Editor's Note: There is a lot to be gained by examining the lessons of other fields - particularly the sciences - and applying them to ours. Stephanie Thomas is particularly gifted at this and has written a number of posts featuring insights from the field of physics. Today's Classic takes a fascinating look at multidimensionality and space-time. Enjoy!
I'm a big fan of the interdisciplinary approach. Looking through the lens of a different field of specialty can generate new insights into old problems. As I've mentioned before, physics and compensation are closely related. Physicists are continually struggling to understand the universe, and one promising area is multidimensionality - there may be more than the three physical dimensions we can observe. Some physicists are working on a model of the universe based in five dimensional space-time. Applying the idea of five dimensional space-time can lead to improvements in our total rewards strategies.
What is space-time? It's simply the combination of physical dimensions and time. We typically conceptualize space-time in four dimensions: length, width, height and time. If you're meeting someone to discuss total rewards strategies, you need to know these four pieces of information (6th Ave and 14th St, 3rd floor at 2PM) in order to get there and be on time.
We also tend to conceptualize total rewards in terms of four dimensions:
The troubling thing about conceptualizing space-time in four dimensions is that there's a disconnect between how things work on a very large scale (relativity) and how things work on a very small scale (quantum mechanics). Physicists so far haven't been able to come up with a unifying theory using four-dimensional space-time.
There's also a disconnect between the goals of our total rewards strategy (retention, engagement, etc.) and the outcomes of our four-dimensional total rewards strategy.
One solution may be to think in five dimensions. 5-dimensional space-time unifies gravity and the electromagnetic force; this could be instrumental in resolving the disconnect between relativity and quantum mechanics. A 5-dimensional total rewards strategy may resolve the disconnect between the goals of the strategy and the actual outcomes.
What is the fifth dimension of total rewards? You probably already know, but don't really think of it as a separate dimension: development. By development, I mean more than sending employees to annual conferences and providing tuition reimbursement. I'm talking about real development opportunities that can push your total rewards strategy into n-space:
- Promote from within: Talk with your employees about their goals and develop a career plan to achieve those goals within your organization. Without a clear career path, your employees are essentially being forced to constantly job-hunt, looking outside of your organization for their next opportunity.
- On-the-job learning: Offering rotational assignments at progressively higher levels within the organization. This can force employees to take risks and work outside of their comfort zone, which leads to growth. If an employee asks for more responsibility, give it to them through a rotational assignment. Even if the project turns out badly, it's still a learning opportunity.
- Mentoring: Mentoring works. It provides a support structure for employees to help them achieve their goals. It can be personalized to address the specific developmental needs of each employee. Utilizing mentors outside of your organization has the advantage of not disrupting work flow. Because it's independent of employment relationships, it's likely to lead to more self-disclosure and honest feedback.
- On- and Off-Ramps: Sylvia Ann Hewlett's 2007 book on keeping talented women on the road to success presented the idea of providing opportunities for women to phase in and out of their career paths. But the idea of on- and off-ramps applies to all employees, regardless of gender, and is not limited to childbirth and care-giving. Think about offering on- and off-ramps for sabbaticals. I'm not talking about "mental health day / time to chill out" sabbaticals (although we all do need time to relax). I'm talking about providing autonomy and an opportunity for employees to pursue their own ideas. Give employees time to engage in study or uncompensated work experiences that contribute to their own development.
Incorporating development into your total rewards strategy is not a new idea. But treating it as a separate and equal dimension - designing real career paths within your organization and being committed to providing real opportunities for growth and development - is a novel idea for some. You may have glimpsed this fifth dimension, but until you fully embrace it - and give it as much attention as compensation, benefits, performance and rewards, and work/life balance, there's no hope of resolving the disconnect between your goals for a total rewards strategy and the actual outcomes realized.
Stephanie Thomas, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Economics at Cornell University. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on economic theory and labor economics in the College of Arts and Sciences and in Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Throughout her career, Stephanie has completed research on a variety of topics including wage determination, pay gaps and inequality, and performance-based compensation systems. She frequently provides expert commentary in media outlets such as The New York Times, CBC, and NPR, and has published papers in a variety of journals.