Employee engagement

Using Total Rewards for a Great Employee Experience

Brian Anderson
February 6, 2020
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When you think about employee experience at your organization, consider this: employees want experiences that continue to invigorate them—not just by fulfilling their basic needs, but by offering career growth and expansion opportunities to look forward to.

That’s where Total Rewards come in. Total Rewards encompasses everything that an employee needs for a positive employee experience, rather than just focusing solely on compensation.

Abraham Maslow categorized these needs in his famous pyramid, where each need must be met before moving on to the next. Later, Frederick Herzberg found that not all of these motivators were created equal. While meeting basic needs would reduce dissatisfaction, additional support in the same areas wouldn’t necessarily produce satisfaction.

This means your organization can offer high salary and gold-standard benefits, but still have a stream of disengaged employees heading out the door.

Instead of starting and ending with compensation, the concept of Total Rewards addresses the full spectrum of employee engagement and employee motivation, covering what your employees need today and what they want tomorrow. An effective Total Rewards program covers the short-term, mid-term, and long-term needs of an employee for a comprehensive employee experience.

Short-term rewards


Compensation forms the base of the motivational pyramid.

For the most part, compensation and benefits relieve the dissatisfaction that comes from physiological or safety concerns. Your current paycheck lets you eat for the day, the continuity of paychecks reassures you that your standard of life is secure, and your benefits protect you from unforeseen disasters. But is this enough for a positive employee experience?

Your employees will ask themselves the same question: what is the money for? Is it an implied trade-off for long hours away from their loved ones? Is it a measurement of their bargaining ability come the annual review? Or is it a true reflection of their value as a contributing member of your organization?

Before you can develop satisfaction with the other areas of your Total Rewards program, you need to lock down your compensation and benefits plans and ensure that you communicate them to your employees.

Consider the following when reviewing your compensation and benefits as part of your Total Rewards strategy:

  • Compensation: whether it’s an annual salary or regular hourly wages, fixed compensation gives employees a benchmark for building their lives. Developing a standardized compensation plan for each position helps prevent unfavorable pay comparisons among your employees (such as a salary compression scenario).
  • Variable compensation: in a variable compensation plan, the same basic needs still apply. Do employees with variable compensation regularly earn enough to support their standard of living? Does everyone have the support to succeed and earn more than the bare minimum?
  • Incentives: Adding incentive-pay as part of a short-term project or yearly performance measurement can help employees know that you recognize when they go above and beyond. But it’s important to set and clarify expectations for any incentive pay to avoid having the opposite effect.
  • Benefits: Empower your employees to be experts in their basic benefits, and monitor utilization statistics. BambooHR, before the next open enrollment, our HR team helped educate the team on their benefits, with great results. One employee said, “Let me get this straight—I can save $4,000 this year by switching plans?” Making efforts to help employees understand and make good benefits choices shows that your company’s concern doesn’t stop with a signature on an open enrollment form.


Benefits don’t have to stop at the base of the motivation pyramid: after you shore up the foundation with preventive benefits like medical, dental, and retirement funds, you can add proactive benefits in several different areas:

  • Employee wellness programs: incentivizing healthy behaviors can lead to improvement in employees’ physical health.
  • Mental health care: emphasizing and de-stigmatizing gives employees the mental space to appreciate their workplace
  • Financial health: Holding and reimbursing the cost of financial health classes from a finance professional shows that you care about your employees’ future.
  • Perks: Perks are often a reflection of company culture, and can encompass anything from gym memberships to free lunch to a daycare on the premise. Offering great perks can five your company a competitive advantage to attracting the best talent!

Mid-term rewards

The key thing about Total Rewards is that it's not all about the money! Check out this example from Mad Men episode The Suitcase. After working together to meet a difficult deadline, Peggy confronts Don about taking credit for her successful ad idea.

The confrontation ensues:

Don't be a Don. It's not all about the money, and it shouldn't be. After your employee signs the offer letter, you should be thinking about how to make sure your employees are engaged throughout their tenure. 


Recognizing an employees' contributions builds stronger teams, cultivates richer company culture, and motivates employees to do their best work. When executed successfully, recognition provides positive peer influence and communicates the notion that good work is valued by everyone in the company.

Looking at the bottom line, companies that score highest for building a "recognition-rich culture" have 31% lower turnover rates than their peers. What’s more, employees who don’t feel recognized are twice as likely to quit within a year.

Work-life balance

The traditional concept of work-life balance implies that employees balance time at a thankless job with hours at home doing things that inspire them. Spend eight hours a day at the base of the pyramid, then use the rest for more motivating pursuits.

But work can be more than drudgery. Your Total Rewards program should help employees at your organization enjoy their quality of life—both in and out of the office. This means spending time on meaningful work when they’re at work, and then spending undistracted time on meaningful experiences at home.

Incorporating this into your company values will take coordination and effort. Here are some tips to help employees feel satisfied with how they use their time:

  • Focus time: where applicable, encourage employees to set aside a two-hour block for focused work, and encourage managers and coworkers to respect this time. Often, interruptions (including official interruptions like meetings and shoulder taps) get in the way of employees doing fulfilling work.
  • Well-defined office hours: after making a plan for workday expectations, help everyone stick to it. Offering unlimited PTO or telling everyone to leave right at the end of the shift is one thing; ensuring managers and employees don’t leverage the policy to promote work martyrs is another.
  • Redefine urgency: part of curing work martyrdom comes in setting expectations for evening or weekend emergencies. How many late-night email responses are merely performative signals of hard work? Encourage everyone to turn on their Do Not Disturb!

Performance conversations

Effective performance management is the counterpoint to effective work-life balance policies in your Total Rewards program. Making performance more than an annual conversation can help demonstrate that your company recognizes employees’ efforts and results (instead of looking for work-martyr signals like an 11:00 pm timestamp on yesterday’s email).

Here are some ideas for meaningful and regular performance evaluations:

  • Keep it about performance: separating performance conversations from compensation review helps remove fear, pressure, and posturing.
  • Hold regular 1:1s: making time for managers to meet with each employee, even for half an hour, lets them recognize what’s working well and offer suggestions for improvement.
  • Connect employees with the company: answering employee questions about the company helps connect employees with the resources and information they need, whether it’s communication with another department or a response to the latest buyout rumors.

A Total Rewards program recognizes the full value of your employees’ time—both through performance management that recognizes their in-office contributions and through policies that respect their time away from the office.

Long-term rewards


It’s inevitable that your employees will move on from their current position. But giving them the capacity to take those steps shows that your company cares about developing each employee’s potential as much as its own potential. In a job market with online reviews for employers, your former employees’ gratitude can make all the difference in future recruiting efforts as an ironclad testimonial for your Total Rewards program.

Here are a few Total Rewards strategies that focus on growth:

  • Career progression: talk about development opportunities regularly during performance conversations.
  • Succession planning: decide on opportunities to hire from within, then make a clear program with requirements to support employees who want to move up and the managers who will have to replace them.
  • Support all development: advancement doesn’t always have to mean the management track—a veteran employee can be valuable for their skills and their procedural knowledge.

Continuous rewards

Total Rewards programs aren’t a set-it-and-forget-it approach. It’s a holistic one!

Optimizing your company’s compensation, perks, performance, recognition, and career development policies takes care and monitoring to ensure that you’re truly enhancing the organization’s employee experience.

Your employees will reap the benefits, and your organization will, too! 🤗

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