Hard working employees are what will see every company through this pandemic. But how do you best recognise and reward them for their efforts when everything is so disrupted?
For most Australians, COVID-19 has turned their working lives upside down. Projects have stalled, budgets have been slashed and the commute to work has become a short trip from one room of the home to another. When the future seems uncertain, motivation can begin to slide. So how can people be encouraged to perform at their best?
The answer is normally found in the management tools designed to encourage high performance: rewards and recognition. But with celebratory team lunches and awards nights off-limits due to social distancing, and one-off cash bonuses less likely in an economic downturn, employers will need to find more apt ways to reward and recognise their workers in a post-pandemic world.
To maintain a sense of direction, camaraderie and purpose during times of heightened stress and unpredictability, many employers are focusing on motivation. In March this year, employee engagement company Reward Gateway recorded a 48 per cent increase in the number of recognition e-cards sent within its reward programs.
Kylie Terrell, employee engagement consultant at Reward Gateway, says that March was the second biggest month in the company’s history for such recognition.
“I think this shows how important it is for employers to recognise their people right now and to celebrate progress or a small win,” says Terrell. “No-one has been able to predict what is going to happen in a month’s time and we are all looking for safety, security and a self of wellbeing and belonging.”
Michael Licenblat, founder of Bounce Back Fast, a Melbourne-based consultancy that helps businesses build resilient teams, says humans are naturally wired to crave recognition.
“Praise feeds us emotionally and chemically because it causes the body to release oxytocin, which is the hormone that correlates to the sense of feeling loved or appreciated.”
He says that while recognition is often given to motivate staff during stressful times, this pandemic is different. “Right now, people feel that the ground underneath them is shifting and they don’t know where to step next. As a result, managers need to move from managing employee stress and burnout to managing uncertainty and creating a feeling of support.
“If you want to achieve loyalty and motivation during these uncertain times, forget the carrot and stick. Right now, people are really looking for transparency and honesty. Both of these things build trust.”
More than money
With the economic implications of COVID-19 in sharp focus, financial incentives, such as one-off cash rewards, may become less common. And research suggests this may not be a bad thing.
A metastudy from London School of Economics found that financial incentives often fail to motivate employees. In an analysis of 51 experimental studies of financial incentives in employment relations, it found that such rewards “may reduce an employee’s natural inclination to complete a task and derive pleasure from doing so”.
Karen Gately, founder of leadership and people-management consultancy Corporate Dojo, says recognition and appreciation are greater motivators than rewards.
“The actual reward does little to someone’s mental state, unless you give them less than what they were expecting. Recognition and appreciation demonstrates empathy for the challenges that people are facing.”
Dr Justin Scanlan, senior lecturer and course director for the Bachelor of Applied Science (Occupational Therapy) at the University of Sydney, recently had a study on this topic published in the healthcare journal BMC Health Services Research. He found that job resources, such as rewards and recognition, were the strongest predictor of variance in disengagement and turnover intention. He also found financial rewards were linked to lower satisfaction.
“The study included an open-ended question that asked, ‘What’s good about your job?’” says Scanlan. “Those people who said ‘the money is good’ tended to be more disengaged and less satisfied. People who were more satisfied talked about their relationship with their manager and their colleagues, and feeling supported, respected and recognised.”
Remote working became the new normal during the pandemic lockdown. A recent Gartner HR survey shows 88 per cent of organisations encouraged or required employees to work from home due to COVID-19.
Licenblat says remote conditions can create challenges for employee recognition.
“With teams working remotely, they can’t bounce off the energy of people around them or have incidental corridor conversations. Interaction has to be more deliberate and structured, and so does recognition and reward.”
Terrell says a structured approach to rewards and recognition enables organisations to gauge “cultural fitness” during times of disruption.
“A structured approach can provide a cultural read. When you have a way for people to recognise each other, especially in remote working conditions, you can report on it and quickly identify the teams that are culturally fit. For example, you can see if people in the technology team are not recognising one another or if the team as a whole has not been recognised, and that may show you that you need to provide some support.”
Peer-to-peer recognition can be a powerful motivator. A recent study published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management shows that recognition from co-workers strengthens the benefits of managerial recognition. As co-workers have a greater presence relative to managers in an organisation, and interact more frequently, they can elicit additional appreciation and approval signals that reinforce those from managers.
Peer-to-peer recognition is valuable, says Terrell, but it’s important that appreciation is shown for genuine achievement.
“It’s not about giving a high-five for sharing your lunch or saying thanks for rocking up to work. I think this is where some of the more negative view of strategic recognition comes from. If you set the structure up correctly, every recognition moment should be aligned to an organisational value.”
Public versus private
Structured rewards and recognition programs can provide the public acknowledgement that many people crave.
“A lot of employees are starting to demand it,” says Terrell. “They want to enhance their visibility in a business so they can quickly move up the ladder. They’re looking for the spotlight to be shone on them, not just so their direct manager can see their contribution, but also so the CEO can.”
However, Scanlan says private recognition can be just as powerful in motivating high performance in employees.
“A very specific discussion about success in a particular area can hold a lot more weight. Because it says, ‘I see you. I acknowledge your strengths in this particular area.’ Rather than a more generic kind of public commentary.”
Licenblat says the forum for recognition matters less than the intent.
“If you are just ticking a box that says, ‘Yes, I’ve said something nice to you,’ it has little value. It needs to be genuine, personal and specific. That’s when recognition really resonates, especially during times like this.”