Yoga classes were the top wellness activity for incentives, and 41 percent of the survey

Keys to Employee Engagement

Yoga classes were the top wellness activity for incentives, and 41 percent of the MeetingsNet/IRF survey’s respondents said they consciously build wellness opportunities into their agendas.

What's hot in incentives this year? Looking to the reports and survey results coming from the Incentive Research Foundation ( ) gives us some clues. IRF released the findings from its annual incentive travel trends survey in April, and IRF President Melissa Van Dyke shared her insight on 2016 trends to watch at the beginning of this year.

Her #1 trend—Engagement and a Changing Talent Pool—is sure to be familiar to HR and safety professionals concerned with employee motivation and retention. The Baby Boomers' retirement places a premium on retention strategy, and incoming Millennials "are looking for brands that are innovative and values driven; brands that carry those values through to multiple kinds of benefits and offerings," Van Dyke reported.

Trend #2, "Budgets Are Up and So Is Oversight," is echoed in the travel trends survey. Travel incentive programs and budgets are expanding, with 2015 representing the largest year-over-year increase in average per-person incentive spending since the Great Recession hit, it found. Key points to remember from this trends are that merchandise and gift card programs are "flourishing," and 54 percent of respondents said the economy now has a neutral impact on their ability to plan and execute merchandise and gift card programs, but the emphasis on scrutiny of the ROI of incentive programs means companies want better analytics, she reported: "Take-away for your business: Recognition and reward initiatives should grow with your business and fall within industry norms. Share the successes with the people who make it happen, but be prepared for increasing oversight on risks beyond just financial, including brand and core value risks."

The MeetingsNet/IRF survey respondents indicated per-person incentive spending in 2016 will be $3,165, the second-highest number since 2008, when it was $3,659. The average incentive budget rose by 2.69 percent, with about 38 percent of the respondents saying their budgets increased this year.

(The survey was conducted Jan. 29 through Feb. 16, 2016. MeetingsNet and the Incentive Research Foundation received 182 usable responses from people responsible for planning incentive travel programs.)

Wellness Incentives
The survey also asked respondents about their use of wellness incentives and how they incorporate a "wow" factor into their incentives. The top "wow" item they chose was adventure activities (such as hiking and extreme sports), with 68 percent of respondents choosing this, followed by themed events (64 percent), entertainment (58 percent), face-to-face time with execs (46 percent), speakers (45 percent), and music (41 percent).

Yoga classes were the top wellness activity for incentives, and 41 percent of the survey's respondents said they consciously build wellness opportunities into their agendas. After yoga classes, the most-popular wellness activities for incentives were healthy meal choices, fun runs, and spa activities. Respondents said they’ve used cooking classes focused on healthy cuisine, seminars on stress management and work/life balance, giveaways that promote wellness, health screenings, and pedometers for attendees.

The percentage of incentive programs that include an app for attendees rose to 56 percent in the latest survey from 47 percent a year earlier. Almost all who use them said their apps provide an on-site agenda and messaging to the attendees; 69 percent are used to survey attendees, and 56 percent enable attendee-to-attendee messaging.

Significantly, the survey found one in four incentives includes a corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity. Groups prefer organizational social responsibility activities to teambuilding activities, especially when the CSR ties into a local organization, Van Dyke said.

New Technologies and Social Media
Technologies and social media are features of another noteworthy trend highlighted by Van Dyke. Her #5, "Technology Extends Reach" concerns the importance of new technologies as they're integrated into recognition and incentive programs. "There is also a perception that Millennials are particularly engaged with technology tools and expect them in the workplace. Social media use continues to expand in reward and recognition programs," she wrote, explaining that, as one would expect, the most recent IRF Pulse Study showed more than half of the incentive market is using social media to enhance their programs, with more than 30 percent of the market using game techniques.  

And her sixth trend, "Social Good is Good for Engagement," echoes the CSR trend identified in the incentive travel trends survey: CSR activity appeals mainly to Millennials, but it also connects with workers of other generations. Employees "increasingly expect best-in-class organizations to be good corporate citizens. Incentive and recognition program planners are integrating CSR opportunities in the form of culture-building volunteer days or incentive travel team-building events. Some companies consider the 'green' practices of destination hotels and vendors. Likewise, Millennials are demanding 'social impact travel' where fun and sun meets the ability to have a social impact as well. This is the impetus of Carnival's new Fathom lines that allow Millennials to do just that: vacation as well as give back," she explained, adding that many organizations have enlarged their definition of well-being programs beyond employee wellness so that they also incorporate financial well-being, eldercare, flexible schedules, and more.

Communication is Key
Communication is key in both of her final two trends.

Trend #9, "Engagement is in the Delivery," cites a Participant Study that found 40-50 percent of an employee’s preferred recognition experience is separate from the actual reward itself; how that award is presented and the professional development implications account for about 40 percent of the worker's preference for a given award experience, Van Dyke wrote. Who is recognizing the employee and how the recognition is presented are highly important, in other words.

Trend #10 is "Move Beyond Generation." Drawing again from the Participant Study, she explained that how much employees value "who presents the award, how it is communicated, and the professional development implications are generally the same regardless of a person's income, role, gender or generation, with one small exception: Baby Boomers place a slightly higher emphasis on how the award is communicated." And factory and retail workers place much more emphasis on reward presentation and professional development than others, while home office employees place more on how a large award is communicated.

"Take-away for your business: Understanding the distinctions between employee segments is key to delivering meaningful recognition, but don't lean too heavily on generation as the only determinant of employee expectation—life stage, past work experiences, and current work environment play a key role," she wrote.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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