Meaningful rewards employees actually want

Last updated on 
May 13, 2019

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It’s no secret that people like rewards. Whether it’s a glass of wine after a long day or a beach vacation after months of stress, rewards act as both motivators and compensation. In the workplace, things are no different. Multiple studies suggest rewards enhance employee engagement, boost productivity, encourage workers to invest in their company, improve retention, strengthen bonds and encourage skills development…to name just a few perks! But they only work when they're actually meaningful. Here are a few ideas and tips on getting employee reward right.

Using reward in the workplace

We often give employees rewards to recognize good performance, but in many cases it's the recognition that actually counts most. Research shows that employees who feel credited for their efforts are happier; one survey showed that 76% of employees believe their bosses must recognize good work in order to be seen as great. So recognition itself is vital.

Reward by recognition is the expression of a two-way relationship. People flourish on positive feedback, and feeling valued is foundational for self-worth. We actively seek out positive feedback and it actually drives us to achieve: 40% of people from one survey said they would work harder if their bosses recognized and appreciated their efforts more.

But recognition is by no means the only reward people want. It wasn’t too long ago that many workplace rewards centered around easy perks, like office bars and Friday happy hours, but they've quickly become hallmarks of gimmicky, unimaginative management. Employees are wise to flimsy material rewards, and want and expect more substance.

The rise of "employee experience" has brought that into clear focus. Employees are increasingly seeking to align themselves with companies that not only share their attitudes and values, but treat them as individuals rather than cogs in a machine. By tapping into this individuality, businesses can offer more meaningful rewards that actually stick.

Intrinsic rewards vs extrinsic rewards

While rewards like pay rises and bonuses are highly coveted, they don’t always work. If someone feels deeply unhappy or unfulfilled at work, throwing money at them won’t solve the problem. It may be an incentive for them to “stick it out” for longer simply for the extra cash, but their motivation and engagement will remain low, their happiness minimal.

We’ve written before about how the best employee rewards are intrinsic, not extrinsic – particularly when it comes to boosting motivation. Extrinsic reward are usually expressed via prizes, bonuses and promotions, and though they can be successful, the value and happiness they bring is often fleeting. Conversely, intrinsic rewards relate to finding autonomy, competence and purpose in your work. They help you reach individual goals and objectives that are important to you on a personal level.

The meaningful rewards employees actually want leverage intrinsic motivation. Here are some popular examples to get you started:

1.  Flexible and remote working

The influx of millennials into the workforce has been a accompanied by a huge rise in remote and flexible working. As our work and personal lives have become progressively intertwined – and as our technology has enabled us to work from virtually anywhere with an internet connection – there’s simply no reason to continue to stick to obsolete 9-5 schedules. In 2019, flexible working is treated as a basic necessity, not a cute perk.

Remote working relies on trust, and that’s a key reason it works so well as a reward. By trusting employees (in a very visible way) you’re showing that you have faith in them; the favor will be returned. But flexible working is also successful because it acknowledges that employees are individual people with individual schedules. Understanding that we all have different timetables, and offering people the freedom to work in the ways that suit them best, is ridiculously empowering. As a happy consequence, it also benefits companies too.

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2.  Tailored professional development

Most people want to work for more than just a paycheque. Growing and evolving as a person is an important part of the human experience, so think about ways you can help your workers develop. There are many ways you can provide tailored development and offer opportunities help employees learn new skills (incidentally, lack of development opportunities is an oft-cited reason why people move jobs).

Speak to your employees and discuss how they want to develop: are there any training programs they’d like to participate in, or courses they’d like to go on? Is there a person on the team they’d like for a mentor? Is there an upcoming project they want to be involved in or lead on? Is there a software they want a license for to add a new skill to their toolbox? Tailoring development to each person isn’t just a good way to reward people for their hard work; it also shows you recognize them as individuals with their own goals and ambitions.

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3.  Meaningful feedback and praise

We’ve already covered how important recognition is, but it can take many forms. Simply saying “thank you” can be incredibly meaningful, but it’s also important to be specific. Explain how people have made a difference, praise individual skills, share their work beyond your team, and introduce them to clients as the brains behind the work. Not only will this make your employee feel good, it’ll also reinforce for them the type of behavior you want to see. (Building feedback into your culture is itself a great idea for any company).

For the rising population of millennials, consider social recognition too. In an era where many workers grew up with Facebook and Instagram, social recognition goes a long way. When people are used to instant feedback in the form of likes or comments – and being able to share important events with their friends – utilizing a platform where you can share praise and acknowledgements can do wonders, too.

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