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Why engagement is the biggest reward in HR

Sven Hultin

Today, work is defined by much more than what people actually do. It involves the how, where, when and, most importantly, why. Flexible working patterns, understanding of emotional and mental health and the increasingly blurred lines between man and machine are all posing questions around how employees are rewarded.

Article by Sven Hultin, Business Development Director – Zalaris

A situation recognised only last week when the UK government promised an overhaul of employment rights to improve conditions for millions of workers in the gig economy. The changes include stricter enforcement of holiday and sick pay rights, and higher fines for firms that breach contracts or mistreat staff. Yet, in a world of ever-changing working patterns, beyond the basic hygiene factors, how do businesses best reward their staff to get the most out of their most important asset?

Understanding engagement
Whether or not employees are rewarded in a working capacity is borne out of how engaged they are. That is the fulcrum from which all else is based. A plugged-in, switched-on employee eager to learn, progress and contribute is much easier to reward than a one barely able to muster a raised eyebrow of enthusiasm. The example highlights polar opposite extremes but, in reality, compartmentalising engagement is much more subtle and complex to quantify.

So, what do we actually know? Businesses need people to be effective and productive. It is imperative that managers and those at the helm understand everybody is, at the very least, able to perform their task. More often than not staff are a businesses biggest overhead so it is not unreasonable to expect them to be able to do their job. But, just because people are at work, doesn’t mean they are engaged. After all, we all have bills to pay.

Satisfaction versus engagement
This is where the engaged v satisfied v rewarded conundrum becomes interesting. They are all related concepts, interconnected, but completely different and driven by different pressures and needs. Yet, it is the HR team that needs to be able to understand them all to get the most of each employee for the benefit of the greater good. In this case, the business.

But here’s the rub. Businesses simply do not know if all their staff are engaged and capable because they do not measure it. Of course, they have an idea, but roles and expectations very wildly and there is a marked difference between thinking you know, and knowing. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the world of politics where individuals are promoted to positions in what amounts to a ‘next cab in the rank’ system. Hardly proof of anything other than patience and luck, or not, as the case may be. Ultimately, the minimum people should expect from both their bosses and peers is capability, but so often, that tends not to be the case.

How can you drive engagement?
Like them or loathe them, a good example of engagement in practice comes in the form of estate agencies whereby teams and branches are driven by competition, sales revenues and commission numbers. Certainly in the booming property years, it created a culture of healthy competition, continuous improvement, and an highly engaged workforce being rewarded and recognised in real-time with perks to match the income.

There are other examples too. Google has long been held as the pinnacle of workplace brilliance and innovation completely reinventing ways to reward and keep its teams engaged. From internal promotions into sought after teams like Google Glasses or the Google X squad to the more quantifiable visits to other offices and locations. At the other end of the spectrum in terms of company size, we’re seeing much the same in start-ups empowered by the sense that, ‘if it’s good enough for Google, it’s good enough for us’.

These are only a few examples but, beyond the perks and the culture, what these tailored and real-time benefits are doing is critical. It is sending a message to the wider industry that, as a company, these businesses understand talent. They have a system in place to monitor and track individual by individual, team by team which does two things. Firstly, it brings the best out of those staff already in the building. Secondly, it attracts other like-minded and highly skilled individuals and the process becomes, in theory, self-perpetuating.

The few teaching the many
But we’re just not seeing enough of this. In general the appraisal system is broken and, while many organisations have dashboards and other pieces of software that can inform when person X is due a promotion or person Z isn’t being particularly productive, the actually detail and intrinsic value is being overlooked. Engagement is a function and includes variables such as being capable, being leveraged, being interested and being appreciated. How to create a weighted index based on this will vary by company and industry.

Like a toddler intent on breaking a parents willpower, the main question businesses need to be able to answer, is why. Why is a person unproductive? Why is one team performing better than another? Why should we invest into area A as opposed to area B? The list is endless. But that also means this monitoring and continuous question asking is perpetual. Always-on. Ever seeking answers to the same set of questions. Do that, and businesses will find that the answers to the keeping employees engaged and rewarded become much easier to find.

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