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How to make reward and recognition pay without breaking the bank

"No-one works for fun – we’re all just in it for the money.”

It's a commonly heard sentiment up and down the country. Sometimes, managers forget that many people at work are motivated by a lot more than just cold, hard cash. As an Investors in People Practitioner I've spoken to managers who've really struggled to understand why – despite reasonable wages – their teams had such low morale.

And in those situations, all it takes is asking employees what makes them feel valued and appreciated, to get to the heart of it. More often than not, it won't be salaries, pensions schemes, company cars or health benefits they talk about. So what is it then that makes people feel like their contribution at work is being recognised?

When I ask the question to employees, the answers I get usually relate to how people feel they are treated. If employees feel their needs, opinions, feelings, career aspirations, and professional development are being ignored or marginalised, remaining motivated can be a challenge. People tell me about the importance of having their voice heard and knowing their views and ideas are given credence. On top of that, basic courtesies like receiving praise and thanks for their efforts, and being spoken to with respect, have huge impact. Training, development and career progression also feature frequently, as do work-life balance considerations. “I know I’d get paid more somewhere else,” a single mum at a small non-profit recently revealed, “but I wouldn’t have the flexible working options that I have here. It helps me to look after my kids, and that’s worth more to me.”

Lessons from the less well-off

Of course, many organisations cottoned on to the concept of just treating people well a long time ago. The not-for-profit and education sectors have been working with shoestring budgets to engage, recognise and reward employees since long before the recession. “We can’t spend much money but we can spend time and effort to treat our staff and volunteers well,” explains Latifa Achchi, Area Co-ordinator for housing association Poplar HARCA. “We make sure we have open channels of communication, a range of cost-effective training opportunities, and give people a lot of verbal praise and thanks.”

For Anthony Djondo, Director of skills training organisation MI Computsolutions, it's also about taking a bespoke approach to reward and recognition. “We’re now trying to get to know individual staff better and understand what’s important to them, such as flexibility or development" he says." That way we can tailor how we show we appreciate them.”

It may seem like more effort to create this kind of working environment, but it pays dividends. If employees don't feel positive about their workplace culture and appreciated for the work they do, the financial rewards needed to 'compensate' them for the challenges of their role will be ever-increasing. And if your pot for rewards and recognition isn't bottomless, you’re more likely to see people leave as a result. As one disgruntled staff member put it to me, “They don’t pay me enough to put up with this *$^#!”

Ultimately, rewarding should never be about compensating for what has to be done, but rather showing appreciation for what's been handled well. If you create an environment that people want to work in, there's no need for a bottomless rewards pot – your employees will be enthusiastic about performing to the best of their ability because they believe in the ethos, approach and vision of the organisation they work for. And they know their performance will be recognised.