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Businesses are bracing for yet another rocky economic year. Itchy fingered accountants may see employee rewards as low hanging fruit for picking.

To that we say, hands off, cowboy. If you’ve spent years making strategic investments in employee rewards, you don’t want to lose the great momentum, high morale and the positive culture you’ve created.

The latest industry research confirms that reward programs are a competitive advantage. And don’t you need your staff engaged, focused and working to their full potential now more than ever?

Well, here’s a friendly reminder for you to share with the budget slashers – rewards don’t have to cost a lot to be effective. That’s right. You’ve got a few secret weapons in your rewards arsenal: personalisation is a big one, and timing, and meaningfulness. Do you see where I’m going here? Let’s start with the basics.

What’s a reward, anyway?

A reward is something given in recognition of service, effort, or achievement. Not to be confused with remuneration, a reward can be either tangible or intangible, monetary or non-monetary.

Monetary obviously involves cash and anything with a cash value. That includes tangibles like refrigerators and toaster ovens, as well as intangibles, like personal valet services, self-enrichment courses and catered lunches. And then of course there are travel and experience rewards.

A quick word about cash

Cash may be an easy reward to give a lot of the time, and definitely has a place in a reward mix, but it’s not exactly personal. Nor is it memorable; often getting mixed into the household budget.

Furthermore, it’s very, very difficult to reduce cash rewards without creating hard feelings (disappointment, confusion, resentment) which is precisely opposite to the effect you’re going for (pride, joy, acknowledgement). So you definitely want to think twice about trimming your cash rewards budget.

Kind words cost nothing, so let’s take that as a very simple example of a no cost reward. Your junior account manager, Heather, excelled in fielding questions from a demanding client in this morning’s project update meeting. You want to let her know she did a great job and you’re proud of her performance. How are you going to do that?

You could walk by her office and give a nod of approval, but why not take the opportunity to make a bit of a big deal of it? Hold a small impromptu ceremony in front of the department. Announce the achievement and give a round of applause. It’s an intangible, intrinsic, powerful way to reward with a special experience.

But don’t forget about personalisation – in other words consider the person. Be very sure that they enjoy public praise. Some people don’t.

It’s the thought (you put into rewards) that counts

Another thing worth mentioning about rewards is that very often their perceived value exceeds the equivalent in cash. Consider this; you could award your employee R100 in cash, or you could give them a personally addressed R50 voucher for their favourite fast food or coffee outlet, tucked inside an attractive envelope with a hand-written note of thanks.

Psychologically, the personalised reward has much more value to the recipient than the impersonal forking over of cash – which may be used to settle a small personal loan from a colleague earlier that week. Convenient, but not very rewarding.

Similarly, albeit on a very different scale, a pre-packaged, all-inclusive, once-in-a-lifetime holiday to the value of R10 000 has a perceived value of far more than R10 000 in cash. Not only has all the hassle of booking and budgeting been covered, but that employee may never, ever have chosen to spend  R10 000 on anything so self- indulgent. That’s a priceless reward!

But we’re still on about restricted budgets, so let’s not dream big, let’s dream creative!  And if you need some inspiration, check out 65 Creative Employee Reward ideas (2020 update). Let your imagination run wild.

Leverage the value of good timing

Ideally, rewards should be given as soon as possible following the action being rewarded. The idea is to link the behaviour to the reward, so waiting until the end of year awards ceremony is too wide a gap to be effective behaviour / reward reinforcement. By all means, mention individual achievements at your annual event, but reward in the moment. Or as close to in the moment as you can manage.

It’s easy to be spontaneous if you have an arsenal of rewards at the ready, like ever-popular gift cards, movie vouchers (or restaurant, or spa, or you name it). You can also get creative with ‘fill in the blank’ vouchers for fun perks like a personal assistant for a day, a relaxed dress code week, maybe a week of catered lunches, or whatever you know appeals to the individual.

Lean budgets don’t have to put paid to great employee rewards. Anything that shows you’ve given serious thought to not only the reward, but the recipient’s values and preferences, will do the job.

It seems trite to say, but you really want to be thinking outside the box here. It’s entirely possible to show your employees that they’re valued without breaking the bank. And really, you can’t afford not to.

Rewards are the most effective way to change and reinforce positive behaviour because our brains are literally hard-wired to respond positively. It’s like the proverbial tasty fruit high up in the tree that most probably got us off all fours and striving to walk and climb things. We just love rewards.


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