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Benefits Column

Can Benefits Drive Innovation?

Giving employees more autonomy can foster innovation as well as job satisfaction, according to a recent book. But is there a connection between autonomy and long-term wellness? Can organizations incent long-term, sustainable lifestyle-behavior change?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010
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Rosemary O'Neill, president of Social Strata, a social-media company that "provides online community applications for people and their businesses," made an attention-getting announcement on her blog on Jan. 10.

"As of today, we've made a somewhat radical change to our corporate policies.  Every single full-time Social Strata employee now has access to unlimited paid leave."  

Sign me up.

I asked Rosemary why she made this benefits change. "We feel strongly," she says, "that the new policy dovetails very well with our actual development process.  Our 'secret sauce' for our products and services is member control -- meaning we put a strong emphasis on allowing people to decide who sees each piece of content they post.  

"When you give individuals tools to control their own destiny, they tend to feel invested ... they feel ownership.  That goes for products as well as the people who develop and sell them. Our staff is given a lot of autonomy for that reason and this policy change is just another reflection of that culture."

Social Strata's new policy enriched an already extensive benefits mix, including 100-percent company-paid employee-health insurance. In addition to alignment with corporate culture, why would a company go this far?

Dan Pink suggests in his new book, Drive, that it has everything to do with fostering innovation and "Type I" or intrinsically motivated employees. At the center of Type I behavior is the employee's drive toward experiencing the inherent satisfaction of the work they do.

The Type I way includes providing employees with a work setting where they experience "autonomy, mastery and purpose," as well as compensating "people in amounts and ways that allow individuals to mostly forget about compensation (and benefits) and instead focus on the work itself."

I asked Dan about his baseline compensation-package requirements to ensure "internal and external fairness and to pay more than average," including what advice he would give human resource executives who are trying to balance rising bottom-line costs with increasing employee creativity, satisfaction and productivity.

"I think you've still got to do whatever you can to make sure you don't violate the norm of fairness. If you do, you're sunk," Pink says. "Beyond that, I encourage experiments with greater autonomy. They could try things like "FedEx Days" -- one-day bursts of autonomy during which people can work on anything they want and show the rest of the company the results at the end of 24 hours. ... What's more, simply giving people far greater autonomy over their time can do wonders for job satisfaction."

I wonder how employers could incent employees to maintain or improve their health without infringing on their employees' autonomy.

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"This is a really tough one that extends far beyond the workplace," Pink says. "To some extent ... incentives could work. But I've always thought the better approach was to change the architecture of the workplace to encourage these things.

"For instance, a company could serve only healthy choices in the cafeteria. ... The reality check, though, is that work is only part of people's lives. If they're making bad choices elsewhere, this can be an uphill battle."

But is there any way to incent long-term, sustainable lifestyle-behavior change?

Pink thinks the keys are threefold.  

"First, it's important to focus on only one or two things. Giving people a whole variety of aims can distract.

"Second, we need to prize the long-term over the short-term. It's much more important to make slow, regular progress than quick, dramatic progress.  Habits -- good or bad -- form slowly. But once they do form, they're hard to break.  

"Third, it's important that people do things for the right reasons. ... People who lose weight for more intrinsic reasons -- to feel more vital and healthy, to be there for their family -- make slower progress in weight loss but keep off the weight for far, far longer."

Wall Street is closely following corporate initiatives related to research and innovation as we wind our way through this recession. Company-benefits policies may be a hallmark to track true commitment to attracting and retaining game-changing employees.

As for me, I've become a believer. I'm polishing my résumé so I can work for Social Strata.

Carol Harnett is a highly respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett.

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