Traditional rewards and recognition programs are an HR checkbox, yet often don’t consider the multi-generational and WFH pandemic workplace. In this forum, our cross-industry expert panelists discuss the unique challenges facing companies in a candidates’ market.

Featured speakers:

Watch the video and/or read the transcript below.

Key takeaways:

  • Getting beyond trinkets with timely individual moments that matter
  • Engaging strategies that meet employees wherever they are
  • Creating a real-time culture to drive meaningful and inclusive social engagement
  • Sustaining business alignment and continuity by creating a more fulfilled, happy, and engaged workplace culture

Rewards and Recognition Leadership Forum Transcript

(Edited/modified for readability)

Sylvia Flores, Moderator, Head of Brand and Culture, Espresa //

Let’s introduce our lovely band of panelists. Tell us where you’re located and what you’re doing in your current positions, or where you were previously that led you to this moment.

Andrew Meadows, SVP of HR, People, and Culture, Ubiquity Retirement + Savings //

Hello, I’m Andrew Meadows, senior vice president of HR, branding, and culture at Ubiquity Retirement + Savings. I’m a big retirement nerd. I’ve been in the business for over 20 years and really love to share the wonderful hope of looking forward to the promise of retirement. At Ubiquity, that love of retirement has really jumped into really embracing all types of benefits to help make sure we’re creating a company with a strong mission and values lived and breathed by everyone here. Really an honor to be here.

Susan Lovegren, Former CPO, Medallia, Juniper Networks, and Plantronics //

Hello, my name is Susan Lovegren and I’m the former chief people officer at Medallia, App Dynamics, Juniper Networks, and Plantronics, now rebranded to Poly. I’m currently working as an HR advisor with six different companies in the HR technology space, and also sit on the board of trustees for nonprofit Second Harvest, under Feeding America. I’m delighted to be here with you!

Alex Shubat, CEO and Co-Founder, Espresa //

Good morning and good afternoon! I can definitely see some good evenings here as well. Thank you for joining us, and thank you for organizing, Sylvia. I’m Alex Shubat, co-founder and CEO of Espresa. I founded the company around six years ago after seeing what companies like Google were doing to support their employee experience and engagement programs and how they built great places to work.

Recognition is definitely front and center and central to what we do at the Espresa.

Nancy Vitale, Co-Founder of Partners for Wellbeing, Former CHRO, Genentech //

I’m Nancy Vitale, and I’ve been in HR leadership roles across a number of different companies and industries. Most recently as the CHRO of Genentech, a biotech company here in the San Francisco Bay area. In the last couple of years, I’ve established my own boutique consulting firm focused and harnessing wellbeing and incorporating that into company cultures. I’m also board director of a gene therapy company called Voyager Therapeutics out of Boston. I’ve done some non-profit, and most recently I’ve been heavily involved with Josh Berson and Josh Berson Academy as a senior faculty member. I hope to bring those insights to the table. Thanks for having me.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

Thank you, Nancy! Now, Marques, our rising star, who I’m convinced we’ll all be working for someday.

Marques Morgan, Employee Experience Coordinator, and People Leader, Twilio //

You are too kind, thank you to the Espresa team for having me today. My name is Marques Morgan and I’m based out of San Francisco. I’ve been working at Twilio for about two years now and I’ve created our culture of recognition. So, building and constructing our anniversary program, our company-wide awards, and a new program we’re rolling out that spreads our peer-to-peer recognition program and food hub. So happy to discuss that today.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

Thank you very much for those introductions, everyone. We’re gonna jump right in here. All rewards and recognition programs pitch the same thing, which is driving engagement and retention. But that’s pretty tired and antiquated. There are so many gaps in these programs, given the pandemic. Programs are offering tchotchkes that don’t move the culture needle or meet this next normal.

Amid an ongoing global pandemic, a strong candidates market, and a significantly growing war for talent, what are ways you are promoting your company culture and your benefits offering?

