Engagement, Gamification

How to build the perfect employee rewards program

Posted on: January 5, 2024Updated on: January 18, 2024By: Anita Chauhan

We already know how vital employee recognition is as a cornerstone for the success of your business, particularly when it comes to retaining your frontline workers. But translating that recognition into an employee rewards program is a whole other story. 

While often used interchangeably, the difference between recognition and rewards is vast. While recognition programs are about creating space for praise for an employee’s accomplishments and driving engagement, rewards refer to company-based programs that specifically measure and drive performance. 

Employee Rewards Program

For frontline organizations, a targeted rewards program can help in myriad ways, including: 

  • Boosting employer branding and aiding in recruitment 
  • Driving performance and striving for greatness 
  • Boosting employee engagement 
  • Fostering friendly competition

Rewards are an investment in workers’ productivity and engagement. Without them, promoting a productive, self-sufficient work environment that attracts real talent is impossible. Especially as companies face a heightened level of competition for talent, those without comprehensive rewards or benefits programs are quickly being left behind.  

Let’s take a closer look at how you can build a comprehensive employee rewards program that inspires frontline employee productivity and helps your company grow.   

1. Decide what actions you want to reward 

Rewards can reinforce and encourage the behaviors you believe are important and trickle down from your company’s values and mission. So the first step in building out an employee rewards program is deciding—and communicating—what behavior warrants rewarding. Baking these ideal behaviors into your culture and training can happen long before you launch your rewards program. This means clearly communicating your company mission and sense of purpose, and showing how each workers’ actions level back up to that core mission and purpose. Rewards are important because it helps not only reinforce positive behavior, it helps employees zoom out—reminding them why their work matters and how they make a difference. This in turn, makes them feel more connected and satisfied with their work.

This ideal employee behavior not only differs from industry to industry, but likely company to company so it’s important to be very clear and reiterate it often. What does success look like at your organization? Is it higher sales? More upsells? Better CX? Less food waste? More operational tasks completed daily? It’s important to remember that your rewards program might also change or evolve over time as these ideal behaviors change, but they should always point back up to the same company purpose. 

One more tip: Include your managers in the process. They are already key drivers of your company’s core values; engage and utilize them to help encourage their teams to get involved. They are already noticing and highlighting good behavior, and a good rewards system will also help them with their job and identifying star performers. Managers who are more involved with rewards programs are generally highly rated by their employees.

2. Identify the metrics behind “greatness”

A crucial part of any employee rewards program is a way to quantify success—but this is absolutely critical when it comes to frontline organizations with hundreds of thousands of employees. At that scale, you can’t just assume managers will identify top performers—that leads to bottlenecks and various definitions of “greatness.” Instead, outline the key success metrics you want to track and ensure alignment from head office to every single location on how and when this data will be collected. 

Some examples of data points you might want to track against your employee reward program include training completion, learning milestones, operational task completion, employee preparedness or sales data. But again, these metrics will differ from organization to organization depending on your goals and the tools you have in place to track them.

Tying these metrics back to your employee rewards program can be done in a number of ways, many of which make it easy to scale up your program and reduce the bottleneck on managers.  One of the most popular structured ways is to employ a point system. Outline a set number of points (i.e., 10 or 100) for completing a specific action or task. Once they hit 500 points, you can reward them with gifts, experiences, or other perks. And trust us—it works. Our leaderboard is the most popular screen in our platform for good reason. 

You can also tie rewards to recognition. Social recognition is a cost-effective way to express gratitude and allow everyone in your company to share their appreciation for other team members publicly, and when you connect that recognition to prizes, you’re really driving performance. 

3. Choose how (and when!) you will reward workers

In this step, you’ll decide how you will reward your staff when they achieve the metrics you’ve outlined. They don’t necessarily need to be monetary rewards—many employees seek out non-financial ways to feel connected to their work. 

Survey your employees to discover ways they’d like to be rewarded for their hard work. This has the added benefit of fostering your feedback loops to ensure your staff feel heard. Remember: to build a rewards program that’s truly unique, look beyond purely financial compensation-based rewards. Some ideas to consider: 

  • Company swag
  • Recognition or storytelling
  • Prizes or trophies
  • Gift cards or subscriptions
  • Parties or outings

For larger workforces, you can also consider using a system that allows workers to choose their own rewards. For example, Southwest Airlines lets staff collect points they can use toward swag, prizes—even travel!

Also: Your organization needs to move beyond just simply recognizing employees of the month and find creative ways to embed employee rewards programs into your day-to-day workflow. A Cornell University study shares that immediate, timely rewards can increase intrinsic motivation through connecting it to a task and a goal. Ultimately, if an employee is rewarded more frequently, they are more likely to be motivated to complete associated tasks. 

Digital frontline enablement tools can also help support your efforts through on-the-spot reward opportunities. You can help drive excellence and behaviors by thanking your frontline employees immediately as they act. From following new health and safety protocols or taking a customer calmly through a revised returns policy, and employees treating each other well, the timely use of rewards can reinforce effective behaviors. 

4. Set up the right processes and tools to support your employee rewards program

Setting up how the program will actually work is another important step. That means going through the steps we’ve outlined above, but also going through the logistics in more detail. 

How exactly will you quantify success? What tools will be used? Are they integrated or separate? For example, Axonify partnered with Achievers to make it easier for users to earn points in our platform and then redeem them in the industry-leading employee experience platform’s expansive reward catalog.

If it’s a points system, can employees follow along through some kind of platform? How will they be notified when workers win a reward? How can they choose their rewards? How can they be recognized afterward? All of these questions are essential to solidify in advance of a rollout. 

Next, communicate all the details to your workforce, your managers and your head office.  Rewards programs lacking clarity may work against the problems they’re meant to solve, alienating employees instead of bringing them together. Educate your employees and ensure that they know and understand guidelines to earn rewards through your program. If you have a more long-term program, add it to your employee handbook and onboard your employees once they start. Avoid keeping things to only one channel; find ways to continually remind people about the great employee rewards programs and initiatives you offer by baking them into all of your employee communication and engagement initiatives.

Like any program, this isn’t a one-shot deal. As you communicate the details to your staff, check in to see what they think of it, and what they might find confusing about the program. Fine-tune the information as needed to ensure company-wide buy-in and adoption of the program—after all, you’ve put all this time and energy into launching it! 

5. Measure the impact  of the program

To really prove the value of a rewards program, you must identify ways to quantify success and measure the value that it creates. In addition to the metrics we’ve outlined above (like sales and task competition), you’ll want to track metrics that tell you how your employee rewards program is driving employee engagement and motivation:

  • Employee retention rates
  • Employee engagement rates
  • Program participation (how often are staff getting rewarded?)
  • Training completion rates
  • Employee confidence rates
  • Other vital workforce analytics 

Through it all, speak to your employees. Find ways to enable every management level to collect feedback, use town halls and open or anonymous forums to collect honest feedback from your frontline workers. 

Without a doubt, employee rewards programs are a win-win for employers and employees. Investing in a rewarding and challenging work environment will provide your employees with the best experience possible and achieve critical organizational goals simultaneously.

Anita Chauhan

Anita Chauhan is a freelance writer specializing in marketing, creating diverse and equitable workplaces, management, healthcare, AI and fintech.

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