Zack Schuler is founder and CEO of security awareness training company NINJIO. The views expressed here are the author's own.
How many times have you sent an email titled "URGENT: Mandatory employee training"? A few days later, after your employees presumably scrolled past the original email with a grimace, you send a follow-up: "URGENT: Mandatory employee training NOT YET COMPLETED." They finally click on the email and waste 20 minutes of a work day watching tedious, poorly-acted videos about how to access and use your company’s digital payroll service. Their reward? A dialogue box containing the words "Training: completed."
Every day, thousands of employees endure exhausting and thankless exercises like this. They don’t retain the information, and they emerge from the experience feeling angry and disconnected from a company that clearly doesn’t respect their time or work. This is what happens when your efforts at employee engagement are merely check-the-box practices that aren’t developed with the right incentives (or a basic understanding of human emotions) in mind.
If you want your employees to do their best work, you have to give them a reason to put in the effort every day. Instead of feeling dispensable, they need to know that they’re valued partners.
Make employee engagement a priority
There’s a strange lack of introspection among many managers and C-suite executives when it comes to how employees should be treated. Would they want to be subjected to pointless, time-consuming training exercises? Would they want to work at a company that offers few opportunities to voice their concerns, sparse rewards for a job well done and a work environment that fails to keep them engaged?
Gallup defines engaged employees as “those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace,” and its most recent data demonstrate that more American workers are more engaged than at any point since 2000. However, the average proportion of engaged workers is still only 34%. Would any company be pleased to discover that almost two-thirds of its workforce is disengaged?
According to a meta-analysis Gallup conducted on the relationship between employee engagement and business outcomes, companies that keep their employees engaged have higher levels of customer loyalty, profitability and productivity than their competitors. Meanwhile, they have fewer safety incidents, absenteeism, product defects, not to mention lower turnover rates. Gallup also outlines a few ways companies can increase engagement, including “opportunities for workers to do what they do best, opportunities to develop their job skills, and having their opinions count.”
That’s all to say you have to give employees the right incentives. Work is a huge part of any person’s life, and the threat of burnout and frustration is always present – particularly if there aren’t compelling reasons to consistently show up and put in the effort. This is why employers should always be thinking of new ways to engage and reward their employees.
Developing the right incentives
Many companies have been approaching employee incentives in the exact same way for decades: annual salary reviews, standard sick leave and overtime pay policies, and so on. According to Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends survey, 91% of companies “still follow the utterly conventional practice of conducting salary reviews only once a year – or even less often.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons why just 21% of organizations would recommend their rewards programs to others.
While traditional benefits like sick leave and overtime pay are important, it’s vital for companies to broaden their conception of employee incentives. For example, as consumers increasingly demand personalization, why would employers assume that their employees are any different? As the Deloitte survey reports, only 8% of companies say their systems of incentives are very effective at creating a personalized, flexible solution.
These solutions could include project- or target-based bonuses, the ability to build unique benefits packages or opportunities to do more independent or remote work – whatever best fits an employee’s individual needs and priorities. In my experience, gamification has always given employees a strong incentive to meet specific performance targets. If you construct a points system based on certain outcomes, you create incentives on multiple levels – from the clear articulation of goals to the fun of competition. Another good tactic: tying employee incentives to a community cause with which they are involved or a social issue that matters to them.
No matter how you choose to motivate your employees, transparency and communication are critical. By engaging with your employees openly and frequently, you won’t just discover which incentives work best for them – you’ll also demonstrate that their voices are being heard. This is a powerful incentive in and of itself.
Incentives must be purpose-oriented
While it’s essential to give employees a stake in the company’s success by treating them as integral members of the team whose contributions matter and whose individual needs are respected, it may be even more important to give them a transcendent purpose; an employer needs a well-defined purpose that can inspire and motivate employees.
If there’s one fact about human behavior that no company should ever forget, it’s that we’re driven by narratives. From the stories that scaffold our lives to the information that spurs us to action, we interpret and navigate the world through narratives. An employee’s interpretation of the work he or she does for your company is no exception.
This is why you constantly have to remind employees of what they’re working toward. Let’s say your company offers software solutions that help companies collect and analyze consumer data. Your purpose isn’t to sell more software packages – it’s to forge stronger relationships between consumers and the brands they love. And this purpose comes with a story: Perhaps far too many companies are ignorant about their customers’ concerns and preferences, causing unnecessary friction and frustration. And perhaps your product has made companies more responsive to consumers, led to the creation of better products and services, and facilitated increased customer trust and loyalty for dozens of brands.
As long as your company gives workers ample opportunities to do valuable and fulfilling work, recognizes and rewards their efforts, and keeps the lines of communication wide open, employees will have every incentive to be productive and dedicated members of your team.