Read Casestudy: Creating a Success Blueprint for Culture with Proofpoint

Marques Morgan, Twilio //

I think recognition is key to change the tide of burnout and the great resignation at Twilio. What we’ve done is really worked on creating a culture of recognition and making sure the stories and experiences people have come to life. There’s so much great work that’s happening in these spaces.

Being able to share these company-wide not only motivates people to go beyond their limits, but it’s also encouraging for people to see the great work that’s being done. So that’s one of the ways we’re looking at creating culture.

Susan Lovegren, Advisor and Board Member //

The context for everything has changed significantly in the last 18 months and the way you think about rewards and recognition has changed right along with it. What I’m finding in terms of what people are desiring more than anything is much more flexibility in terms of where they work, when they work, and being able to integrate many family-friendly benefits. It’s working well for companies I’m working with in terms of retaining people.

There has also been a shift towards different types of rewards. For example, around mental health benefits. Many companies are increasing their cost per employee to ensure there are services, whether it’s therapy or more fitness offerings, there’s definitely an emphasis around these types of benefits.

There’s also a shift from regional pay and new ways of thinking about talent, getting talent, and wherever talent might be without limiting roles to geographies or limiting roles to pay levels. There are starting to be some interesting shifts and rethinking rewards and recognition in general.

Read: Return to Workplace? Let’s Reboot This.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

I definitely want to dig into that further. Andrew, I know you’ve got some ideas here too.

Andrew Meadows, Ubiquity Retirement + Savings //

Over the past year, just looking for new talent has really evolved for us. What we’ve really done is emphasized more focus on being a strengths-based employer. This is really helping to promote the celebration of different perspectives and inclusion through collaboration and sharing experiences with one another.

I like to capitalize on the first few months of a new employee joining our company, because that’s when they haven’t completely assimilated to the work we do and still have an opportunity to share a bit more about their experiences, which I think a lot of employers say, “Hey, in your first few months, don’t say anything, sit down, and learn the basics.” Instead, we really like to include them in the conversation.

I found an increase in engagement from candidates, doing more research on our company’s background, our values, and our mission. And I’m finding a lot more folks who want to join our company are stating more clearly in our screenings that they would like to see an actual career here rather than just matching what the job is asking them to do along with their experience.

So, while benefits are certainly important, I found success in outlining what a future would look like here. That explicit investment in them as a company has been a really wonderful motivator in bringing on new talent, not again, just applying for the job they’ll have today, but actually talking through what their career path will be ongoing, really recognizing their talent, right from the start. It’s not just a job or a transactional experience, but actually, one where we’re going to grow together.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

Andrew has a lot to say about that because, how long have you been with Ubiquity? Which is a Silicon Valley company, by the way.

Andrew Meadows, Ubiquity Retirement + Savings //

17 years. I started out as a front desk customer service person. Through time here I’ve certainly had my talents recognized and they’re given opportunities. From the stories I hear from folks across the financial world, they’re not really being seen or given the opportunity to change along with the company.

I’m certainly the poster child for that.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

Yes, you are! And Nancy?

Nancy Vitale, Partners for Wellbeing //

All great comments from the panelists here. I want to pick up on something Marques said, and that’s this tie back to the great resignation. What’s also being called the great retirement period, which is a bit concerning, particularly as we’re seeing a constricting labor pool that people are opting out for, for early retirement.

There was actually an article in Inc. magazine (The Great Resignation Is Here, and It’s Real) that highlighted a recent survey from Gallup finding that nearly 50% of employees are actively searching for new opportunities. Another survey highlighted that 63% of employees who are regularly recognized also said that they’re very unlikely to look for a new job. Some really interesting correlations here. I’m also seeing more organizations promoting mission and purpose.

50% of employees are actively searching for new opporuntities.

Andrew just mentioned that, and there’s this notion of a greater opportunity to do meaningful work, particularly as a cultural differentiator. The pandemic has really caused people to think and reassess what they’re attached to, and in particular, in their day-to-day. The more an organization can really articulate what they’re doing to make a positive difference in society and draw people in who are looking to make that change and for more meaning and impact, they stand a chance to win in this very competitive kind of hyper-labor market.

