Small gestures; Big impacts

Monetary rewards are always nice to receive, but they can also feel impersonal. HRM Asia discovers why sincerity, and not cash, is becoming the highest form of flattery to employees

Money talks, but a simple “thank you” or “good job” will often convey more sincerity.

“Remember how you felt the last time someone told you what a great job you were doing?” asks Jyanthi Elanggo, Head of HR at international hospitality group CÉ LA VI.

“Really think about it, and relive that moment of glory,” she stresses.

“That’s why it’s so important to make time to praise employees for a job well done. Recognition makes people feel really good about themselves.”

Simple measures

At CÉ LA VI, which has restaurants and clubs in Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong and St Tropez in France, managers have one-on-one catch-up sessions with each team member at least once a month.

“The focus is never to demean them but to always promote their strengths and to evaluate how we can develop their skills and emotional intelligence further,” Elanggo says. 

“For us, little things such as outings, team bonding meals, and ‘how are you’ sessions have proven to be most effective over the years.”

Citing organisational behaviour author Marcus Buckingham’s broad work on employee recognition, Elanggo says that employees do like to have their efforts acknowledged every seven days.

“That doesn’t mean that employees expect something big or lavish every seven days,” she says. “Often just a simple clear acknowledgement and the two words, ‘thank you’, are enough to show that their work is valued and that they are on the right track,” she explains.

Jim O’Neill, Chief People Officer for HubSpot, agrees that something as simple and genuine as praise and positive feedback can help keep employees motivated and engaged. It is a concept that his company strongly advocates.

“We evaluate and reward people not just on what they do in terms of business results, but also based on how they do it. Our recognition system is built on that,” O’Neill says.

The recognition system that O’Neill is referring to is an anonymous peer-to-peer review and feedback platform called “TinyPulse”. HubSpot employees are able to log onto it to formally compliment their colleagues. The comments are visible to managers in real time, allowing them to keep track of who the most appreciated performers are.

Respective teams also hold regular meetings where top performers are called out and their efforts acknowledged. Managers have the autonomy to reward these employees as appropriate.

Such employee recognition measures are also common practice at e-commerce startup ShopBack, although they are less regimented.

The Singaporean company, founded in 2014, has used a wide range of incentive schemes in its short history. At one end, the company has given out zoo tickets to the team that drove the most number of organic downloads for a newly-launched mobile app. Other occasions call for simply opening a bottle of champagne, such as when the customer service team cleared all its outstanding cases.

Rachel Lee, HR Manager, ShopBack, says not relying on cash gifts demands that employers make a greater effort to truly connect with their staff.

“Cash rewards connote a transactional relationship, while non-cash rewards are powerful in building team relationships,” says Lee.

Managers and team members alike at ShopBack also practise expressing appreciation for each other publicly.

“We celebrate together and congratulate each other on company communication channels whenever someone achieves something. We’re also really big on affirming colleagues openly on social media,” she adds.

More than words

While praise and words of acknowledgement are nice to receive, Robert Stubbing, General Manager, PizzaExpress Singapore, says it is all just talk if there is no corresponding or subsequent action.

“More often than not, an actual gift means more than words,” says Stubbing.

The UK restaurant group, which opened its first outlet in Singapore earlier this year, pays more than mere lip service when it comes to rewarding employees for a job well done.

Indeed, the pizzeria has a well-oiled practice of validating employees with specific non-monetary incentives.

Stubbing says the company has introduced a “golden ticket” reward system across more than 500 outlets globally.

“We have senior managers within the business that carry these golden tickets with them on visits. Any exceptional service or act by an employee can result in the golden ticket being received,” says Stubbing, adding that employees do not know when a visit will take place.

These “golden tickets” are shopping or travel vouchers worth between S$30 to S$50.

“(We) implemented this because we recognise the hard work and dedication of our employees, and we want to further motivate them to keep up the good work,” he says.

“Our employees are what make the brand so successful, and we want to give back in more personal ways.”

HubSpot gives back to its long-term employees by granting them a paid one-month sabbatical after five years of service. O’Neill says employees have taken the opportunity to do things they would otherwise be unable to in their regular professional lives, such as spending the time surfing in Costa Rica or taking up Portuguese language classes in Brazil.

