Cash or Kudos: What’s best for employee engagement?

How to keep the workers motivated and improve employee engagement when there’s very little money on the table is an issue that’s been uppermost in my thoughts this weekend.

There’s been a major decorating project underway chez Lucas and my 17 year-old son has donned the overalls and picked up a paintbrush for the very first time. No payment (over and above the usual bed and board) has been involved and the only bonus is that we will no longer have to stare at the rather sickly green on the lounge walls.

Now while I’m sure you’re not interested in the details of our DIY, I can’t help thinking that there have been some significant parallels with the world of work in my house over the last few days. Thanks to the ongoing economic doom and gloom, employees everywhere are being expected to work harder than ever before for very little in the form of conventional reward. Although modest increases may be on the agenda for some this year, the majority of staff will continue to see their pay frozen and continuing to lag well behind inflation.

This poses something of a dilemma for employers. On the one hand, they need to remain in cautious, belt-tightening mode if they are to secure the future of their business. But equally, they need to make sure they retain and continue to engage the talented people who will help their business thrive and grow. A participant in last week’s CIPD webinar on the future of pay hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that even when the financial chips are down, people still need to be well rewarded for the achievement of stretching goals.

A more subtle way to maintain employee engagement

So what can employers do to maintain their levels of employee engagement, and keep people willing and enthusiastic when they can’t reward their efforts by putting more cash in their pocket? My experience this weekend is that although folding money (as it’s known in our house) does help, it isn’t necessarily the only way to keep people on side and spur them on to greater performance. There are more subtle (and less expensive) ways to keep people focused on the task in hand and make them feel appreciated for their efforts.

Regular praise and encouragement, for example, is a much under-used motivational tool. Of course people don’t want you constantly looking over their shoulder, but if as a manager you know someone is working really hard or has been given a particularly challenging task, it doesn’t harm to check in occasionally, see how they are getting on and ask if there is anything you can do to help.

Sometimes, just a simple act of offering to make a cup of tea (or in my case produce an endless supply of bacon sandwiches) can spur people on if they are beginning to flag. It’s a simple, day-to-day part of good performance management that tends to get overlooked – often because managers are so busy dealing with their own priorities that they forget the need to feedback, reassure and praise their teams.

Make engagement personal

Small but personally significant rewards can also hit the spot when it comes to effective employee engagement. A retail or leisure voucher, a bunch of flowers (or the latest Xbox game), handed over at the end of a successful project, can give people a real boost. The face value may be small, but the gesture will be appreciated and will make the recipient see their manager (and therefore the business) in a whole new light.

Making it personal is the key. It’s no good presenting someone with a bottle of wine if they don’t drink or a cream cake when they’re on a diet. Taking the trouble to find out what people would really value is a great way to build relationships with your team and make people feel they are more than just a ‘number’ to the business.

The opportunity to learn and develop new skills is also a great way to boost employee engagement and keep people enthusiastic participants, rather than dispirited passengers, in the business. At a time when training budgets are tight, employees greatly value the opportunity to acquire transferable skills. This doesn’t have to mean sending staff on expensive training programmes. Letting people test their wings on a new project or providing an opportunity to shadow a more senior colleague are both great ways to build competence and confidence.

New skills have been developed and important lessons learned in our house this weekend (mainly, don’t lean against the wall you’ve just painted). But it’s quite clear that the glow of satisfaction from a job well done and much appreciated has been just as valuable as a wad of cash. We’re already planning our next project – but in the meantime, teenage painter and decorator for hire?

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