Lorraine Thomas talks to HRDirector magazine about employee reward and recognition

Thursday, December 21, 2017
In the boom years of the prosperous nineties, it was work hard, play hard, maybe miss the odd school concert or family event. People grafted to afford the strangling mortgage and family 4x4. Then we all had a bit of a wakeup call with the last recession. With it came a growing appreciation for security, spending time with family, being healthier in mind and body. That meant certain aspects of the hectic work culture were going to change. The Boomers realised it and the Millennials watched and learned. People began to want more – but not more of the same. So now the carrot looks quite different as employers rise to the challenge of a tougher marketplace and must be more creative in their recruitment and retention strategies. Yes, money is still important, it's always going to be the remuneration factor at the top of the list. Everyone puts some worth on their work performance and believes that they should be paid accordingly. For those employers who can afford to pay big, they need to import or cultivate the skill for hard negotiation as well. The astute job candidate will fight for their professional worth. Bonuses or pay-rises, pensions, long term incentive plans, stock options, cars, excellent healthcare or childcare allowances, are some of the generous financial incentives that hook employees. Others include substantial joining bonuses, annual leisure travel stipends, free on-site doctor and dental care, or free child-care on site. Creative or varied, financial motivations still dominate.

Now time is mainstream currency. Apart from money, time is the most important commodity that employees want. We’ve seen the rise of the ‘gig economy’ – driven by Millennials with a longing for flexibility. They happily work outside normal employment hours on a variety of work ‘gigs’, unfettered by bosses peering over their shoulders, punching in timeclocks or PAYE. For those who don’t mind being part of the company culture, time is the temptation that might persuade someone to leave their current job and seek another. Being overworked, burnt out and fed up is a sure way for building resentment and an eventual skills drain. Employers need to factor in a culture that doesn’t prevent employees from engaging in and enjoying their life outside work. Offering a flexible working schedule, is not a new concept, and it continues to grow as over four million UK employees work this way, according to the TUC. However, there are still many employers who don’t apply it. Flexi-hours and telework don’t necessarily cost an employer that much to put in place. Use of free communication tools like Skype have become more prevalent to allow employees to ‘be in touch’ while carving out a happier, focused, more productive work-life arrangement. If employee expectation is managed, and there’s robust communication and support from HQ, flexi-workers don’t have to be isolated or feel any less valuable than office-based staff.

Between 2014 and 2017 there was a 12 percent increase in senior level employees taking on part-time and flexi-working positions. They don’t want to miss those family events, school runs, or quality time with their partner. This increase reflects a change in working habits by women and men, although women still dominate because of post-maternity leave scheduling around their children. The annual survey ‘Britain’s healthiest workplace 2016’ (previously known as ‘Britain’s healthiest office’) surveyed 160 employers of varying sizes and sectors, across the UK; 34,000 of their employees provided responses. The survey found that employees with access to flexible hours and homeworking report lower absences and greater job satisfaction; they also consider themselves to be in better physical and mental health. Office based employees, with inflexible hours and long daily commutes are less productive and in poorer health. 
A clear path of advancement has risen up the agenda for employees who want to commit to and grow in one organisation, at least for a while. Knowing that through their talent and dedication, they can move forward, playing a part in the company’s progression as well as their own, is a big attraction. People have cottoned on that their working life doesn’t have to be a slow burner and then disappear in a puff of unfulfillment. With this in mind, the companies that offer the reassurance of being promoted purely on merit stand a better chance of acquiring and keeping top talent. This validation might also attract and encourage healthy in-house competition and promote a culture of wanting to excel. Therefore, the standard of performance is further raised in the pursuit of continuous improvement, as well as avoiding a skills drain.
Offering professional global mobility, like secondments in international offices also have pulling power. There is a new ‘Bleisure’ culture where the lines between work and leisure are intertwined. The 2015 GBTA Business Traveler Index reported that 50 percent more Millennials are likely to want to travel than Boomers. Boston Consulting Group’s research indicates that they will account for nearly 50 percent of business travel spending by 2020. The meritocracy is enabled by employers offering support with continuous professional development (CPD) programmes; that might be sponsoring an MBA, or in the case of HR professionals, CIPD qualifications. Again, the precious commodity of time’ becomes valuable and being given the flexibility to study around the work schedule or even financial aid become prized offerings. For those people who have been their career a long time, being allowed to take a sabbatical, with the security and trust of an employer is another way to enable professional development. Knowing that you can come back to work, without career fall-out, is reassuring.
Don’t underestimate the appeal of an enjoyable office experience. Some high-profile companies really enhance the on-site experience, like Google’s headquarters. Others try varied, creative means to satisfy their staff: excellent in-house restaurants, yoga, dynamic desks, crèches, microbreweries, tree-houses, power nap zones, green spaces. Positive, flexible and comfortable environments attract because studies have proved that such environments enhance employee performance and reduce stress levels. Office environment is also a hint at the type of company culture one is entering. If the office space is out-dated, bland, or confining, it’s not giving a positive visual message about the company’s brand culture. These days, the feeling is ‘the cooler the office, the cooler the brand’ - it’s a place that people want to be and work. While employers might think that the office décor has very little to do with performance and skills attraction, it’s worth remembering that many employees are using that space for 30 plus hours per week. They are ‘ambassadors’ for the brand, so if their work space isn’t inspiring them, their messaging about the company isn’t going to be inspired either.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), has struggled as a valid corporate credential; however, there are some organisations that have taken CSR very seriously which improves their brand value internally and externally. That matters to many employees. Growing social awareness and activism means that working for an organisation with similar values has become a point of negotiation. In 2015, The Nielsen Group carried out a global survey about the impact of sustainability and CSR engagement. Sixty-seven percent of their respondents said that that it was either necessary or a significant preference when it came to choosing the right employer. A company with a strong CSR ethic inspires more trust and loyalty if it can demonstrate that it is giving something back to the community in a proactive and meaningful way. In 2016 ‘Great place to work’ reported from its own survey that there is evidence that companies with strong CSR engagement, perform better financially too. Its survey on Britain’s best workplaces showed that 87 percent of employees in top scoring companies felt better about their employers’ CSR performance. In one way, these companies seem like a more secure place to work. However, inspired and engaged employees are helping to make that profitability happen, which creates a win-win situation.