RECESSION REWARDS: Motivating Employees Doesn’t Have To Mean Big Bucks.

July 9, 2010

 The firestorm over monetary bonuses at AIG revealed not only the landmines that come with governments bailing out corporations, it uncovered a more basic truth: in tough times, rewarding with money seems foolhardy. Not that a hefty bonus doesn’t feel good, but wouldn’t you trade in that check for job security? Most would.
And anyway, say human resource experts, money is not the motivator it’s cracked up to be, unless you’re talking about the base salary that comes with simply keeping your job.
Two recent studies, cited by Human Resource Executive, show that employees are more motivated than usual to see their companies succeed in these perilous economic times. The studies, conducted by Modern Survey in Minneapolis, Minn. and Towers Perrin in Stamford, Conn., showed that employee motivation jumped by 7 percent over a six-month period. It also showed that anxiety about losing jobs has increased. “Perhaps more than ever,” Bruce Campbell, a senior consultant at Modern Survey, told HRE, “employees are feeling a real sense of gratitude that they can still have jobs, and have come to understand that the best thing they can do to improve their chances of keeping their jobs is to do whatever they can to contribute to the near-term success and long-term viability of the organizations they work for.”
That’s great news for managers and human resource directors, but it does not come without its challenges. Leaders who use that increased motivation to get more out of their employees, without justly rewarding the extra effort, will reap what they sow in the long run. Anxieties turn into resentment over time, especially if an attitude of “you’re lucky to have a job” pervades the workplace.


   So how do you keep those hard-working, often-worrying employees feeling motivated through these tough times? It comes down to one word – recognition.
“For a lot of people, money isn’t a very good motivator to begin with,” says Linda M. Lopeke, an executive and human resources consultant to Fortune 500 companies. “A much better motivator is public recognition. And there are many cost-effective ways you can do that.” But recognition can ring hollow if it’s not sincere. So it’s a good idea, says Cindy Ventrice, author of the book and Web site Make Their Day, to understand the elements of recognitions that work.

   “It’s praise and thank you for the work they are doing,” Ventrice says. “It’s respectful relationships. It’s trust and flexibility in the workplace. And it’s providing people with opportunities. Beyond that, there are the symbolic gestures, where something not very expensive takes on great value. Like a stuffed giraffe for someone who stuck their neck out. Or a kaleidoscope to the person who had turned the supply closet from chaos into a thing of beauty.”


   Here are some tips on how to create low-cost, high-return recognition programs that will show the same dedication to your workers that they are showing to their work.

   Be honest (but don’t whine) about the company’s financial health
   It’s not necessarily fun, but there may be no better recognition of an employee’s worth than leveling with them. The trick is to find a balance. “Being clear with employees what the company is doing to weather the recession can be very effective,” Ventrice says. “But it’s important not to paint too rosy of a picture if it’s not true, because people see through that and worry more. On the other hand, there’s a point where you don’t want to panic employees with too much negative information.”

   Practical tips:
• Give a monthly update on initiatives to navigate the recession.
• Ask for specific ideas about money-saving efficiencies.
• Emphasize an open-door policy for questions about the company’s health.

   Recognize specific accomplishments with more than just a pat on the back
   This does not have to be an expensive proposition. There are plenty of ways to concretely demonstrate your appreciation for a job well done. “It really takes more creativity than money to recognize special accomplishments,” Lopeke says. “It’s helpful to know what people in your office enjoy.”

    Practical tips:
• Give an exceptional employee a bouquet of flowers and have them pass it on to someone they think is worthy the next day.
• Make “free time” bucks in denominations of 10 extra minutes for lunch for small deeds, and let them accrue the money (up to a point, of course).
• Place banners on workers’ office doors or cubicles, specifically citing them for jobs well done.

   Have a little fun once in a while

   Lavishing employees with blowout parties doesn’t make sense right now, says Ventrice. But that doesn’t mean you can’t kick up your heels in more simple ways.
“Nothing extravagant,” she says, “but make sure you continue to take time to create social situations.”

   Practical tips:
• Instead of the high-price dinner out, host a barbeque in the parking lot.
• Instead of the suite at the ballpark, go to a local sports bar to watch a day game.
• Instead of the annual awards banquet, hold a “roast” at a reasonably priced venue.

   Reverse the roles once in a while
   “Employees get a kick out of reversing the roles in the office dynamic,” says Lopeke. “There are lots of creative ways to do that.”

   Practical tips:
• Host a breakfast where the managers cook and clean up for all of the employees.
• Give away your office for a few hours to a staff member who needs to concentrate.
• Take a motivated staff member to give a report at the manager’s meeting.

   Think about adding flexible schedules and use time as a reward
   Flexibility with time may sound difficult with some companies, but if a major retailer such as Best Buy can institute flexible schedules, there may be hope for you. “It can be tricky,” Ventrice says, “especially in times when you are working to be as efficient as possible. On the other hand, flexibility is one of the best signs of respect a manager can give. And that’s a definite motivator.”

   Practical tips:
• Let staff choose their start times within a range.
• “Bank” lunch hours over a week, so employees can run errands one day and take shorter breaks other days.
• Allow employees to work out shift changes among themselves, so long as nothing is being missed.

   Continue to build their skills
“If we’re trying to help someone feel secure and valuable in the workplace,” says Ventrice, “even if we can’t promote right now or offer expensive training opportunities, we can still help people build their skills and become more critical to the organization.”

   Practical applications:
• Start a mentoring program where highly skilled employees help newer staff members build their skills.
• Provide cross-training experiences, so employees have a broader range of skills and knowledge for the future.
• Find challenges that motivate your staff – the particularly difficult customer or a project that has been stuck in neutral.

Few people are escaping this recession without a dose of stress. But employees will take their cues from the boss, and someone who is showing a positive, proactive attitude is bound to spread.
And if this is something new to your office, don’t try to hide that fact.
“You have to be grounded in recognition,” Ventrice says. “Be sure you are doing the real stuff first, before you do the fun little things. Create that respectful relationship first. And if you are just starting to create recognition programs, be honest about that. Tell your staff, I know we haven’t done this in the past, but I do really appreciate what you do for this organization.” That will go a long way.
“If the manager creates that respectful relationship, then employees tend to put on these rose-colored glasses and perceive all manager actions as recognition potential,” Ventrice says. “So if you give them that tough customer, they perceive that as a sign of respect, not a nuisance.” For more ideas about recognition, and to sign up for a weekly newsletter, go to MM&E

   (By Michael Humphrey, Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)

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