There has long been a debate over whether rewards belong in employee development programs. On one side, incentives can improve engagement, bringing life to dull and tedious training sessions. Others say that, realistically, employees are adults who know that training must be completed.
Both sides seem to be correct. When it comes to providing incentives to employees, the practice must align with corporate objectives — and not result in handing out rewards just for the sake of having a rewards system.
Understanding employee motivation
To frame rewards correctly, employers need to involve their brand, according to David Romero, co-founder and chief product officer for Unboxed Technology, a training solutions firm that offers the LMS software Spoke.
“People think of rewards as tangible items, like corporate branded merchandise,” he said. Even so, these rewards must be tied to the specific results that the company wants people to achieve (for example, a new behavior pattern).
Romero offered an example in which employees complete a section of the training then post on the company social media platform so they can be placed in a pool to win a prize. The overall goal is to help people establish new behavior patterns, complete tasks and discover resources that they can use throughout their careers, in a way that doesn't require the employer to splurge on something expensive.
“The idea is to create a demand with a limited supply of items, such as a t-shirt with a special company logo on it,” Romero said. This increases the perceived value of the items and makes it that much more of an incentive. A good rewards management and fulfillment vendor helps to make sure companies can create more meaningful incentives, too. By setting the right foundation for clients, Romero has seen up to a 40% increase in training completion speed, as well as a substantial increase in employee engagement with the clients Unboxed works with.
Know what your training platform can do
Even so, there are other trends that employers need to consider — like connecting rewards to games. According to Donato Mangialardo, product marketing director for Docebo, adding gamification mechanics into learning programs has been proven to build and sustain engagement.
"By instilling a sense of accomplishment, gamification increases interaction and motivation in learning, which can provide a far more effective learning process than a traditional course can," Mangialardo said. "With gamification, you can include exciting elements like points, awards, badges, contests and even tangible rewards programs to feed your workforce’s competitive nature to increase knowledge retention."
Employers may not even be aware of the more competitive aspects of learning software platforms, and in line with the examples shared by Mangialardo, such platforms can be robust. “A learning platform is able to monitor engagement and track achievement from a central location," he said. "You can activate multiple leaderboards and set specific rewards for different audiences and user groups (as an example, employees in North America can redeem different rewards than those in Europe).”
The types of rewards can be highly creative. “Your company may decide to offer incentives to learners who are most engaged with your learning programs," Mangialardo said. "As an example, you can set up a rewards marketplace, where learners earn points that can be spent on tangible rewards. Rewards can be anything from a $10 Amazon gift card to a fishing trip to Alaska.”
But seriously, don't get too carried away
Mangialardo was also quick to point out that, while rewards in training programs work well, they are not necessarily the perfect solution for every circumstance. For example, compliance-based training — in which the training is absolutely mandatory — may not be the best fit for gamification. Rewards are best managed with socially centered training.
Lynn Schroeder, VP of client relations at CAEL, a national nonprofit that works at all levels within the higher education, public, and private sectors, agreed that rewards have their place in corporate training, but likewise offered a caveat: “When offered strategically, aligned with employees’ professional development goals, rewards can work well.”
It’s not just about offering rewards for the sake of dangling a carrot for employees, Schroeder said; “It’s important that the rewards are communicated in such a way as to make clear to employees that the incentives you offer are not the only reward they’ll gain from taking part in the development programs." Emphasize the opportunities the programs will open up for employees as rewards themselves, too, she suggested.
Training incentives can offer a method of recruiting and upskilling employees too. These are becoming more critical as labor shortages increase. “As many industries increasingly find themselves with more open positions than qualified employees to fill them, noting development incentives within an open job description can be a powerful motivator for attracting top talent," Schroeder added. "Those same incentives can also be a great tool to retain talent — such incentives really are evergreen.” Communication of performance expectations is the key to a well-managed incentive program.
“Managers should have a firm grasp of what outcomes they hope to reach with employee development programs," Schroeder said. "Rewards and incentives should only be handed out once managers have had the chance to speak with employees about those outcomes.”