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Faye Pang has had to be much more deliberate about recognizing and rewarding her staff lately.

Ms. Pang, who serves as the Canada country manager of Xero – a small business accounting software provider – says the organization has long offered an annual award for employees who best demonstrate the company’s values. Beyond the annual incentive, which includes a bonus that can be exchanged for paid time off, managers are also encouraged to celebrate strong performers during day-to-day meetings and interactions.

“It was so easy to see someone at the coffee station, pass them in the hall, see them in front of the other staff members to give them that recognition on the spot in a timely manner,” Ms. Pang said. “As we’ve moved online and there’s less of those informal connections in a given day, you have to be more deliberate.”

As the competition for talent heats up in Canada, Ms. Pang and her firm are among many others setting aside more time and resources for incentive programs. Remote work has made recognizing employees more challenging, but the fatigue and burnout caused by the pandemic, coupled with staffing challenges, have also made it more vital to an organization’s success. So companies are getting creative and expanding incentives beyond cash bonuses and widening the range of employees who are eligible.

According to a study conducted by the Incentive Research Foundation, North American employers intend to increase their incentive program budgets by 34 per cent, and expand the pool of eligible participants by 35 per cent, in 2022.

“I’ve empowered my managers with a dedicated ‘wow budget’ each month,” Ms. Pang said. “Many have chosen to send individualized appreciation gifts on a regular cadence – everything from at-home spa kits to beer tasting flights to kids activities – tailoring it to what their team needs at that given moment.”

Ms. Pang added the change is in reaction to the challenges she witnessed among her staff during the pandemic.

“Morale continues to be challenged as COVID drags on,” she said. “In a world where everyone is looking for top talent and trying to retain their team, it’s really important that we create an environment where people feel like they’re getting recognized for the hard work they’re doing.”

Employee incentive and rewards programs have historically been used to reward top performers – typically in sales or leadership roles – with a bonus on an annual basis. While this remains the primary function and structure of such programs, there are signs some organizations are looking at their incentive structures through a different lens.

“Really forward-thinking companies [who use employee-sentiment data] are recognizing that the new era of supporting employee success looks beyond simply rewarding top performers,” explained Dr. Natalie Baumgartner, the chief workforce scientist at the Achievers Workforce Institute in Toronto and a clinical psychologist. “Organizations aren’t letting go of their annual rewards or monetary bonuses for top performers in sales, but they are starting to put less of their resources into that bucket, and spreading it out more across the entire organization.”

Dr. Baumgartner explains that the trend is not only a reaction to the immediate disruptions of the pandemic and it’s impact on morale, but is also tied to a broader change in perspective on how businesses accomplish their stated goals. While there has long been a heightened appreciation for those who make sales and close deals, she says there’s recently been a greater appreciation for colleagues who enable their success.

“There’s a lot more focus now on the people behind the scenes that are making those sales happen,” she said. “So, finding ways to have a more comprehensive approach to recognizing and appreciating all of the people who are involved in those parts that are considered traditionally a one-person job is the way we’re going in the future, and rightly so.”

Not only are those organizations expanding the pool of workers who receive rewards, but incentives themselves are also evolving away from the traditional bonus and toward more lifestyle benefits.

“As we come out of the pandemic, we’re seeing there’s a focus on wellness,” said Jennifer Attersall, director of incentive travel for Destination Canada, a federal tourism agency. “Between the mental health [concerns] and the fatigue and employees not feeling recognized, we’re seeing the wellness component is more prevalent in requests [from employers].”

Ms. Attersall added that the industry is also seeing a transition away from a one-size-fits-all reward program to more meaningful and personalized incentives.

“Employees want to feel valued, they want to know that the company understands them, and with these incentive and rewards programs, they want to know that they’re curated and personalized,” she said. “It will motivate them more to have a program that aligns with their own personal values.”

For example, Ms. Attersall said clients are showing less interest in traditional travel options, like beach and golf getaways, or trips to major tourist attractions, and toward more memorable experiences, such as wilderness retreats.

“I do believe that the wellness and mental health component will stay prevalent in program design,” she said. “Destinations will be looked at through a different lens now to ensure that the experiences they provide for their earners are transformational.”

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