by Alex Palmer | July 18, 2017

Hillary Bamont, director of sales for incentive and meeting planning firm Bishop-McCann, sees a growing demand for experiences and emotional impact when it comes to creating a loyalty incentive program.

"Companies are now looking at tapping into the emotions of their employees and what resonates on that level in order to make them feel valued," she says. "It's all about the experience and how you made them feel versus the actual object. Don't get me wrong; it's human nature to like gifts, but a gift that has thought behind it is even more impactful."

For some of Bishop-McCann's clients, that's meant creating programs that include tailored attention from the executive level. She gives the example of providing those employees who have worked with a company for five years with a personalized luncheon or cocktail reception with the CEO, along with an extra week of paid vacation. For every 10 years, workers are offered an exotic incentive trip -- hosted by executives of the company.

"It's a few days of pampering and one-on-one attention and recognition and the employee goes back to their job feeling refreshed and valued," says Bamont.

She adds that they have created "once-in-a-lifetime experiences" such as a recent private concert on Alcatraz Island.

"It's the experience and the fact that you created a once-in-a-lifetime moment that resonates with employees and retains loyalty," she says. "Employees want to feel valued, especially during economic uncertainty. You can always scale back budgets, but you never want to scale back how you make people feel."

McClellan has also seen over the past decade this greater premium on experiences over objects.

"[Rewards are] becoming far less tenure- or time-based in nature, and the measure of loyalty is grounded more in the implicit and explicit quality of the relationship between employer and employee," he says.

He is seeing traditional measures of success, such as length of service, abandoned for more near-term goals that encourage younger workers to emerge as "positive disruptors for accelerating change." This has meant that more organizations are offering alternative rewards that provide more choices for quality of life experiences -- such as adventure, travel, hobbies, and entertainment -- in order to strengthen the emotional bond between company and employee, earlier in the relationship.

Derek Irvine, Globoforce

Derek Irvine, vice president of client strategy and consulting at Globoforce, emphasizes that best practices for length-of-service awards can vary from one organization to another, but the ultimate goal, especially in times of economic challenge, is to remind workers that they are valued and appreciated.

"As we continue to see traditional pillars of HR crumble, HR professionals should leverage reward systems that encourage more human workplace cultures where collaborative, coaching cultures are established and enforced within their organizations," says Irvine. "This can be done through social recognition programs, which, like rewards programs, offer employees the opportunity to receive rewards, but also give them."

But it's not just about getting workers to stick around -- it's also about getting them to do more while they are there. Irvine points to recent findings in the "Employee Experience Index" from the Globoforce WorkHuman Research Institute and the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute, which found that employees who experience a sense of belonging, purpose, achievement, happiness, and vigor are more likely to perform at higher levels.

"More positive employee experiences are linked to better performance, extra effort at work, and lower turnover intentions," says Irvine.

He cited several key organizational practices that help create these positive employee experiences and strengthen their bonds to an organization. These include: organizational trust; coworker relationships; meaningful work; recognition and feedback, and growth; empowerment and voice; and work-life balance.

"Rewards have traditionally been the method to achieve employee loyalty, but they are not the only way," stresses Irvine. "The way to encourage employee loyalty is through creating a more human workplace culture. Culture is what manages employees when managers are not around. It's strong workplace culture that also allows those employees to be guided on what to do when nobody is looking. That is the secret of success."

In the case of Michael C. Fina, that's meant the introduction of programs such as NotesPlus, which adds a social media and mobile-first component to its on-the-spot Recognition Notes program.

"Many employees decide to leave within the first six months, so if you are in the market for building loyalty, showing consistent gratitude in that time is crucial," says Himelstein. "We've seen many companies start to offer onboarding kits and make the 'first day' a recognition event in itself, and then continue that push throughout the first year leading up to the first-year service anniversary."   

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This article appears in the July/August 2017 issue of Incentive.