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Staff motivation: Lessons learned from failed workplace perks

Motivate my staff
Delegating responsibility for employee perks helps drive engagement.

‘How do I motivate my staff?’ is a question often asked by business leaders. Offering perks, rewards, and incentives is a popular way to boost motivation and productivity – but it can take time to get it right.

Businesses use benefits like free beer, table football, cycle to work schemes and generous holiday allowance to attract and retain staff. By making work more engaging, employees are happier and tend to be more productive.

However, not all schemes will end with positive results. There will inevitably be failures, where the perk or incentive doesn’t motivate staff. Occasionally, workplace schemes can have the opposite effect and leave employees feeling disenchanted and confused.

Learn from your setbacks

To keep workplace perks perky, it’s vital that lessons are learned from any setbacks.

Paul Cockerton, co-CEO of London-based Dynamo PR, has experienced both the positives and negatives of business incentives. Back in 2015, the company launched an internal awards scheme to help gather content. The content would be used to apply for external awards, and aimed to incentivise staff to do “award-winning work”.

“Previously, we only had one staff member in charge of preparing content for the external awards, which are quite a big business driver for our company,” he said.

“Having an internal awards scheme seemed the most obvious way to make producing content easier. It also helped us to celebrate good work within the company. We had ceremonies and gave out little trophies to winning staff.”

The scheme encouraged staff to think closely about the work they were doing and how it could be done more effectively. But, as Cockerton says, they experienced some frustration and pushback from employees.

“We launched it during a very busy period. Staff found the actual application process, which mirrored an external awards scheme, quite arduous and time-consuming,” he said.

“The feedback we received was that employees thought it was a good idea, but they didn’t feel encouraged to apply. It was too much effort for too little gain. It didn’t work to motivate my staff, so we haven’t repeated it since.”

Delegate responsibility to employees

Dynamo PR has also experimented with another employee incentive – unlimited holidays for staff. At the time of its launch, industry colleagues predicted the move would be a cost burden for the business.

Motivate my staff - Paul Cockerton
Cockerton runs internal workshops to develop ideas with staff.

“We were the first PR company to do this. It came from my frustration around managing staff holiday dates on a spreadsheet,” Cockerton explained.

“We were getting people all taking holidays at the wrong time of the year and I felt we had to do something differently. So we looked at the impact of unlimited holidays in great detail and organised the programme very carefully. We delegated responsibility to individuals to take holiday when they felt it best suited them, the business and their colleagues.

“For example, if they wanted to take three weeks in a row, they would have to give us six months notice so we could get freelancers or temporary staff in. The average annual holiday days our staff take now isn’t much different to what we had previously. We’ve talked everyone through the change and it has worked very well.”

Other perks at the group include “Don Draper Clause” chocolate and spa break gifts that employees can give to each other. According to Cockerton, the staff are happier and more productive, and perks have helped with retention figures.

“The PR industry has a high turnover of staff, with people staying for 15 months on average. They stay here for three years,” he said. “We treat them like adults.”

Use internal workshops to motivate staff

Cockerton’s key advice, learned partly from the internal awards failure, is that it’s not just the idea behind an incentive. It’s the implementation that matters.

“Some of our perks have come from internal workshops, where we’ve challenged teams to find ways of improving the company,” he said.

“We’ve carefully considered how to launch them, how they fit within the overall company brand and how they will be executed and measured. Primarily, we make sure that staff know we really care about them.

“Senior staff will explain why we’re making a change, or get a group of staff to explain why they’re leading it. We remind people about the perks and make sure we communicate updates in our quarterly meetings.”

Make your workplace perks accessible

Alan Furley, director of Bristol-based ISL Recruitment, also believes companies need to have tight organisation when it comes to perks and rewards.

“Perks and incentives play a big role in a recruitment company. Our employees are highly motivated and like to have tangible things to work towards, whether that’s within their everyday jobs or long-term career plans,” Furley said.

How detailed is your employee review process?

Clearly defined set of objectives and KPIs that are regularly reviewed and updated

Quarterly cycle whereby progress and development needs are addressed

A few key objectives to meet each year

I don’t have a review process

“I’ve tried lots of things to motivate my staff which haven’t worked very well, and we’ve had to learn and adapt quickly.

“The most significant change has been around scale and accessibility. There’s no point in having a large prize once every quarter (or bi-annually) that only a few people are going to be in with a chance of winning. We used to do this, and it would see our top billers walking away with the goods. Our monthly incentives were pre-prescribed too – usually something like go-karting or bowling – which put people off.”

As with all things in life, Furley said, it took some time to get their perks and rewards packages right.

“Now we have holidays up for grabs for a cross-section of targets, so different members of the team have a chance to win and go to places like Monte Carlo and Ibiza with the directors. This winter, we’re going skiing. There’s a huge drive for that because our team are all really into it,” he said.

“For the monthly incentives, we tend to let the guys who qualify decide, based on certain criteria. We ended up doing pottery with this approach, which people really enjoyed. But it probably wouldn’t have been something they would have felt motivated about from the start.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is not to be set in your ways. Find out exactly what people want and what they’re driven by. Then you’ll get the best results.”

Benchmark your business and get tailored advice with Be the Business’ free tool, which was developed to help business leaders with 10-250 employees. 

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