This also gets back to re-examining what your employee value proposition is. I had an opportunity to talk to a few companies recently and some of this was back to basics in many ways and just re-examining how the pandemic and how everything, from tension in society, DEI issues, and all of this has caused them to rethink their employee value proposition in a new environment.

Read/watch the Interview with Nancy Vitale, Discussing Diversity, Equity, Anti-Racism, and Inclusion

Susan mentioned context as being so important here, but I think this notion of how mission and purpose serve as an important component to value proposition is another way to differentiate. I’ll mention one other piece that’s central to what I’ve been studying these last couple of years, and that’s supporting holistic health and wellbeing by providing a set of broader offerings.

From that same article in Inc., they really underscored the importance of care. It’s important to offer those offerings that Susan was mentioning—family-friendly caretaking for working parents, working care of elders. And equally important are the practices managers are putting in place every day to show that care, particularly when flexibility is on the rise and blending into some of the discomforts of having to just be more flexible.

Alex Shubat, Espresa //

Sylvia, these are amazing comments. Just to add one more small aspect to what we’re seeing in the industry and with work from home or hybrid environments. I think the demographic that’s going to be the most hit is the new hires. If you look at most of our panelists here, we’ve built relationships with our colleagues over time because we were interacting with them after a meeting, during a water cooler discussion. New hires are going to have a much more difficult time doing that.

They’re looking at, “What does the company provide (me)?”

Yes, they have to have a great position, interesting projects, great management, and the ability to learn, but how is the company going to integrate them, what tools and technologies do they have to help them connect to resource groups or learning opportunities, and how they’re going to be rewarded if they contribute? All of those are great questions that new hires are asking and companies are looking to put that front and center in their recruitment.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

It’s the employer selling what I’m going to do for you. It’s not the other way around in a candidates’ market.

On that note – more employers are adopting work-from-home or hybrid models. In what ways are HR teams engaging employees in the next normal with recognition?

Susan Lovegren, Advisor and Board Member //

We talked a bit about family-friendly benefits and those will certainly continue. Everything along the lines of offering some tutoring (for example), and I’ve seen some companies, going back to Nancy’s comment, they’re offering mental health days off, home office gear, more ongoing spot awards, and there’s also much more focus on pay parity, and transparency.

Companies are paying for social gatherings with safety protocols to make sure those who desire to get together to Alex’s point – maybe you’ve got earlier career stage people or a group of salespeople and they’re quite social and they want to get together. Providing a safe environment where they can go do something fun together – the company paying for a ballgame, dinner, that type of thing.

Read/Watch Our Interview on Rewards and Recognition in a Brick and Mortar Environment During COVID with Xceed Financial Credit Union (Now Kinecta)

I’m also starting to see some interesting work from home models. For example, it’s something we’ve probably all taken for granted, but we can’t travel these days. It’s difficult to go visit a different site, to go across the world and have those cross-cultural experiences firsthand, all of that is off the table. If you’re an early career stage person, a lot of your learning comes through those encounters. You’d maybe be paired with somebody who is a more experienced individual. Obviously without the travel, without in-person training – people don’t want to do that all online with more Zoom webinars and more Zoom training. Those opportunities have dried up.

Some companies are actually looking at really rethinking progression as a reward or an opportunity. They’re basing progression on potential versus, you checked all these boxes, you’ve gone to all these programs. They’re really looking for ways to keep people engaged around their career progression which looks very different than today’s model. This time is challenging. It has opened up some really creative thinking about the workforce and what’s possible.

Andrew Meadows, Ubiquity Retirement + Savings //

Before the pandemic, we were already 85% remote, which we actually found to be a really strong element of our company culture, because we found ourselves working in a place of advising some of our bigger partners who were adjusting to engaging with what a remote workforce would be like. Since collaboration is a cornerstone of our values, we continue to try to provide new and exciting ways for folks to engage with the community at large.

