With employee engagement at rock bottom, finding new ways to motivate staff is proving a real headache for many companies. Raise wages? Offer more benefits? More flexibility? The decision hinges on a raft of factors, yet recognition of employees’ efforts seems by far the most effective incentive.
Money is a short-term motivator with limited appeal
Yes, money is important, but it is only a baseline expectation. People expect to be paid a fair wage, without which no amount of ‘perks’ can attract or retain them. This might also explain why take home pay is still the number one factor in the decision to take or stay at a job in countries with weaker economies, such as Poland and Brazil.
Everywhere else, financial compensation loses its leverage. The ripples of motivation that follow a wage increase fade away after two or three weeks. A survey on the top ten factors for on-the-job happiness polling more than 200,000 employees around the world showed that people value appreciation for their work above all else. An attractive fixed salary was only eighth on the list!
Benefits outrank salary
So what is the most effective way for a company to show its appreciation? A Glassdoor Q3 2015 survey showed that nearly four in five employees (79 percent) would prefer new or additional benefits to a pay increase.
Yet the kind of benefits people want can vary depending on their profile or even the profile of the country in which they work. For example, a 2016 Sodexo Benefits and Rewards study conducted in five countries shows that, in Brazil and India, access to training courses can boost a company’s appeal just as much as the financial benefits it offers.
Elsewhere, in the United States—the only mature market in the world that does not provide universal paternity leave and offers fully paid maternity leave to just nine percent of mothers—time off to raise a newborn baby could seem invaluable to expecting parents.
Employee incentive programs are the key
Many incentive programs have proven effective motivators without the need for financial benefits. While the range of incentives can be vast, workplace experts recommend one characteristic above all: adaptability.
The ‘ultimate reward’ can look very different depending on your perspective. Giving employees a choice in how their hard work and dedication will be rewarded is a good way to boost employee engagement. Take for example an entry-level employee versus a more seasoned executive in the same company: the junior employee may prefer a student loan repayment program while his colleague may opt for vacation or wellness offerings. In short, companies are getting flexible and creative with their employee recognition offers, ranging from company-sponsored fitness programs to free meals and even outside-the-box perks such as egg-freezing.
According to the Incentive Research Foundation, the right incentive program can improve team performance by as much as 44 percent, boost employee engagement by 27 percent and also attract higher quality employees. SMEs and larger companies alike can reap huge rewards from effective employee recognition programs. A 2015 Sodexo Benefits and Rewards global survey revealed that 74 percent of SME leaders who had introduced such programs had seen an improvement in hiring, with 88 percent claiming a jump in productivity and 71 percent an increase in sales!
The all-important human factor
There is a crucial corporate culture aspect to employee recognition as well. When employees feel appreciated, they gain a stronger sense of being part of the company. This in turn nurtures long-term benefits such as higher employee engagement, morale, loyalty and productivity. Some studies report that productivity can jump as much as 30 percent when team members receive one piece of praise a day.
A McKinsey study also showed that motivators such as attention from leadership or the opportunity to take on leadership roles were just as effective as cash bonuses, pay raises and stock options. What is more, praise from a manager was ranked as the top motivator by 67 percent of workers—outstripping financial incentives and noncash rewards.
 2016 Sodexo Benefits & Rewards study involving 3,224 employees and 880 companies in the United States, India, France, Brazil and Poland.