In its report “Reward Preferences: Making a Lasting Impression on Incentive Program Participants,” the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) has published an examination of which types of rewards employees prefer the most, which rewards employers use most frequently and which rewards most closely correlate to motivation. The IRF surveyed 1,500 U.S.-based full-time employees representing a cross section of industries.

“Reward Preferences reports which rewards employees say they want, and then examines which rewards correlate to motivation. There are some surprising differences between these two lists,” says Stephanie Harris, president of the IRF. “Well-designed incentive programs factor in both employee preferences as well as the impact of the reward on motivation and engagement.”

Respondents were asked to choose their top- and bottom-three preferred types of recognition, as well as their next top- and bottom-four preferences, out of a list of 24 options. The IRF notes that the gifts of time and experience led the choices. Employees ranked getting a paid day off as the top preference, with 49 percent listing it among their top three preferences and another 21 percent placing it among their next four top preferences. Rounding out the top six are flexible scheduling, having the company pay for lunch or dinner with your family, having the company pay all expenses to a special event, and gift cards for food or merchandise.

The IRF’s research found that while employees expressed a strong preference for cash bonuses as an annual reward, this reward did not highly correlate to motivation or job satisfaction. It notes that often cash bonuses are treated similarly to compensation and used to pay expenses rather than having the same trophy value or emotional resonance as some of the other reward options.

The study also addresses the effects of the pandemic on employee preferences. Only 16 percent indicated their reward and recognition preferences had changed since the pandemic. Also, interest in incentive travel is still high since the pandemic as the net decrease in interest in travel experiences that involved flying was less than one percent.

To read more of the IRF’s findings, click here.