson

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