It's time to align the needs of your people to your total rewards 

The competition for top talent is extremely difficult at this moment in time. For corporate attraction and retention efforts to be successful, it’s becoming increasingly important that employers understand employees’ needs.

Those needs may be very different from several years ago because the workforce is aging, ethnic diversity is increasing, and the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted employees’ values. COVID has also challenged the traditional work-life structure, showing companies that the future of work may need to be more flexible than previously imagined.

In this new environment, employers must work hard to understand how they can best support their employees. That’s how they’ll create a competitive employee experience and differentiate themselves from the competition. Companies must identify ‘value creators’ or things they can offer, that employees truly value, which may be hard for other companies to replicate. Most companies struggle to find value creators in their rewards packages, and the result is a race to the middle where many rewards programs are similar and often mediocre.

But the better you understand your employees’ critical unmet needs, the better you can define such value creators and stand out. Unmet needs are the things in employees’ lives that cause stress and keep them up at night. These things may or may not be related to work but still hold people back from performing their best, such as health concerns, debt, the ability to care for their children, or other persistent and unrelenting fears and anxieties.

There are three key steps to identify your company’s value creators and develop a rewards program that meets employees’ unmet needs:

  1. Understand the unmet needs of your workforce.
  2. Leverage insights to inform your strategy.
  3. Test your hypotheses.

Understand the unmet needs of your workforce

Lack of data is a major reason why many companies fail to address employees’ unmet needs. Traditionally, HR leadership has relied heavily on personal experience, anecdotes, or engagement survey data. These means of gathering information can yield important insights, but anecdotal evidence fails to uncover the specific unmet needs of the workforce. Gut feelings can lead to misunderstandings about the true root problems, which can lead to remedies that miss the mark.

Without research and empirical data, many companies end up offering benefits and services their employees don’t use or appreciate, wasting resources and missing out on a unique opportunity to create value for their employees.

The first step to gain reliable data on employees’ unmet needs is to conduct a study. The study should ask a series of questions that seek to identify your employees’ most pressing fears and worries, such as being able to afford childcare, having enough time to handle all responsibilities, paying off debt, or worrying that their job will be replaced by artificial intelligence.

The survey questions help to determine both the ranking of priorities and the magnitude by which an employee chooses one option over another, which can lead to surprising, and actionable, insights. 

Leverage insights to inform your strategy.

Once you’ve completed the study and analyzed the data, you can take these incredibly rich insights around your employees’ fears and worries and use them to formulate hypotheses about how to meet unmet needs. Conduct a brainstorm to come up with the types of rewards that would address the concerns and deliver value.

But don’t just throw ideas out and see what sticks; the brainstorm should be strategic and thoughtful, following your investment in data-gathering. Consider ideas that will create an employee-centric culture and fill the needs gap directly. For example, if your study revealed that parents are strained by the cost of childcare in their area, you could offer a childcare reimbursement benefit or even onsite childcare.

By coming up with data-driven solutions, companies can save time and resources and prevent the implementation of new solutions that ultimately won’t meet the needs of their workforce.

Test your hypotheses

To ensure that the solution you plan to offer will actually meet the needs of employees and deliver the anticipated value, it’s important to understand how much the workforce values current rewards and benefits, and how satisfied they are with the current offerings. We recommend that you conduct additional research to determine employees’ sensitivity and receptiveness to changes in the rewards program. You may discover that employees love certain rewards and don’t want them to change.

You can also test hypotheses by implementing pilot programs, which can provide insights on a smaller scale, or conducting full conjoint research or digital focus groups.


In a perfect world, companies would be able to meet every need of every employee. But reality dictates that organizations must be realistic about what they are—and are not—able to address. To manage resources efficiently, your business must narrow down the types of rewards packages you’re able to offer. A few companies might be able to address a broad range of needs, but most organizations will need to use their time and resources by focusing on areas of need that are both achievable and cost effective.

But when you use data to and create and test hypotheses about your employees’ unmet needs and the benefits and rewards that will fill the gaps, you’ll be better positioned to attract and retain the top talent available in the workforce.

About the author(s)
Lauren Mason

Principal, Career

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