New Trends in Employee Compensation

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In today’s day and age, compensation packages have evolved to include perks and benefits that were unheard of a generation ago.  Gone are the days of meeting with employees once a year to give them a pat on the back and the standard four percent merit increase.  With the world progressing and people’s wants and needs shifting, in order to stay competitive, an organization’s compensation program must continually change.  Merely updating the way a company pays employees may not be enough to keep pace.  Because the current marketplace is so competitive, in order to attract, retain and motivate the kind of people who are committed to the success of an organization, it may necessitate a complete compensation system overhaul.

There are a number of catalysts present that have strongly influenced the direction and philosophy behind employee compensation packages.  Things like the changing business environment including new technology like the Internet, downsizing due to sluggish economic growth, and the transition to flexible or contingency work forces have caused companies to rethink their approach to compensation.  As well, the old business model of authority dictating from the top down has been replaced in many organizations with horizontal cross-functional work teams which require a different system to reward performance.  And finally, companies today want their compensation programs to help increase productivity and reduce costs.  But traditional programs don’t reward employees for cutting costs or increasing profits.  This creates significant conflict between organizational and employee wants and needs.  In my personal experience, when employees see no personal gain for working hard or harder, they have no motivation to embrace continuous improvement.

A new approach to compensation includes new and enticing ways to attract and motivate employees with a wide range of perks designed to enhance individual effort and, in some cases, promote team building and chemistry.  While large companies have long touted major corporate perks, including tuition payments and daycare on site, many smaller businesses are now providing plenty of attractive cost-effective perks that are having some very positive results.  The following information will attempt to outline the direction employee compensation packages seem to be going, as well as explain some of the reasons these types of modes of compensation are gaining in popularity.

To start with, a consideration for most companies is consistency and fairness in base pay structures.  In this era of rather small incremental pay increases, employees feel that if they can’t be paid more, then they should at least be paid fairly.  Therefore, internal pay equity in organizations and pay for performance are becoming even higher priorities.  Things like automatic incremental raises, simple cost of living increases, and lump-sum merit payments are quickly falling out of favour.  Conversely, growth has been observed in management incentives, key staff incentives, and multi-year cash-incentive plans focused on the achievement of long-term corporate goals.

Another trend in employee compensation approaches has been to focus on work/life balance initiatives.  This has become important to many employees, particularly due to the rise in two wage-earner families.  Employees are willing to forego large pay increases for advances in the area of work/life balance.  For example, rather than the strictly structured eight hour work day schedule Monday through Friday, offering flexible work schedules are more attractive to employees as a way to achieve more of a balanced lifestyle.  Some employers embrace alternate work arrangements like ten hour work days scheduled four days a week, job sharing between employees and allowing employees to work from home to offer employees added flexibility.  Working from home is very attractive to some staff to avoid the daily commute and to complete their work around their own schedule to allow additional time with family.  And as previously mentioned, large corporations can offer things like on-site daycare which is a huge benefit to employees with children in light of the rising costs of childcare.

Many organizations have also added indirect compensation elements focused on employee wellness initiatives.  Things like having health clubs on-site with free memberships for employees, offering yoga classes or massage therapy during the work day, offering complementary breakfasts, arranging social outings like sporting events and concerts and by offering free wellness seminars for staff.  It is in every company’s best interest to concentrate on reducing stress at work and in their employee’s personal lives.  Wellness initiatives in the workplace can result in less employee absenteeism due to illness and workplace injuries.

And when it comes to the direction actual financial compensation packages are heading, there have been a number of changes in this regard.  There has been a shift from pay for job and status to pay for individual employee skills and contributions.  As well, discretionary bonuses have been replaced by incentive awards for achieving defined goals and objectives.  Innovative compensation programs also include:

Broad-banding — or reducing the number of pay grades in an organization while expanding the actual salary ranges.  The benefit here is being able to expand the actual pay for performance and competency component.

Competency-based programs — involves identifying the skills employees need to possess in order to meet expectations in a given position.  The key benefit here is that the employee continually upgrades their skills and the emphasis is on paying the individual and not the job.

Incentive compensation — this is pay that is directly connected to the performance of the individual or the team and has been found to increase employee performance in the right environment.  The right environment means employees are actually motivated by money, the employee’s efforts and results are measurable and the potential rewards are significant.

The final trend in compensation to discuss is stock options, the leading means of compensation for executives and managers in the 1990s.  With stock options, the employee owns the option to buy stock in their company at a price that is fixed beforehand and is exercised by a specific date.  The goal here would be to motivate the employee to work hard to create the greatest possible value for their company.  So when the time came for the employee to buy the stock, they would hopefully earn the expected additional value of the stock by purchasing at the lower price.  Some companies are getting away from stock options because of their inherent volatility and are moving towards a more controllable and predictable system that involves providing variable compensation that is tied to medium and long-term strategic goals. Still, stock options remain a component for high-level positions in many organizations.  Some feel they are a good avenue for executive staff to share in a company’s success and to create value for those professionals who are committed to the company for long-term goals.

All of the various approaches to employee compensation that have been covered are not appropriate for every type of organization.  To implement programs that promote wellness initiatives or competency and performance based compensation for example, requires a significant investment of time and resources.  While the planning and implementation required is no small task, it can pay large dividends for the organization in the areas of employee development and satisfaction, as well as achieving corporate goals and objectives.  In summary, the best compensation system for any organization is one that ties the interests of the employees with that of the company and creates real commitment among staff to work together to strengthen the corporation.  The best method is to conduct a complete and thorough analysis of the company to determine what motivates the particular staff members at each level of the organization.  Based on this information, the appropriate vehicles for compensation as discussed previously can be implemented.  This should create a workforce that is motivated and engaged, which should facilitate the achievement of corporate goals and objectives.

About Chris Dugas

Chris is the managing director of London, Ontario based ZOO Media Group a full service marketing and web development agency. He and the ZOO team have extensive experience working with Human Resources departments on projects ranging from employee recognition programs, virtual job fair sites, employee handbooks, and communications for new-hire orientation programs. ZOO helps HR departments develop impactful and engaging materials that both attract new hires and connect with current employees. They also provide custom website and intranet website development, search engine optimization and digital marketing services to companies throughout North America.


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