Keeping Your Staff Happy

Thursday Jan 27th 2005 by Eric Spiegel
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There are many ways to motivate your team. Sometimes a small or spontaneous reward can be a great motivator. But before sticking your foot in HR's mouth, you must consider other factors.

I really thought it was a good idea. Many of my team members had been working late, so I approached HR about a new policy that would allow employees working ten hours or more to claim a $10 dinner expense. They would just submit a simple expense form and get a check for ten bucks. This worked well at a large consulting firm I worked with in the past, so I was sure it would work well again.

I went to lunch with some team members and casually asked what they thought of this $10 perk. "What an insulting idea," said one of the developers. "The CEO says we can't afford to pay the annual bonus and then they slap my face with a $10 thank-you note? Ridiculous!" So much for my good idea.

There are many ways to motivate your team. Some times it is the little things that matter and a small or spontaneous reward can be a great motivator. But before sticking your foot in HR's mouth, you must consider other factors.

Not too long ago IT professionals were offered great salaries, promising stock options and many perks such as on-site dry cleaning pickup. Although it seems we are verging on a rebound in technology jobs, many IT staffs are still stuck with low raises and small, if any, bonuses. For most of us the back of those stock options turned into nice scratch paper for our kids crayons. And the on-site services like dry cleaning were considered a management ploy to entice longer unpaid overtime hours.

Now we have cynical IT staffs that realize the era of company paid BMW leases for employees is over. These days you are lucky if the company pays for parking (Beemer not included).

Before implementing any rewards program, you have to take a long look at the culture of your organization, the personalities on your team and the your desired results.

Understand Company Rewards Culture

Evaluate your company compensation policies and benefit plans to determine if you are operating in a positive or negative rewards culture. For whatever reason (like insanity) if you pay below market salaries, small bonuses aren't going to be greeted with open arms. However, paying market or better salaries leaves the door open to motivate with creative perks.

The same thought process works for benefit plans that require employees to pay a substantial amount for health care each paycheck. If you require someone to pay $300 per month for a health plan, they aren't going to be very receptive to a free dinner. But additional benefit perks like matching 401(k) contributions or reimbursing health club memberships can create a very positive rewards culture.

Listen To Your Team

Not all of us are lucky enough to work in a positive rewards culture. However, you can mitigate the collateral damage a negative rewards culture has on your team's motivation by finding out what lights each individual's fire. Each person is motivated by their own unique personal situations. Let's say your lead developer worked late into the night to fix a production problem and her long-distance boyfriend is coming into town for a visit the next day. Why not let her leave early that day and give her a gift certificate to a local restaurant?

You can also draw reward ideas from your team's shared work environment. If your team is working with 17-inch (or, heaven forbid, 15-inch) monitors, consider upgrading them to 21- inch flat screens. Sometimes it is simply easier to get an equipment upgrade approved rather than a bonus. Or ask them what tools would make their work easier. Your QA team might like an automated testing tool or your developers may want a better integrated development environment. And certainly if your team is working a lot of late nights, do offer to bring in dinner. Just be sure to stick around to eat it with them.

Take the time to learn each team members' likes and dislikes that may dictate their reaction to a reward. Your network engineer who is single might prefer a gift certificate to Best Buy rather than a turkey at Christmas time. On the flip side your project manager who has a family of four might really appreciate the Butterball. Always remember that one size does not fit all when it comes to spontaneous rewards.

Desired Results

There are usually desired outcomes that you are trying to arrive at when giving an award, whether it is individual motivation or improving team morale. Although you are always rewarding someone for a job well done, you are also steering the rewards culture into positive territory. Each reward for a past accomplishment sets the stage for improved staff retention and better, more predictable results on future projects.

Make sure you are consistent and unbiased to achieve the best ongoing results. Try to establish an environment of excellence by publicizing great work. The employee of the month awards don't just work for your local fast food joint. Put in place a periodic award with a certain dollar range and personalize it for each award winner. Present the award with a certificate that can be displayed in the winner's work area. For this to be effective it must be well-deserved, so don't be afraid to skip a period if no one clearly exceeds expectations.

Team rewards can also result in building team unity. If you feel your team needs a boost, take them for team outing. Make sure it is an event that they can all participate in and interact, such as bowling, miniature golf or paint-gun battles. Going to a ball game or out to dinner doesn't always end up with the desired team interaction.

I did end up fessing up at that lunch and have since started to address our negative rewards culture. I learned that a reward that works for one group or person may not work for another. Evaluate your team's needs, listen to their wants, and then build a rewards plan that complements their compensation and the company's reward culture.

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