Reward Insight: How can Reward stay relevant and maximise impact?

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What do reward directors need to do to stay relevant and strategic?

We met Pearson’s VP, Global Reward Partner Alison Jenkins, who believes knowledge of the numbers and a questioning (and persuasive) mind should be reward experts’ greatest assets:


Alison, how did you get into reward?

Alison: I was an HR generalist who became a reward practitioner, and I’m the first to admit, it was not a transition I had planned to make! The company I worked for went into administration, making me redundant. Back then, my perception of reward professionals was based on being extremely technical and detailed but over complicating employee communications. I was convinced to give it a go. My new boss wanted someone who was different, who had insight around the numbers and could position reward more effectively.

On my first day I remember reading the employee bonus documentation, stretching to six pages for each of the three elements, company, team and individual. That’s when I knew the presentation of reward needed to change – you lose people when it’s turgid like this. Because the flipside is that when reward is used properly, it can be such a strategic attraction, retention and performance enhancing tool.

Reward strategy has massively changed since. What’s the single-biggest factor that influences your work today?

AJ: Reward is changing and is essential for organisations to keep their talent engaged and enthused. We work in multi-generational workplaces, where no one-size policy suits all. Not only do staff have different needs at different times, but their time spent in one organisation is becoming shorter. Some might say the peripatetic nature of staff is all the more reason not to invest too heavily, but why should someone have to stay five, ten, fifteen years before they’re recognised?

Reward today is all about saying we’re recognising the great work people do now, finding ways to help people now, for however long they might stay.

Does that mean reward specialists are being held to ransom by employees?

AJ: Absolutely not. The whole reason employees want instant, and regular recognition is precisely because they’re not in roles for the same length of time; if they’re not getting what they want where they are, they’ll go somewhere else. What’s interesting, is that look beneath the surface, and most workers don’t regard reward as ‘what I get’ – it’s more ‘what I need’ and whether they think the organisation can provide it. It’s important that senior executives keep sight of this. Reward is simply about knowing that having good people makes good business.

You advocate needing a clear reward ‘strategy’ rather than doing things ad-hoc, but you also want personalisation. Can the two work together?

AJ: Yes, very much so. Things are so different now. Often, it’s people with the least ‘experience’ of the workplace that often have the most skills [for instance in digital], so people need accommodating differently. But you can still wrap this into an overall strategy. I’m a real believer in the power of recognition, but more imaginative recognition. Cash, while it’s important up to a point, is the least effective tool. People today want an ‘experience’ – so why not give them this: be it lunch with a senior leader; tickets to an event; time with their family, or even just a thank-you. Money gets absorbed into everyday costs, and doesn’t create a long-lasting, wow-factor. I’ll remember the ipad I received for doing a great job, versus the $300 cash bonus. This strategy can be global and still exist locally.

Global recognition programmes, with provisioned budgeting, can enable consistency of approach to recognising values-based success and commercial performance at both an individual and team level. This connects the business through reward and ultimately driving cultural behaviours. Recognition strategy underpinned by clear structure will bring strength to the process and help with engagement. Business sponsorship is essential to drive a global programme and embed it to the ways of recognising great work.

You’re also a fan of simplicity, can you elaborate?

AJ: Simplicity means keeping it simple across all areas – from the choices people have, to even the way they access the information. Having information at their fingertips, accessing on their mobile devices, not signing in to multiple platforms. Keeping bonus schemes simple so employees can connect with them and place value on them. If you over complicate schemes, employees may disengage. There is a greater demand for transparency in pay practices and organisations need to respond to this and agree what transparent means for them.

ROI – it still seems elusive – has this finally been cracked?

AJ: It’s always complicated, but I think reward and recognition simply needs to be looked at as the ‘cost of doing business’. No one argues against other costs, so why reward? Obviously, it’s got to be affordable – we can’t go crazy – but if there’s one thing I truly believe, it’s that with thought, reward can be delivered for less and be more meaningful. Decide what you want your reward strategy to do and which levers are relevant for your workforce. Any reward strategy needs reviewing regularly to ensure it remains relevant and continues to work as an attraction and retention tool.

As a basic example, moving away from long-service awards and using the budget to celebrate life events or recognition of a job well done instead, will be much more relevant to more people throughout their careers as employees become more transient. The real ROI is retaining the employees with the necessary skills required to achieve business results, for the time the organisation needs them.

What’s the best advice you would offer someone moving into their first reward role?

AJ: I think a lot of people still think we’re the ‘policy people’. I say our role is to advise, to listen, to respond and to understand. What’s important in your industry, your demographic workforce and the organisation’s affordability? Anyone moving into their first director role should be willing to stand before the business, and be prepared to say what they think is best. This means being able to look at what employees need – from their perspective – and being able to sell this to the senior leaders.

It requires having passion. I think it also requires having some bravery too. We’ve come out of
our back office, but we need to stay out. We need credibility and we can only get this if we can hold our own with the business. Give managers the discretion to make decisions and reward professionals need to understand that supporting managers is crucial. Organisations are all about people; you have to believe in them. I say don’t be the police, be the trusted adviser. There’s a lot of science in reward, but the best reward directors add a bit of the ‘art’ too.