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Leadership

Culture – is it just a way of life?

I used to work for a very large retail company that employed several hundred people who the company were keen to reward for achieving certain goals.

The managers spent many hours in meetings deciding what people should be rewarded for and what those rewards should be. Part of the process included hours of discussion with companies that specialise in staff reward programmes. The managers spent weeks going round in circles, trying to decide what the best strategy was. In the end, I became very frustrated with the whole project as to me it made no sense.

One of the rewards was a voucher for a high street fashion chain. This sounded very exciting but how long would the motivational benefits last, and what could you do when the effect wore off? Increase the value? Where would that end?

Questionnaires were issued to the staff, committees were formed, more experts brought in to discuss and after all that we were still no further forward.

Three woman sharing a table at work, laughing while working on laptops.
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

One day in total frustration I decided I would ask one of the many people in the biggest department within in the company what they actually thought about a rewards system. I entered the huge work area, picked someone out who I had never spoken to before and asked her, “What do you think is a good reward for a job well done?” She paused for a few seconds, then said, “It would be nice if my manager took the trouble to come over and thank me personally.” Her response took me by surprise and immediately got me thinking about the fact that we hadn’t asked our target audience what they actually wanted, we just assumed that we knew.

So, from that light bulb moment we looked at rewards in a totally different light.

Of course, the first thing we did was to get managers to recognise when someone had done a good job and got them to go over and thank them personally.

We empowered team leaders to let people go home early as a reward. People really loved being able to go 30 minutes early and there was no harm as we picked the days when the business was quiet. Credit notes to get free food in the canteen was a popular reward, as was putting the drinks machines on free for a couple of hours.

At first it all felt very contrived as people started giving and receiving rewards and there was a certain amount of awkwardness, but it started to become more natural and although we didn’t realise it at the time, it was gradually pushing a new culture into the business.


“The first thing we did was to get managers to recognise when someone had done a good job and got them to go over and thank them personally.”

Gift wrapped box.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The company was a very fair one but I think it would be true to say it was more task focussed than it was people focussed, and the rewards system evolved to the addition of birthday cards signed by senior management and the day off to celebrate. For exceptional performance, staff were rewarded with a meal out with their family, paid for by the company; it was all far more personalised and genuine. We developed other rewards but were always careful to make sure they had that personal touch. I learnt several things from this experience:

  1. Don’t assume that you know.
  2. Always think about what your audience wants or even better, ask them.
  3. Keep it as personal as possible.
  4. A simple “Thank you” goes a long way.

It is true what Branson said: ‘“Take care of your employees and they’ll take care of your business,” I saw this develop for myself and will always feel very privileged to have witnessed it. Once you develop this type of culture, life becomes far easier as it helps attract the right people when you are recruiting for a position. It also improves staff retention even if there are better paid jobs elsewhere and makes your people want to achieve more.

Most significantly as the culture evolved, a lot of the claims for rewards started to dry up as the behaviour had become the culture and not something that you did for recognition.

So why wouldn’t you do it?

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