That’s actually one of the things I hear a lot about during the recruitment process is, how do you maintain a successful and engaged work-from-home community? We do that in a lot of different ways. One of the ways it’s always been very successful is, we have a weekly meeting called Vital Factors. It’s 15-minute check-in, all hands, everybody joins, and we just celebrate the successes or acknowledgments of either the past or the upcoming week.

Sometimes we’ll do individually led engagements, like what we call the impromptu virtual break room, which is trying to take the place of that water cooler talk that Alex mentioned. We want to empower employees to take a mental break from the day and connect on a more human level at work. We find that our employees are so funny, we just wanted to get them a platform to be able to share some laughter.

We’ve also seen an increase in some of our more social activities on our internal message boards. The most popular one right now is the foodies one, where everybody’s sharing the new pandemic recipes that they’ve played around with, which is actually engaging because now people can actually have the same dinner and then share the next day how it turned out, which is really wonderful to see.

We’ve also brought back our book club. Again, it’s another way to have a shared experience and be able to connect on that. Probably our most successful is we started a Toastmasters charter, which if you’re not familiar with what Toastmasters is, it actually helps people learn more public speaking opportunities. But part of the process of Toastmasters is that people have to do icebreaker speeches or research speeches, which gives us a lot more of an understanding about the individual while training them on how to better articulate their points of view, receive and provide feedback to others, talk about really being able to leverage both personal experiences with ongoing applicable employee training on the job. It’s really been a win-win and a really fantastic opportunity to get to know one another while leveling up our skills a bit more.

Marques Morgan, Twilio //

We’ve had a huge opportunity during the pandemic. Prior to my joining at Twilio, we had one company-wide award, which is like our Emmys, our Oscars, our Grammys. But there’s so much work, so much great work that’s happening throughout the year, and many more recognition opportunities. What we did was create a rewards and recognition committee, something I’m just so excited about. We have employees from all over the world. We’re about 40 people deep, we’re representation in EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa), APJ (Asia-Pacific, Japan) and within the States, so we collaborate in these meetings and we discuss our Twilio and Magic Awards, which are upcoming as peer-to-peer recognition opportunities.

Also any opportunities we have with rolling out the Espresa platform. What I like so much about it, is it puts people from different career levels and in different business units together to be able to collaborate with each other. Once we had sign-ups, I was excited to see that a lot of people that signed up were new, so we have people that have been with the company for seven years, some people that have been here for only three months. Just putting myself in the shoes of a new hire, I can see how rewarding it is to be able to deliver company-wide impact within your first couple of months. For me, it’s been rewarding as well because now we get a more global view of recognition and it’s not just US-centric.

Being able to get a better understanding of how we can make recognition come to life in APJ, or making it come to life in EMEA, has just been really rewarding and has helped our program and adoption company-wide because they’re all championing it and it’s led to a lot of success.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

This is making me think of our next webinar that we’re going to be having on community and employee resource groups. There’s a lot of blurred lines between this subject and community for sure!

Alex Shubat, Espresa //

Definitely the environment is more challenging and the fact that you cannot touch people, pat them on the back, stay behind and give your personal kind of attention to them. What I’m seeing companies do, there may be a meeting and there are 20 people in Zoom or whatever technology they’re using. And somebody just did an awesome presentation. I think the idea is to recognize them right on the spot. You can be sitting there in a meeting, you have your mobile phone, and you’re in the app, and you select the person. You tell them, they just did a great job on this presentation. This is very difficult to do that without technology.

I used to be a CEO of a public company and we used to have a recognition budget. We’d give it to the VPs or GMs, and they’d give it to the directors. And they effectively can use it maybe once a quarter or once a year for somebody. Bringing that recognition moment much closer to the actual event requires some kind of use of technology and that should be much more automated.

You should know if you have the budget or not. It should be social so that people can quickly react, and comment and amplify that effect, right in the moment. And you know, millennials they’re so used to these type of high five kudos, applause, and the amplification of the shared experience.

