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by Lisa A. Grimaldi | April 01, 2012

A new study by the St. Louis-based Incentive Research Founda­tion has identified 12 key trends influencing incentive programs this year. The observations were based on the IRF's proprietary research and more than 40 business studies from sources including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and McKinsey & Co.

Among the key influencers cited was the increasing velocity of change in the workplace, which is causing planning and response cycles to shrink. Other key trends:

• Continued worries over the economy are leading firms to cut back on gifts, choose destinations closer to home (83 percent are holding programs in the U.S. and 55 percent in the Caribbean) and trim per-person spending for incentive group travel (the average is $2,603). Firms now are offering more individual travel certificates (40 percent of respondents in a recent IRF survey used them) and increasingly are using gift cards.

• Gaming mechanics continue to shape reward programs, with one in five incentive planners using the technology on program websites.

• Proof that motivation and incentives deliver results is being presented to top executives. Planners are demonstrating ROI for their programs, and speaking the language of business and finance to further the acceptance of incentives at the C-level.

• According to IRF research, smartphones and related devices are playing a growing role in incentives. Currently, 10 percent of planners use mobile apps to track programs; that number is expected to reach 35 percent in 2013. The IRF also notes that QR codes, social media and other technologies have become expected, making it important for program managers and sponsors to evolve their programs and technology offerings regularly.

• Findings show that nearly 75 percent of employees are eyeing new job opportunities. Top performers are among that group: An estimated 35 to 40 percent of them are looking for positions with competitors. A lack of consistent recognition also has hampered the cooperative nature of some work environments and stifled innovation, creating reluctance to share new ideas or take chances.

Other trends noted were companies' alignment of programs with corporate marketing strategy, the incorporation of wellness into programs and the globalization of work forces. Full details of the study can be obtained at theirf.org.