This blog series explores ‘back to work’ implications from a neuro perspective. As post-pandemic brains collectively transition out of ‘mandatory work from home’ mode, companies are having to rethink remuneration in order to attract and retain top talent.

As the pandemic has revealed, a job is not merely an economic transaction. As social beings we have a deeply wired need for connection with others, a sense of belonging, flexibility and meaningful work.  These experiences activate our brain’s pleasure and reward circuitry – in much the same way that experiencing a financial windfall does.  As the boundary between home and work life continues to blur, employees are questioning what their jobs are really worth in the bigger picture of their overall lives. How can companies leverage what we now know about what motivates human engagement and decisions?

Loss = Pain

Our brain has a built-in negativity bias with five times the neural circuitry for processing threatening information than we do for experiencing anything positive or rewarding. Our brain tags any kind of loss as ‘bad’, kicking off a processing shortcut that activates our pain circuitry and reducing our executive brain functioning.  Employers who reduce people’s pay or entitlements because they wish to stay working from home for example, are likely to trigger strong negative reactions from their workers including lower engagement and performance, or even resignation.

Social Reward as Remuneration

A better way is to package remuneration in ways that explicitly take care of our innate need to experience rewarding social experiences.  There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach that will work.  However here are 3 simple ways to consider:

1.  Choosing Choice

As human beings, we crave flexibility and options to satisfy our human need to feel a level of control and choice over our lives. This is something we haven’t felt during the course of the pandemic.  Some companies now offer ‘work from anywhere’ and ‘unlimited vacations’ to satisfy the shifting expectations of employees looking to optimize their living experience by exercising choice in how they work. Offering choice as to how remuneration is paid out, potentially a combination of monthly pay, additional agreed time off, an increased health spending account, and many other individual and creative ways can be incorporated to recognize an employee’s particular interests and needs.

 2.  The Fairness Factor

When we experience something that feels unfair it triggers a strong negative response in our brain. This region, called the insula, can elicit a series of strong emotional responses including disgust and outrage, impairing our capacity to think clearly or make sound decisions.  Employers who proactively demonstrate fairness by being transparent, inviting input and ideas to design new policies, and giving a rationale for remuneration changes made, are less likely to trigger this highly reactive response from employees.

3.  Status is Sweet

Our social status or sense of relative importance when compared to others, is something our brains find intoxicatingly rewarding. When we feel our social status go up, it has been shown in scientific studies to be more rewarding than receiving money*. Smart companies are tapping into this innate driver of engagement by providing high-quality equipment, perks, and benefits to employees and redesigning corporate office space as a high-end destination experience to appeal to our need to feel special and valued. Providing increased opportunity for development and advancement can also take the place of pay increases or bonus, and may be perceived as having longer-term benefit to individuals as a recognition of their worth to the company.

Understanding how we value certain experiences will be a key differentiator for attracting, remunerating, and retaining top talent. Our next blog will look at the importance of having the right workspace in order to perform well.

* Scott, Dapretto, et al., 2008, Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience Journal