That talks to the fact that there’s got to be new ways to reward and recognize your peers, your employees, managers-to-employees, and create that momentum and make it very close to the recognition moment. And again, the only way companies can do that is if they have some kind of digital technology like Marques mentioned, that helps them see all the data who is participating, who is not, who is contributing, who is being recognized, why are they being recognized and use that to create that great culture of gratitude.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

It’s better though, right? That we’ve gone from that hierarchical structure of quarterly or a boss-down to employee recognition that is breaking down the walls of all of that and being able to have people recognize anyone within the organization at any time. Thank you for that, Alex. Nancy?

Nancy Vitale, Partners for Wellbeing //

Maybe just widening the bracket a bit and not so much on a deep dive on the recognition piece, but I think a watch out. And this gets back to something Susan mentioned earlier. As we think about work from anywhere models and hybrid models, this notion of geographical pay, as we think about total rewards more broadly speaking, there’s definitely some pressure points that are coming.

The other thing that research is showing is that employees are willing to trade up as much as 25% or even north of that, of their pay for greater flexibility. I think you have these different pressure points that are coming in, that’s more of a watch to see how these confounding factors unfold and impact how we’re thinking about rewards in the future.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

Are you seeing new trends in rewards and recognition that are getting away from complimenting the traditional years of service awards, for example, the pen, or I’m going to say this for you Andrew, the gold watch. Are there some new trends that we’re seeing there and Alex, I’m gonna put you on the spot for this one.

Alex Shubat, Espresa //

I think Sylvia, we’re in a special position because we see what happens across hundreds of companies. And we definitely can read the trends. The service award, you know, the pen, there is value to that. But I’m saying, that is the value. The fact that I got the pen, is that my value to the company? Service awards are important because they do promote loyalty. Somebody like Andrew who’s been in his company for 17 years – that’s definitely up there in Silicon Valley – (service awards are) important. But let’s say that the service award is only one of the many. As you said, Sylvia, social recognition also known as peer-to-peer is important because that’s something anybody in the company can do.

It’s not just a top-down hierarchy and you can give employees a lot of leeways. It could be just a digital card or badge that comes from one department or another. Let’s say if I’m a sales organization that I want to reward the customer success team, or I want to reward the software team because they deliver a fix in record time and they worked really hard. So, as a sales team, I might have my own little budget and my own little special badge that I can give to somebody. Those are becoming very, very pervasive and, and we see them used a lot more. And also, the recognition itself – it doesn’t have to be monetary. It could be just a card or a badge. Those are great because people can react and can comment and amplify it.

Read the Guide: Supercharge Your Superstars with Rewards and Recognition

For monetary, it could be gift cards and gift cards are easy to deliver and they’re global. As long as you have a gift card that works in every country. For example, we have something like a Target (retailer) in the U.S., but in Korea, they have something else. You have to make sure you deliver the right gift card to the right region (and with gift card award parity).

That includes experiential rewards, right? If I give you a hundred dollars as cash and it goes to effectively to Safeway, I don’t feel, that’s just a part of my paycheck and doesn’t necessarily have emotional value. Not the same kind that you would get if you take your significant other on a trip to the wine country, or on a balloon ride.

That association is positive, “Hey, I’ve delivered something to the company and that’s why we’re experiencing this right now.” It’s something you can tell your friends about, you can actually take pictures while you’re in the wine country, you can touch your reward.

There are many more than I can go through here to recognize employees for their contribution and make it visible to the entire company. They can show up on leaderboards or social walls. Now becomes homegrown or crowdsourced excitement. And then somebody got 10 hoots like Marques said this quarter, and then I know in the corporate meeting, the CEO can stand up and say, look, it’s amazing what these 3, 4, 5 people delivered? And you create a feedback loop where something started at the employee level, at the factory floor, at the retail location, and got visibility to the corporate world. Again, these are just some examples.

I get too emotional, too excited about this, but this is what companies are doing and we’re seeing the results. And it’s just, just amazing.

