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The Rewards Revolution


Story by
Dr Naeema Pasha Author and speaker

Author and speaker Dr Naeema Pasha encourages organisations to rethink recognition in the Post-Pandemic workplace.

Congratulations to all who have recently been rewarded with an ‘employee of the month’. It should feel good to everyone working in the organisation to see people valued by the award. But at the back of some people’s mind we might wonder if this kind of reward systems really works effectively to increase engagement. There’s even a movie Employee of the Month (set in a Costco!) taking a humorous but a bit cynical account of these programmes. A recent study by UB School of Management (UB) revealed that setting up employee of the month reward systems might enable negative conduct. Their research on companies with the scheme showed that types of ‘envy behaviours’ occurred in some employees – as a result of an employee of the month award, and in some cases it led to employee withdrawal in workplaces. The study did show that it did depend on the employee’s primary motivation, for example, team-oriented employees who feel ‘envious’ are more likely to miss work or even quit, while achievement-driven employees tended to stay and work harder to improve themselves.

The UB study essentially showed an employee of the month reward programme maybe not be all that straight forward. There is potential that it can lead a rise in unhealthy competition amongst colleagues, which could mean a decrease morale and lead to a drop in productivity. When in overdrive, these programmes can discourage teamwork and collaboration – and potentially reward individuals that prioritise personal glory over collective success – as depicted in the movie. Maybe this form of rewards is focused on the wrong metrics as programmes often reward visible accomplishments or those easily quantifiable, perhaps neglecting the importance of less tangible contributions

Rethink forms of employee Reward and Recognition (R&R)

The post pandemic work world has created a rise in flexible working, hybrid and home-working. This rise of remote and hybrid work models might necessitate a complete overhaul of how we approach employee reward and recognition (R&R) programmes. Where once the option to work from home on an ad-hoc basis might have been considered a perk, for those working in the knowledge economy, flexible working is increasingly considered a “must-have” item. People are willing to switch roles for it.

This new landscape demands a system that caters to the individual needs of a dispersed workforce and acknowledges the changing nature of work itself, with AI playing an increasingly prominent role. A dispersed workforce has given us workers a more ‘individualistic focus’ vs a more ‘collectivist’ approach of all employees being in the workplace – all of the time. It’s not that collective good values are abandoned, rather that wellness and work balance and our non-work identities are valued in too.

Cat Barnard, Director and co-founder of work trend advisory firm Working the Future says, ‘For many, the pandemic was an existential moment. It exposed the fragility and arbitrary nature of life. While of course many struggled with the realities of lockdown, among those in a more comfortable situation, months of isolation caused a mass re-evaluation of what’s important and what constitutes a life well lived. Couple this with an ongoing erosion of trust in governments and institutions and it’s not so surprising people of working age have become more individualistic in their outlook. And this has a significant bearing on how we motivate and reward people at work.’

As such, having rewards and recognitions such as Employee of The Month can promote a ‘style of work’ that is easier to measure and ignore the other aspects of us. So, focusing solely on say one individual can leave others feeling undervalued, particularly if their contributions are less visible or go unrecognised – as especially some work might not be as visible if we are not in the workplace as much.

One-size-fits-all is no longer a fit

The “employee of the month” plaque simply doesn’t quite resonate with today’s diverse workforce. Individuals are motivated by different factors – some crave public recognition, while others value personalised feedback for example. A one-dimensional R&R programme fails to capture this spectrum of needs – and risks alienating a significant portion of the workforce.

Barnard says, ‘The age of mass career customisation has arrived. People want increasingly diverse things, based on where they are at in their lives and careers. As an example, working mothers with young children will have an entirely different set of needs to someone in their fifties. Despite progress, for the most part, women are still expected by society to act as primary caregivers. Any help and support an employer can therefore give to help women juggle their multiple caregiving responsibilities is likely to mean so much more than any ‘employee of the month’ award. The rise in popularity of flexible benefit providers like Perk Box and Reward Gateway underscores this.”

The rise of AI presents both challenges and opportunities for R&R. While automation may replace some jobs, it might (and it is a big ‘might’) also free up HR professionals to focus on creating more meaningful and personalised recognition experiences. But certainly HR managers will more than likely being using AI-powered platforms to analyse performance data, identify individual accomplishments, and suggest tailored rewards – a big question – does this feel fair and authentic?

Sandra Evans and Julie Blunt, Managing Directors of The Art of Work Ltd and Founders of Go Human also find the too, “In our experience in working with our wide and varied clients, many employees no longer feel motivated by this type of  ‘employee of the …’ rewards system which feels outdated and too often lacking inclusivity in the current workplace. People today are looking for a more personalised approach and this includes how they are rewarded and recognised. They want to be treated as individuals and rewarded accordingly. One size does not fit all and so this means taking the time to talk and importantly listen.”

Cash bonuses and sweets and gifts might have held value in the past, but I wonder if today’s employees seek rewards that align with their personal lives and well-being. I wonder if we would prefer more flexible work arrangements, additional paid time off, or educational/training opportunities and feel these more motivating than generic gifts. Evans and Blunt further add, “We also need to reconsider ‘what’ it is that’s being rewarded and more away from rewarding long hours ‘heroics’. Not everyone can always work long hours but all too often this is what seems to be recognised. We often do not know what is going on both in and away from work that can impact on performance. Surely this should be based on more balanced measures and not just long hours ensuring a more inclusive reward and recognition approach? “

Rethinking the Reward System

The post-pandemic workplace is here to stay. By moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach like “employee of the month” and embracing a more nuanced and personalised system, companies can create a culture of recognition that fosters a motivated, engaged, and high-performing workforce. By embracing a more nuanced and personalized approach to R&R, HR can ensure a motivated and engaged workforce, even in a distributed environment. The rewards revolution is upon us, and it’s time for organisations to embrace it.



UB School of Management research: https://www.buffalo.edu/news/news-releases.host.html/content/shared/mgt/news/why-singling-out-employee-of-the-month-may-backfire.detail.html



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