#SHRM21 Interview with Alex Powell: Results-focused Recognition for a Distributed Workforce


In this interview, Alex Powell, Director of Client Culture and Engagement at Reward Gateway, discusses results-focused recognition for a distributed workforce. 

Hi Alex, for those of us who are not familiar with your work, can you please introduce yourself?

Of course! I work as Reward Gateway’s Director of Client Culture and Engagement. What that means is that I look for and share best practices that client leaders can use to make the best use of our Employee Engagement Platform. Our technology has some robust, easy-to-use recognition tools, but what can managers do outside of the system to ensure those tools work for them? I talk about ways to make recognition a habit, ways to recognize effectively in a distributed work environment, and how to bring a culture of appreciation into your meetings.

You talk a lot about how to create a business case for a strategic recognition and reward program. What steps should a business take when creating the case for a strategic recognition and reward program?

While we are all familiar with the connection that recognition has to motivation and morale, we know that connection can seem academic when you have “real” deadlines and goals you are trying to hit. We recommend looking at the goals that are personal for a company and describing how recognition can help. 

For example, turnover is a challenge for so many industries right now. Reward Gateway found that 73% of employees who are looking to leave would actually stay if offered more recognition. Ask leaders to consider the impact to an organization if three of four people that left last year stayed. 

Another great way to make the business case is to consider where you are spending money that can be repurposed. Do you spend $50K on a service awards program that people don’t value? Do you have a line item in the budget for an annual awards banquet that won’t work for your distributed workforce? We have many clients that improve their recognition strategy and wind up getting more bang for their buck with very little impact on the bottom line.

How does Reward Gateway internally connect, motivate and retain its best employees in today's hybrid workforce?

I’m so proud to work for a company that actually uses its own tools in the following ways. 

  • Open and honest communication: Our leadership team members regularly publish communications - either via text or as a video - on our Employee Engagement platform. Because our software allows for reactions and comments on these communications you can get into conversation with the members of our Leadership Team - even if they are half a world away. 
  • Our voices are heard: We also use our survey tool to allow employees to “Speak Up” and share direct questions or feedback to the Leadership Team at any time. I’ve seen those employee comments lead to changes in how we work - with those employees getting credit for how their ideas made a difference.
  • Recognition is a focus: We use peer-to-peer recognition to stay connected within and between groups. Our HR team is often adding new eCards to give the program personality and to keep it fresh. We also have manager-led and peer-led rewards that we can use when someone really goes above and beyond. I personally love how I can spend those awards directly on Amazon.com or on gift certificates so I can use those awards where I most want them.
  • Wellbeing is a priority: We actually use the wellbeing center that we provide to clients! There are videos on positive self-talk, budgeting, or more traditional workout videos. Leaders throughout the company share what they are doing to support their wellbeing so we know we have permission to take care of ourselves and our customers.

How does values-based recognition help drive an organization's mission?

The use of values in recognition is such an effective strategy. First of all, it prevents HR teams from having to do more work. If you already have values, use them as the basis for recognition! 

Capturing stories of those values being used helps employees to see the mission as something tangible that they can support - rather than just a concept that isn’t relevant to them. The experience of being recognized is also enhanced when your work is connected to its higher impact. 

Your session features a case study with Southern New Hampshire University, a Great College to Work For for 13 years. Can you please share how they developed the business case for a unified recognition program, and gained stakeholder consensus throughout the process?  

Jennifer LaFountain and her team at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) built their case by first looking at data - studies on the power of recognition and internal turnover data. They also interviewed employees to get their opinion of what was being done and how it might improve. The combination of data and testimonials was powerful. 

Jennifer also worked with key stakeholders in the business. For example, she knew that their newly distributed workforce would likely need an online solution but their facilities team was harder to reach via technology. She made sure leaders from facilities were therefore a part of the decision-making process. The balance of data and conversations really allowed her to get strong buy-in even before they started to build out their new solution! 

For those who can’t attend your Friday afternoon session in Las Vegas, what are your recommended actionable steps for implementing a rewards program that leverages technology to connect a distributed workforce?

  1. Consider your internal goals. What do you most want this program to do? Connect people across groups? Support your superstars to feel appreciated? Bring leadership closer to the front lines?
  2. Consider your brand. Recognition should uplift and be fun. How can you bring your company's personality into play? With images? Integrating existing values and language? 
  3. Consider how your team will access it. Simple and easy is always best. Where do people already go online that you might use as an access point (e.g. MS Teams, Slack, etc.)? What online programs are already fully adopted that you can use as a model for your roll-out?
  4. Find yourself a partner. Make sure whichever provider you choose, will support you in making these decisions easy. How will they customize the program for your company? How can they make access easy for your people? 

Switching things up - the entrepreneur in me has to ask a question about recognition and rewards programs in a small business of fewer than 25 employees. It’s hard to do! Where does a small business owner even begin to implement a recognition and rewards program, and how do they measure success?   

With a small business, you often will have the same people recognizing others. It is therefore especially important that the recognition is seen as meaningful. 

Consider these categories:

  • What will you recognize? Values are a no-brainer, but what other actions are meaningful to the business? Sometimes leaders feel like they “need” to recognize for bringing bagels to a meeting when they would prefer to recognize for powerful actions like setting accurate expectations with customers. Consider which actions you are excited to be recognized for and be on the lookout for those actions. That will help recognition be sincere.
  • How will you recognize it? In a small group, it's easier to consider how people like to be recognized. Do they want public recognition at the start of a meeting? Do they prefer a face-to-face conversation as part of a one-on-one?
  • What should you say? To make recognition easy and meaningful we recommend using AVI (Action, Value, Impact) recognition. What specifically did they do that stands out to you? Which of your values does this support? Who does it impact?

To measure success? We love people to have metrics and our reporting is really valuable to larger companies, but with smaller companies you can use surveys. Maybe pulse a question out to people on a quarterly basis. “Do you feel appreciated for the work that you do?” Regular feedback will help you determine if your efforts are working, or if you need to change things up!

Alright, last question (thanks for hanging in there). For anyone who won’t be able to make it to your talk about results-focused recognition for a distributed workforce in Las Vegas, what do you want them to know? 

Four things:

  1. Recognition and connection are powerful tools that have become harder with distributed workforces.
  2. Updating your recognition strategies can seem overwhelming, but it's important to focus on progress, not perfection. Don’t wait to make changes!
  3. Feedback from your people is a great way to make the process more successful in the long run.
  4. Technology can work wonders to help bridge the divide between people but use an experienced partner to ensure the process is easy and successful for your leadership team and your employees.

Learn more at Alex’s SHRM session:

Results-focused Recognition for a Distributed Workforce

In-Person Friday 09/10/2021 01:30 PM - 02:30 PM PST


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