Andrew Meadows, Ubiquity Retirement + Savings //

Absolutely. We’ve always promoted work-life balance. You know, we want people to really enjoy that. The one sort of ubiquitous milestone we always like to reward with is time off. If you hit five years, you get a month off of work. A month’s sabbatical, right? How many times is anybody in the course of their working career ever been able to take maybe more than two weeks off and yet, being a company that celebrates that is important. It’s to that point, Alex, it’s the experience. What can you do with a month off? Imagine the mental break from work. And we always have employees share what their experience was. What did that time off feel like? Then to advocate that in front of other people and share that experience is really important.

I found compensation in general, comes in a lot of different forms other than money or benefits, which again is that traditional way of recognizing folks. I’ve always looked at compensation to include influence or responsibility or leadership. And of course, recognition. When folks leave their job, it’s often because they no longer saw a future for themselves, they felt like their work wasn’t valued, or recognized.

One of the things that we do, to your point Alex with badges, is every quarter we give out something called the Spork Award. Sometimes you need to be a fork because that’s your job, and sometimes you need to be a spoon. Help other people out. By rewarding that collaboration, again, it’s peer-nominated, peer-voted, and peer awarded. This year, we actually have expanded outward.

We’re doing more rewards when employees step out of their comfort zone and actually exercise a talent we haven’t seen before, or we award our Inner Hero Award. We’ve got badges for every single one of them. Iron on badges, very easy to send through the mail as a way to recognize that they can throw on their company hoodie, and then when we actually get to see each other next, let’s show off our badges that we were able to earn. We do that in a lot of small ways too, we actually use a system called 15Five (Espresa integrated).

Watch 15Five and Espresa’s Recorded Webinar: Retention Through Recognition: Feedback, Growth, and the Rise of Self

Whatever it is, those small micro experiences all the way up to company-wide awarded acknowledgment, all the way even wider than that for milestone or service awards that aren’t tchotchkes, but instead, absolutely what we want people to do. We’ve invested in your career, you’ve invested in your career, why don’t we all invest in your time off and in your balance away from the career. We found that to be extremely helpful. I’m actually taking off the month of October for my service at that point. I cannot wait to come back and tell everybody about what I did or nothing at all. Just whatever I want to do with that time, it’s celebrating.

Marques Morgan, Twilio //

I would love to tag onto what both Alex and Andrew said because I’m a huge advocate of sabbaticals. Eight now, I know a lot of companies are doing experiential rewards and I think that’s like, the tip of the iceberg, but once we get to taking sabbaticals, there are so many benefits, not just from an employee’s perspective, but from a company’s as well. One of my biggest regrets with some of my previous roles is that I didn’t take enough time off. My team knew that I was doing the work, but they didn’t know all the aspects that went into the work. So, once I did take a vacation, it was a scramble of getting caught up on where we were at, and what we’ve been doing, versus sabbaticals allowing the freedom and collaboration we truly want.

It allows people to work inside their scope and outside their scope to be a team. It involves a team dynamic and it involves us getting to know more things. And it also provides the company the opportunity to see what areas of opportunities there are. Where can we hire? Because we have additional gaps also makes workloads reasonable. You don’t realize how hard someone’s working, how hard someone’s job is until you’re doing it. Then it gives you a whole other perspective. And I think sabbaticals provide that opportunity as well. So definitely something I would love to see more.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

Me as well! Also knowing that you don’t have to come back to a workload that’s significant and that it’s not just piling up while you’re gone and that you’re not going to have to address it, but it’s been done and you just get to hop back in your seat, refreshed. That’s an amazing thing! Susan, Nancy, do you have any thoughts on this?

Susan Lovegren, Advisor and Board Member //

I have one thought and it’s back to the service awards and the pen or whatever. Traditions. Companies that have traditions as a way of celebrating, coming together, some sort of annual event. I’ve worked for companies that were very steeped in traditions. One company did an annual Olympics and it was very silly. It was very fun. It was a way of celebrating everybody and people would dress up in costumes and there would be a physical challenge and intellectual challenge. There’d be a dunk tank. There would be all these silly comical things. And it became this tradition for this particular company. And it had stickiness where people wouldn’t leave because they didn’t want to miss the annual Olympics. And it was something the CEO got behind.

