With a Bumper Crop of New Options, Benefits Leaders Need to Make Smart Choices
It’s no secret that employees expect more from employers than they did five years ago. Companies have offered innovative solutions from pet care to travel-as-a-benefit to meet the demand. But companies only have so many resources, especially nowadays, as the economy begins to decline. “Many of us are thinking about coming out of this couple of years of such an intensive talent and labor market, where a lot of companies have been under pressure to offer more and more,” said Joanna Daly, vice president of total rewards at IBM. “So I do think we're at an inflection point.”As a result, employers have to make choices about what benefits are the most valuable to employees and prospective hires.Daly spoke with moderator Bryan Walsh, editor for Future Project at Vox Media, at From Day One’s virtual April conference, “Creative Total Rewards to Set Employers Apart,” during a fireside chat session. “Total rewards” refers to the combination of compensation and benefits that the company provides. At IBM, Daly said, total rewards exist within a broader value proposition and must align with the company’s goals, values, and culture.Keeping Total Rewards SustainableOne challenge employers face is maintaining sustainable benefits, especially in a changing economic landscape. Daly approaches important decisions regarding sustainability by working through a few key questions.First, she considers scale. While it’s important to consider how a new benefit will fit into your company now, it’s also critical to consider how it will work down the line. What are your company’s growth plans? Will this benefit still work as you scale your headcount?“Is that seemingly small investment going to start to become potentially a pretty large expenditure?” Daly asked.Secondly, Daly considers choice. Every dollar spent on one benefit is a dollar the company is choosing not to spend somewhere else. Why is this the best choice for the company to make?Next, she considers automation. Every human resources team only has so much time on their hands, and introducing a new benefit can eat up even more of that time. That’s why it’s important to automate wherever you can. If a benefit can be automated right from the beginning, it’ll help free up your team’s time.“Is there something that is simple to administer that achieves most of the outcome versus something highly complex that could end up taking a lot more of your time and effort to deliver?” Daly said.Lastly, Daly considers if the offering ties into the company’s culture and values.“How do you maximize the sum of what you're offering to employees so that it's cohesive? People actually perceive more value out of [the sum] than than its individual parts,” Daly said. “And I think one of the most effective ways to do that is really try to align to your culture and your values.”One way to align total rewards with company culture is to take a “design thinking” approach to benefits. Daly considers all of the personas that play a role in benefits–including the employees, their families, business leaders, and prospective hires–to find the areas where their needs align rather than looking at all their differences.“It's where you can find that alignment, that I think that you can find offerings that have that mutually reinforcing impact,” Daly said.For example, IBM used a design thinking approach to create its recognition programs. By focusing on what behaviors IBM was trying to reinforce within different personas in the company, the team was able to create a recognition program that is easy to use and grounded in the company’s culture.But why is it important for companies to be sustainable about their benefits in the first place? Daly stressed that introducing a benefit and then taking it away is much worse than never offering it at all. This is due to “loss aversion,” or the idea that people tend to notice if something is taken away more than they would if it was never there to begin with. Daly tries to think of the people who will be in her role years down the line, and how her decisions will affect them and the employees at large.“Are they going to thank me for trying my best to make good decisions? Or will they be cursing my name, that I've left them with some things to clean up? Trying to envision that future person who will be sitting in this seat is something that guides that long-term decision making,” Daly said.Total Rewards ChallengesHuman resources teams face a number of challenges when it comes to building a total rewards package, deciding what benefits to include, and rolling those benefits out to employees.One of those challenges is competing with peer companies’ offerings. Employees are bound to hear about other benefits in their industry and might wonder why their company doesn’t offer the same.But Daly reminded attendees that benefits are a long-term space, and introducing things just to take them away later or simply introducing them to respond to demand, might not play well into long-term planning.Daly said that it’s fine to learn about your competitors and take inspiration from other companies—as long as you’re not too reactive to them. Every “good idea” is only a good idea as long as it fits in with company culture.Joanna Daly and Bryan Walsh during the virtual conference (photo by From Day One)“Does this reinforce other parts of our employee value proposition and culture? And if you can't really get the answers aligned on those questions, then it's probably better not to follow suit and introduce something just because others may be doing it,” Daly said.Of course, companies have also faced the challenge of accommodating changing attitudes since the pandemic, whether it’s in regard to hybrid work, flexible schedules, or the demand for more benefits. Many employers have introduced new benefits during the pandemic to react to demand and better support employees, IBM included. Recently, IBM introduced emergency backup care for parents, who often struggle to find adequate childcare if their primary option, such as daycare or family members, fell through.By introducing this benefit, IBM was able to prevent employees from unexpectedly taking the day off, calling in sick, or falling behind on meetings and routine work. Not only does it help both the employees and the employer, but it also plays into the larger company culture of supporting one another.Since the pandemic, Daly has noticed some other changes in general attitudes towards benefits. Namely, she said, employees want their benefits to be easier to navigate. Benefits exist to make employees’ lives easier, not to stress them out even more.Additionally, she said she sees a need for more support toward financial goals during times of financial uncertainty. This can include helping to pay off student loans or saving for retirement. And employees want to stay relevant and competitive during these times of uncertainty, so skill-building and career development are extra important.In terms of schedules, she sees hourly workers wanting predictability in their schedules so they can plan their lives around their shifts. At IBM, Daly explained, every team has their own approach to hybrid, remote, and in-person work. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and teams are trusted to make their own routines.But even for seasoned HR professionals, there are always new challenges. Daly was surprised by a general shift toward employees expecting more help from their employers in a broader sense. She said it’s not uncommon for employees to ask about tax advisory or tax prep support during tax season or to inquire about benefits for their pets–many of whom were acquired during the pandemic.“Maybe before, there was a set of things that we all kind of understood the employer was providing in terms of benefits. Now, I think it's sort of blurred,” Daly explained. “People are asking for help more broadly. But that's also where we have to be deliberate about where we invest and where we spend our time and money versus things that people might be okay to manage on their own.”Measuring Value and SuccessWith so many options for employers in terms of total rewards packages, it’s vital to know how to measure what is and isn’t working. Sometimes it’s hard for leaders to see the value of certain rewards, especially those that are non-monetary.For example, IBM’s recognition program has a mix of monetary rewards, point-based rewards (which can be redeemed for physical prizes), and digital cards that employees can send to one another.Although the monetary rewards might seem the most “valuable” at first glance, Daly explained that every card that an employee sends to someone leads to five more sent.“And when we step back and thought about the reason behind this, it's really that someone took time out of their day to recognize and appreciate someone else,” she said. “And that act is really communicating, ‘I see you, I value you.’”Measuring the success of rewards, in general, can be difficult, especially when so many things are changing at once. Daly keeps success in mind in a few different ways.“When I think of the total rewards space, the first thing is, I don't want any of the total rewards, offerings, compensation or benefits to be a pain point, and I don't want them to be barriers to recruitment or to retaining our employees,” she said.Still, she also doesn’t want to overdo benefits or invest in the wrong rewards. It’s not just about being above market. It’s about being market-competitive, offering a solid package, and differentiating packages based on skills.“For me, that's success,” she said. “Others will have a different answer.”Erika Riley is a Maryland-based freelance writer.