This year, companies offering incentive programs to employees will navigate pent-up demand for travel, Zoom fatigue, virtual offices and new job-seekers. These workforce changes are highlighted in the Incentive Research Foundation’s 2021 Trend Report, which identifies key trends that will affect employees and a sales landscape that has been dramatically changed by the pandemic.

“The incentives industry experienced massive shifts in 2020 that impact incentive program planning and execution in 2021 and beyond,” says IRF President Stephanie Harris. “The IRF 2021 Trends Report explores how incentive programs will need to be reimagined to motivate a changing workforce, accelerate recovery and meet the evolving goals of post-pandemic companies.”

The IRF has identified several top trends for incentive, reward and recognition programs in 2021. These include an increase in individual rewards as last year, incentives professionals had a unique opportunity to re-examine the value of individual rewards. Merchandise, points, gift cards and individual travel rewards proved to be powerful motivators, and this trend will continue into 2021. Also, merchandise and gift cards proved to be effective motivators to broader audiences during the pandemic. Looking ahead, smaller reward amounts can be used to “move the middle” 60 percent of producers and raise the overall performance of the organization.

Large group events were deferred but remain a priority. Organizations continue to value incentive travel award programs, and many are committed to resuming large group events, despite a series of delays in 2020 and into 2021. And as personalization and choice increase the impact of a reward, program owners are developing innovative ways to include personalization throughout their programs in order to make a lasting impression on program participants. Increased reward choice, curated selection and rewards that align with the organization’s culture have maximum impact.

Contracting and contingency planning are more important than ever. The need for planning for disruptions took top priority as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The IRF’s report stresses that whether designing a large-scale incentive travel program or a local experiential reward, contracts need to be carefully reviewed and contingency plans expanded to anticipate new and evolving disruptions.

Many segments of the workforce accelerated the move to working virtually during the pandemic, and many people will likely continue to work remotely in 2021 and beyond. Many lessons were learned about the power of virtual engagement and digital delivery of rewards—and their limitations. The IRF notes that incorporating these lessons into communications strategies can help drive program adoption and success.

A full copy of the report is available at the IRF 2021 Trends Report webpage.