This particular CEO did a couple of other things that didn’t cost any money. That was a very low-cost event, by the way, the Olympics were very, very inexpensive, but it just made people feel a part of something, and it was a great way of recognizing. The other thing he did was he would send every employee in the company a handwritten birthday card. That may seem like something, that is maybe people don’t want a birthday card, but people would keep those cards year over year, over year, with that handwritten note. Many people would comment that their own kids didn’t even give them a birthday card, and that was the birthday card they would hold onto.

There would also be a holiday gift, and sometimes those holiday gifts were a little goofy, and sometimes they were better than others, but it was about the tradition, and about the culture that was created through those rewards and recognitions. If a signed card does that, knowing your environment, knowing your culture and what you’re hoping to accomplish, think of it as what traditions do you want to start in your organization, that have people come back for more. It’s like, “Hey, I don’t want to give up that annual progressive dinner, or the annual potluck,” or whatever it might be. It’s the experience, but it’s honoring those traditions. As much as we make fun of service awards, they’re a tradition for some groups, and they can be very, very meaningful. Just ask you to look at both sides.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

I love that, that’s ethos and soul! Nancy, did you have any thoughts on that?

Nancy Vitale, Partners for Wellbeing //

Just going back to your central question around what trends are we seeing, I think an ongoing listening strategy and platform in and of itself is a form of recognition of listening, of acknowledging, of responding to employee needs. We’re seeing this trend towards greater frequency in asking and that in and of itself is this form of recognition. We’ve seen this in the Josh Bersin Academy research that we’ve done. And it’s been a consistent theme, whether we’re talking diversity, equity, and inclusion, employee experience, or organization health. It keeps coming up as one of those practices that are central to recognizing people validating that you care for your team by listening. Now, it’s not just listening and then throwing those results in a drawer, you have to acknowledge, share transparently, and actually do something with them.

But it’s an important practice that we’re seeing come to life as it relates to recognition. I think just to add on to where Alex started the conversation, and that gets to experiences as a creative way for organizations to reward employees beyond money. Certainly, we’ve seen this as we think about holistic wellbeing and the research has also shown that you get a more significant boost in wellbeing when you spend money on experiences than when you just reward pure cash or dollars, and it does create those memorable moments. I know it’s been more challenging in COVID times, because travel, weekend getaways, hotel stays are some of the more obvious ones. But even in COVID times, a couple of you mentioned cooking, so home delivery of food, or in-home massage therapy, these types of experiences that carry forward.

Watch/Read: Leadership Forum for Global Employee Reimbursements (LSAs)

My last comment around the sabbatical one, because a couple of folks have mentioned that. We did this with my last employer. After six years, we did six weeks, so a little bit similar to what Andrew was articulating. But it gets to the tradition that Susan was also mentioning because we had this ritual. Again, this is more difficult in COVID times, but when the employee came back from their sabbatical, the team actually celebrated and decorated in the theme of how that person spent their sabbatical to welcome them back in. It was this solidification of the memory that created that boost. I think now technology is coming along. We can do these kinds of things in a virtual way as well, but how you welcome people back to celebrate the sabbatical experience, can also be a form of recognition.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

That is so fun. That’s just really exciting.

Alex Shubat, Espresa //

I just get excited to hear that, what you mentioned about, the day off or the sabbatical or whatever it is, just to mention, we see that as a big trend because for example, Espresa, we don’t charge for experiences or gift cards or rewards that go through the platform. As a result, we’re not trying to sell the products through the system or trying to incentivize companies to use only certain products and try to generate revenue. For example, as a reward or recognition, we don’t care if it’s an experience, a day off, or a $1,000 sweater that goes through the system because we don’t make money on it.

