15 September, 2020


Over the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the employee experience, changing everything from where people work to how they interact with clients, colleagues and customers. Now there are signs that the pandemic is affecting employees’ fundamental expectations and assumptions about work. For example, one recent study found that almost half of employees want to continue working remotely after quarantines end. Other research shows that as pandemic-induced stress levels rise, interest in personal health and wellness is increasing.

For HR leaders and decision-makers, this raises a critical question: Is your employee value proposition (EVP) aligned with your workforce’s current and future needs? Are the rewards, benefits and incentives you were using to attract, engage and retain talent before COVID-19 still as relevant in a dramatically altered world of work?

The evolving employee contract
Organizational approaches to rewards have changed drastically in recent decades. Traditionally, the design of compensation systems and EVPs was almost exclusively based on extrinsic motivators and financial incentives. This strategy was common in the 20th century, when the loyalty contract characterized the psychological relationship between employer and employee. At the core of this relationship was a basic deal: Organizations provided pay, benefits and job security in exchange for a lifetime of commitment from employees.

Many organizations realize this deal is no longer tenable, or even desirable, for multiple reasons. First, a growing body of research — including our own — shows that while pay and benefits are important, most employees also want jobs that are intrinsically motivating and provide a sense of meaning, purpose and personal impact. Second, new technologies have transformed the employee experience, changing how and where work can be done. This has led to an increased interest in remote work and flexible work arrangements. Third, automation, artificial intelligence and the Fourth Industrial Revolution have made learning and development, training and reskilling increasingly crucial for many segments of the workforce. And the global pandemic has heightened concerns about mental wellbeing, physical health and personal safety.    


Because of these changes, a growing number of organizations have started to provide their employees with a holistic set of rewards and benefits, considering not just their financial interests, but also their psychological needs, emotional wellbeing, work-life balance, professional development, and personal health and fitness. Based on an extensive five-year analysis of our normative data, this whole-person approach makes sense. Consistent with Maslow’s theory of motivation and Alderfer’s ERG model, we have found that employees are more likely to feel committed and engaged when they experience a deep sense of security, support and significance at work.

Is your EVP future-proof?
As the pandemic unfolds, it is raising new questions and concerns for many employees. Based on our research, many workers are worried about both the security of their jobs and the safety of their offices. After months of remote work and isolation, many are struggling to feel supported by their leaders, their managers and their colleagues. And amid a global health crisis that has turned the world upside down, some employees are reflecting on the significance of their jobs, the purpose of their organizations and the future of their careers.

These kinds of questions and concerns are causing many organizations to realize that a new shape of work — one that will require fundamentally different approaches to various people practices — is emerging. For example, flexible work is likely to become the norm in many organizations because of the pandemic. So too is cost containment: After years of economic growth and expansion, many organizations have been forced to focus on cost optimization because of the economic fallout of COVID-19. This is causing knock-on concerns about talent engagement and retention. Even though the job market is tight, many organizations realize they could lose top talent — either now or in the near future — if they mismanage their total rewards strategy over the next 12 months.

Considering the size and scope of these changes, now is a critical time to determine if your EVP is still compelling. Here are four ways to learn what your workforce wants, and evaluate the appeal and effectiveness of your total rewards strategy.


  • Explore experiences: One of the best ways to learn what your employees need in a post-COVID world is to start a dialogue. If you have not asked your workforce how they are coping with this crisis, you are missing critical information. During times like these, it is vital to give your employees the opportunity to share their personal experiences. One of the best ways to have these discussions quickly — particularly with employees who are still working remotely — is to conduct online focus groups. Across various organizational studies that we have conducted during the pandemic, many of the most powerful insights have come from asking open-ended questions, allowing employees to voice their perspective, and using advanced qualitative methods like natural language processing and computational grounded theory to develop a rich description of what is helping employees cope with the pandemic.  

  • Evaluate expectations: Focus groups are a good way to start a conversation with your workforce about how the pandemic has affected their work experience. But it is essential to get a quantitative read on how the pandemic is affecting their workplace preferences and expectations. We have found that one of the most efficient ways to do this is to administer a short Q-sort survey. This unique methodology asks employees to rank order the relative importance of a broad set of general EVP offerings and elements (for example, fair pay, good benefits, flexible work, remote work and training). Then, using various statistical techniques, you can develop an evidence-based understanding of what your employees need now and in the future. We recently used this approach to ask 485 global employees, including 197 men and 288 women, about their most pressing needs during the pandemic. We found that female respondents — in comparison to male respondents — were significantly more concerned about managing their workload and maintaining their work-life balance.

  • Identify trade-offs: If you want to start reimagining what your EVP could look like, focus groups and Q-sort surveys are good ways to gather foundational feedback from your employees. But if you want to make substantive changes to your core offerings, a more rigorous approach — one that asks employees to consider trade-offs and carefully consider what they value — is required. Our experience shows that conjoint research generates the most empirically grounded insights about the value employees place on their total rewards. When we conduct conjoint research with clients, we start by asking them to identify all the specific EVP elements they are considering offering to their employees. We then take those elements and arrange them in a series of balanced design comparison sets, usually consisting of three or four elements. Research participants are presented with each set of elements (for example, a company match on 401(k); remote work two days a week; compressed workweek; training stipend) and asked to select the most and least valuable. The resulting analysis generates a utility score for each element — a clear quantification of the value that employees place on each EVP offering. If your organization is seeking clarity on how best to invest in your people, this is the kind of information you need to make evidence-based choices.

  • Identify preference patterns: In a post-COVID world, the days of one-size-fits-all employment contracts are quickly becoming outdated. More and more people want to manage their own work experiences and establish idiosyncratic employment arrangements — or personalized deals — with their employers. The pandemic is accelerating this trend, raising a multitude of personal challenges for employees based on their career stage, their personal lives outside of work and their future aspirations. If you are redesigning your EVP, it’s critical that you determine the extent to which employee preferences vary by segment. We use various research techniques, including cluster analysis, profile analysis and personas, to identify preference patterns and determine the extent to which EVP offerings will need to flex to meet the needs of a particular workforce. Our recent research reveals that employees’ pandemic-related needs and experiences often vary based on their gender, their generation, their job level and their caregiving status.  

No one can predict what work will look like once this pandemic has passed. But one thing is sure: The war for talent will continue. Now is an important time to talk with your employees, evaluate your total rewards strategy and start designing an EVP for the new shape of work.

Patrick Hyland, PhD
by Patrick Hyland, PhD

Research and Development, Mercer Employee Research