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5 Major Incentive Trends for 2021


The 2021 IRF Annual Trends Report examines the effectiveness and administration of incentive programs and identifies trends to look out for.

What’s Working in 2021

Incentive Research Foundation’s annual Trends Report is a reliable industry bellwether for what’s working in the big picture of employee incentives. The 2021 report takes on some extra heavy lifting as it examines how COVID-19, an economic downturn, and a rapid shift to virtual offices have impacted the effectiveness and administration of incentive programs and identifies future incentive trends to look out for.

The report collects all IRF pulse survey data from 2020 and provides a clear picture of how employee incentives have adapted amid uncertainty about budgets, engagement levels, and reward effectiveness. Here are some key points covered in the report that every HR manager should know:

  • Merchandise and Gift Cards – Quarantines, travel bans, and remote offices have increased the prevalence of merchandise and gift cards in incentive programs, with a predicted 2021 increase of 24% and 33%, respectively. IRF notes that “significant merchandise gifts” was ranked in both their top five employee preferences and top five motivators.
  • Incentive Travel – While the industry is preparing for a strong return to incentive travel, there are still too many factors up in the air like venue staffing/availability, ongoing travel restrictions, and social distancing requirements to know for sure how it will play out in 2021.
  • Tiered Programs – Organizations are still finding that strong, tiered incentives programs are the best way to reach every participant and offering a wider variety of per-person spend can help rebuild trust, morale, and engagement. This includes but is not limited to incentives and special benefits for employees who receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Personalized Rewards – 2020 has put pressure on companies to provide more meaningful and personalized experiences with incentives that consider an employee’s specific work/life situation. Putting thought into the overall reward experience with creative branding and program structures can go a long way toward offsetting feelings of isolation.
  • Virtual Engagement/Digital Delivery – The importance of having a swift, responsive, and trackable method for delivering digital rewards is crucial to keeping employees engaged in 2021. IRF stresses that a combination of methods, i.e. offering digital rewards during a virtual meeting, can also reduce overall administration time.

Move Forward with Confidence

The far-reaching report covers many more insights in the meticulous detail IRF is known for, based on extensive 2020 survey data. We highly encourage you to download and read the full report for further insights into incentive trends how we can better prepare to move forward in 2021.