“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is today.”– African proverb
“Getting woke,” according to Urban Dictionary, is like being in the sci-fi film classic The Matrix and taking the red pill. You get a sudden understanding of what’s really going on and find out you were wrong about much of what you understood to be truth. “Being woke” means being aware and knowing what’s going on in your community.
Total rewards professionals, it’s time to get woke. It’s time to be a shape-shifter, a workplace disruptor, a champion of transformational change. It’s time to embrace the role of innovator and become a hands-on leader who shapes the employee experience while advancing your organization’s mission with a tailored total rewards approach.
“This is a terrific time to be in the rewards space,” said WorldatWork CEO and President Scott Cawood.
“The complete revolution of total rewards — the emerging leaders who will be doing the best work in the next decade — will be those [TR professionals] who are willing to dismantle the whole thing.”
How to Lead the Dismantling
This is no easy assignment. You work in a long-established discipline traditionally focused on rules and regulations that dictate what you can and can’t do with your company’s rewards programs.
“Companies that are stretching the boundaries in terms of total rewards are … getting the attention of employees,” said Greg Roche, the director of compensation at a large health-care company. “Being pushed to innovate means understanding the constraints, legal and otherwise, and figuring out what you can offer that is attractive without going beyond these constraints. Is it comfortable for most of us? No, but neither is exercise, and we all know we need to be doing more of that, too.”
With or without an on-site company fitness center, you’re living in an über fast, competitive work environment where your CEO expects you to be agile and forward-thinking. Meanwhile, you’re dealing with a multi-generational workforce that expects to be equipped with all the bells and whistles: the latest consumer-grade applications, bean bags for office chairs, doggie day spas, hot yoga rooms and, while you’re at it, free food and drink as often as possible.
“I’m not in favor of creating Pinocchio’s island,” said futurist Jacob Morgan, author of The Employee Experience Advantage (2017) and The Future of Work (2014). “If you introduce something like free food, it might be cool for a while … [but] it conditions your employees to be attached to a perk. If you remove that perk, now employees are going to be angry. It has nothing to do with the [work] space, the company, the environment.”
Getting gifts all the time is not a healthy relationship. Instead of investing in short-term benefits, Morgan said, employers should invest in the employee experience, which is “a combination of three environments: culture, technology and physical space.”
“This is a longer term but more scalable and beneficial approach for both the employees and the organization,” he said.
How to Deal with the New Deal
You’ve long heard the rumblings: The old employment deal is dead. The employee value proposition — what employees receive and what employers expect of them in return — has changed (and is continually evolving).
“Many TR programs are designed on an employment contract that no longer exists,” Cawood said. “They treat the masses of their employee population similarly. Rewards professionals should disrupt this process. They should be building new programs that foster innovation and provide their people with the freedom and agility for success.”
Part of the new employment deal opposes the locked-down mindset of pay secrecy and requires you to wrap your head around the trend of pay transparency, a long taboo subject in the business world that has morphed into a potential competitive advantage.
You’re living in a post-modern Twitterverse where employees regularly sound off to their social media followers and share salary data. During lunch breaks they compare pay rates on websites such as Glassdoor.com. From you, their in-house rewards specialist, they expect goodwill and customization. How should TR pros respond?
“It may be best for TR pros to not respond when employees share on social media how much money they earn,” said Christine Walters, a human resource consultant and employment law attorney. “This might be a great opportunity for the employer to hold up the mirror. Why do you care? Is it because you are embarrassed knowing you pay below the market?”
If you think the information is proprietary and not within the employee’s right to disclose, the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would likely not agree with you, Walters said.
States and local jurisdictions that now prohibit employers from asking candidates about their salary history also are enacting laws that protect the employees’ right to disclose their own wages and even the wages of co-workers.
“The pace of legislation and regulation impacting TR is shifting from the federal to the state and local levels at an increasing rate,” Walters said.
Instead of fighting pay transparency, TR pros should incorporate sites such as Glassdoor and LinkedIn into their market data strategy, Roche said.
“Along with traditional surveys, we should be showing this data to employees and explaining how it differs from source to source,” he said. “I don’t think we as total rewards pros have done a good job of explaining to our employees how we do what we do. In the end, transparency is something we’ll all have to embrace, and the companies that can use it to their advantage will be the ones that win talent.”
How to Plan for the Revolution
If you ask the experts, TR pros face an exciting future of reinvention. You will be tasked to employ a fresh set of skills (interpersonal, advisory and analytical) that will prepare you to embrace and effect change, much of it driven by:
- A collaborative work environment that demands an understanding of departments outside the rewards domain
- Artificial intelligence (AI) applications that help facilitate the onboarding of new hires, and eventually perform job evaluation and market analysis
- The increasing presence of contingent workers and independent contractors
- A culture that ties diversity, inclusion and wellness into your TR practices, programs and philosophies.
Step aside, TR pro, and delegate your administrative and repetitive tasks to AI so that you can build programs that “leverage behavioral economics” and drive actions that benefit both the employee and company, said Roche.
“AI is already changing the way we work,” said Amy DeVylder Levanat, director in human capital and benefits for Willis Towers Watson.
Evolve with the times and focus on “professional development opportunities that embody agile thinking, interpersonal and communication skills and digital adaption” — skills necessary for the changing nature of work, DeVylder Levanat said, citing conclusions drawn from the Global Talent 2021 study conducted by Oxford Economics and Willis Towers Watson.
Look for ways to connect with your workforce, even if the effect is not that evident or immediate. Sit down and talk to your employees. Build your own feedback mechanism. An annual engagement survey doesn’t cut it.
“I don’t know where these crazy practices come from: once a year feedback, don’t talk to your boss’s boss, cubicles … It’s mind-blowing,” Morgan said.
“You should design your company’s workspaces and [employee] experiences the same way we design our lives.”
You’ve long heard the rumblings: The old employment deal is dead. The employee value proposition has changed.
There’s no magic sauce that will invariably result in engagement. Many employees today desire much more from their job than pay and benefits. They desire a career. They desire a connection to the organization’s mission and vision. They desire acceptance and approval. So how do you measure the employer-employee value exchange when a lot of what they crave — for example, professional development and flexibility in how and where they work — is non-monetary and near impossible to quantify?
“You give it to them but hold them accountable,” Morgan said. “The first thing they need to be accountable for is to help us build this organization. It’s this notion that we’re OK with workplace flexibility and customization, but this needs to be a two-way street.”
What does this mean in practice? For one, stop thinking in terms of transactions and more about employee experience.
“You’re no longer in human resources,” Morgan said. “You’re in human transformation.” You are woke. No red pill necessary.
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