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Engaging All Generations with Adaptable Reward and Recognition Systems

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Reward and recognition systems should be adaptable, agile, and take contexts into consideration. All generations want three things - to be respected, rewarded and recognised for their work. The motivation and the form factor of the rewards are what differ for the generations. You need to be creative and keep reward and recognition systems fresh, and tailor them to teams, understanding what they appreciate and want.

Mun-Wai Chung and JF Unson spoke about creating adaptable reward and recognition systems to increase engagement from all generations in the workforce at Aginext 2021.

When people become disengaged, they’d rather be anywhere else but the office, as Unson explained:

We’ve seen people who just put in the minimum effort required. They don’t necessarily stretch and think of going beyond. They are more about meeting the basic requirements to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and not go beyond that. To them, it’s all about getting a paycheck, and that’s it. Some even look for opportunities elsewhere (it could be within the same company, or a different company).

According to Chung, reward and recognition systems should be in place to reward and recognise the work and contributions the workers have put in. "Remember, all incentives drive behaviour," she said.

The reward and recognition systems should be adaptable, agile, and take into consideration as many contexts as possible, e.g. generations, cultures and levels. It is not a one-size-fit-all approach, as Chung explained:

You have to tailor the awards and incentives to the teams. When the teams like the awards and incentives, they realise management knows them, cares about them and appreciates them. In turn, they work harder to "earn" those awards.

To keep rewards fresh we should be creative and change them from time to time, Chung stated:

The key is to know what your teams like or dislike and to understand what they appreciate. It’s just like any relationship. It’s similar to how you find out what your friends like, what your girlfriend/boyfriend likes when you’re dating, or what your spouse likes. So, put thoughts into it if you care about your teams.

InfoQ interviewed Mun-Wai Chung and JF Unson about how we can create adaptable reward and recognition systems.

InfoQ: What differences do you see when it comes to five generations in the workplace and what motivates them?

Mun-Wai Chung: Ways of working and work environments have changed quite a bit in the last few decades. Older generations (The Traditionalists / "Silent" generation, and the Baby Boomers), who are still in the workplace today, have lived through a number of different wars (WWII, Vietnam, Korea, etc). Their mindset and expectations are very different from people who have never lived through war times, like Gen Z (though some Gen Zs experienced terrorism).

For people who have lived through war times, their goal is to get more pay, and get promoted. They want to provide stability for their families, given the tribulations they went through.

At the more recent end of the generational spectrum we have Gen Z, who live in peace time. Gen Z talks about their contributions and the impact of their work, and cares more about their experiences. The generations in between (Gen X and Gen Y) are the gradations. The closer to Gen Z, the more the folks lean towards impact, contributions and experiences.

InfoQ: How can we create reward and recognition systems that are adaptable enough for all generations?

JF Unson: It’s about understanding that a one-size-fit-all approach on rewards and recognition does not work. Think about it: in the 1990s, you know "you have arrived" if the company gives you a company car. Today, people don’t want the burden of finding a parking space at work or at home. However, they are happy for a company to pay for services like Uber. The desire thus is still the same: that a company pays for transportation to and from work. However, the form factor is quite different.

You also need to understand what matters to which generation and in what life stage. Today, Millennials view that they are recognised if you give them time; so more time means more recognition. PTO, flex time, and autonomy are their choices of currency.

Finally, don’t forget to put thought into rewards as they drive behaviour, so be creative. You also need to keep it fresh and change it up, otherwise people would game the system.

InfoQ: What’s your advice for implementing reward systems?

Unson: First, be mindful that all incentives drive behaviour. So, you need to know what you are trying to achieve (the purpose of the reward) and what behaviour you would like to effect or encourage (the value). Once you realise this, you can come up with a system that is more adaptable. Then, you need to be creative and keep it fresh, otherwise, people will game the system. You also have to tailor it to teams, understanding what they appreciate and want.

In order to be successful at making these changes in a department or an organisation, you need to gain trust of the people at the level above where you want to effect change or whomever holds the purse strings. Otherwise, you will face roadblocks.

So, how do you gain this trust? Well, you need to understand the perspective of the people at the level above where you want to effect change. That’s the level which can support you in this change. It’s about understanding their challenges first, not yours. When you show empathy to their situation and help them solve their challenges or lessen their pain, you build credibility. They are then more willing to hear about the change that you would like to implement.

InfoQ: What’s a common trap that people fall into when thinking about performance management, rewards and recognition?

Chung: People normally view things from the place they are accustomed to. It’s important to include as many contexts as possible, e.g. generations, culture, gender, levels, etc.

Let’s take having different generations in the workplace as an example. Think about how people at work immediately attribute problems to the generation gap. It’s very condescending to blame generations with phrases like, "It’s a Millennial thing" or, "Ok, Boomer." No one actually makes an effort to understand each generation’s context. People make assumptions that impede teaming and business agility when it comes to collaborating with each other. We immediately blame. We need to realise that in the end, we all want the same thing.

This doesn’t only apply to reward and recognition. It applies to how we interact with people on a daily basis. For example, how do you talk to your children who are 1- 2 generations younger than you, or vice versa? It’s the same principle.

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