“These sabbaticals enable employees to take time away from work to rejuvenate and explore personal interests, while still receiving pay and benefits,” he says. “Fulfilled and happy employees keep our HubSpot office vibrant and positive.”

Elite group

Giving out awards and other honours is another tangible form of employee appreciation.

Quoting a 2014 Boston Consulting Group report, Dr Wu Pei Chuan, Senior Lecturer, NUS Business School, says employees ranked “appreciation for work” as the most important element affecting their level of job happiness.

Wu says one way many companies show this appreciation is by giving out “employee of the month” trophies or “best manager” awards to good performers.

With this in mind, HubSpot organises a monthly “Champions” dinner, which brings together the top contributors from every team to meet with a senior-level executive. It also gives these top performers an opportunity to get to know and learn from one another.

“This tradition is a long-standing HubSpot mode of recognition and has scaled globally as an opportunity to get one-on-one time with a key leader,” says O’Neill.

HubSpot also initiated the “Jedi” award, which is given out roughly three times per year (complete with a custom-engraved Star Wars-style lightsaber) to an employee who has gone above and beyond their call of duty.

Similarly, PizzaExpress launched its “Waiter of the Year” award in 2011. This sees the top performing-waiter from each respective region being invited to the company’s annual conference in London. There, they compete for the grand prize – last year’s winner earned an all-expenses paid trip to Italy.

Although there is only one winner, Stubbing says all employees who are chosen to attend the conference expressed that they felt some form of recognition just by being placed in the elite category alongside other top performers.

“This has proven to be effective as it sets clear goals amongst the employees, and gives them a further push to continue to flourish,” he says.

Understanding employees

Of course, not all non-cash recognition programmes are a guaranteed hit, CE LA VI's Elanggo warns.

She says rewards, whether they are financial or otherwise, have to be designed according to what staff value. HR first needs to decide which behaviours it wants and needs to have strategies in place to encourage them and consistently recognise them.

“If the plan and its rewards are not meaningful to or valued by employees, it is likely to fade out due to lack of interest,” says Elanggo.

“The programme and its rewards should have top-down support, clear criteria and eligibility for nominations. The rewards should be both innovative and relevant to employees.”

O'Neill agrees that a baseline of consistency will allow individuals to know what they can work towards, as well as how well they are doing compared to their peers.

That said, the means to achieving a goal can be different for each employee, he adds.

“What is most important is to map out specific performance indicators that individual employees can identify with and map their performance towards, such as different training goals. This helps the employee feel involved and in control of their own career progression,” says O'Neill.

ShopBack also takes an open approach to employee rewards.

“Different employees have different motivations, and we trust that the team leaders who work with them day-in and day-out will know best,” Lee says. “They’re in the best position to tailor programmes that will truly appeal to their team members.”

Money still matters

“This is not an 'either or' situation,” says Gaurav Hirey, former Chief HR Officer Africa , Middle East, and Asia-Pacific at Kantar Millward Brown about the balance between cash and non-cash recognition programmes. “Both are needed and one cannot be sacrificed for another.”

He says this is because monetary rewards help provide employees with extra income that can help meet immediate needs, whereas non-monetary rewards help create an emotional bond with the organisation. They further make the employee feel more valued at work, thus leading to stronger engagement, Hirey says.

“Just having non-cash appreciation is great but it also needs to be backed up by some monetary recognition programmes so employees don’t feel that they are being short changed.”

Salitha Nair Subramaniam, a lecturer with the School of Business and Management at PSB Academy, also feels that no single reward system is consistently better than the other.

“Different people will have different motivation levels,” she says. “No one can deny the fact that money is the main motivator but the question is; will money alone able to boost productivity and commitment?”

For example, money will often be the prime motivator of someone who is just entering the workforce; but for a middle-aged employee with family commitments, the main motivator might be flexible working arrangements.

“It is important for the organisation to study and understand their employees before coming up with the necessary incentives plans,” she adds.

Dr Wu Pei Chuan, Senior Lecturer, NUS Business School, agrees. She says having a combination of both reward systems is ideal because this approach will factor in a company's capacity and capabilities, as well as employees’ preferences.

“Cash rewards can mean many things, from cash bonuses, performance bonuses, and salary increments, to scholarships and study trip or holiday subsidies,” says Dr Wu. 

 

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