We’re agnostic. So, the reward could be badges. It could be days off, it could be, you know, a parking spot or cutting the line in the cafeteria, right. Some cafeterias have huge lines and then this person shows up with a little card and they go to the first spot, right? It’s zero money to the company, but it’s a great way to recognize somebody and, and we love it. It goes directly through the system.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

Next question! When it comes to executive leadership and business outcomes, what challenges and I think this is a big one. What challenges do you face in pitching a recognition program to the executive team? Do you have advice on getting a budget to support it? Susan, do you have any thoughts on that?

Susan Lovegren, Advisor and Board Member //

I had to ask for budgets and I’ve had to try and influence executives in my career. I think there’s a couple of different things you can do. First of all, data, super important. Helping people really understand what are the choices and options? What do things actually cost? What are the benefits? Looking at your listening strategy, what is it that your employees are voicing that’s important to them? I think sometimes there’s a lot of confusion about what things actually cost, and what things are actually valued. I always talk about this idea of perceived value when it comes to figuring out what is the best reward and recognition program or benefits program.

There are some things that are super expensive and the perceived value is very low. The perceived value of something like flexibility remains very, very high from an employee perspective. That’s remained consistent. If you look at any of the Mercer data, if you look at any of the studies out there, flexibility remains key, and it doesn’t really cost you anything. If you think about things that are going to maybe cost something – a 401k match has a real cost attached to it.

By looking at how you can carve up time differently and provide more choice, or more of a stipend where people have more control, and can treat their benefits more like their pocket if you will, more like a consumer, I think one, the employees are a lot happier. They feel more listened to, more valued. There’s more stickiness, and I think from the perspective of the CEO, one of the things I’ve shared in a couple of these other panels, CEOs are always looking for good news to share with employees. If you can make your CEO a hero and help that person share the good news, whether it’s the town hall meeting, your company meeting, and it’s a way of creating that boost, that energy, there’s also appealing to the, I hate to say to the ego of the leader, about being so great and so generous.

It’s also a way of helping to influence how you get some of these things to go through. But the analytics will tell you, the voice of the employee will tell you what you need to be focusing on and being analytical, presenting that data, the trade-offs may be sequencing some things, and eventually, I think you’ll get a pretty robust package.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

That’s awesome. And I have to ask Marques about this also because you have done stellar. I’ve been witness to some of your presentations that you’ve done internally. When you are talking about the programs you’re launching you are so strategic in the way that you’ve done that, I was just curious if you had any insights to share.

Marques Morgan, Twilio //

I think Susan had a lot of the key points. Another thing I would add is seeing what budgets you can repurpose. For us, before asking for a new budget, we really took a look at where the budgets were being used, and the way they were intended. We had a lot of different recognition programs happening within the different business units throughout the company. And so we saw it as an opportunity to connect with accounting and create a centralized budget, actually centralize the program. We were able to get buy-in from the different stakeholders throughout the company.

Once we launched this program, we were able to sunset the programs they had. It took out and made it a more efficient program because there was less admin work from the different admins in the eight different programs that we had, and it also got us a step closer to the culture of recognition that we wanted, because as opposed to just being able to recognize people within your team, you’re now able to recognize anyone in the company. We just tried to look for a more efficient way to do what we were already doing.

Alex Shubat, Espresa //

I’ve been on both sides, I’ve been a CEO of a public company, so I’ve seen budgets come my way. I’ve also been in positions where we’re asking for budget and I’ve seen how other HR executives are asking for budget then and getting it done. What Susan and Marques said, I think those are the exact channels.

Then there are very, very high-level strategic initiatives that take a lot of effort to mobilize and marshal the entire company behind, and they need to be very visible. They need to be communicated. Communicated results have to be shown all the time, and then see how the company is moving against those initiatives.

Any program that you’re launching, can help the company align with other initiatives, it will help you get the budget for that program. I’m just going to throw some examples. If for example, a company wants to improve its customer service model, to be more efficient, more responsive, get better scores. You can bundle that into a recognition program and you can say, these are the core values that we’d like to focus on. Based on those core values, you want to recognize people who are delivering results.

Now, you can see how it’s going, who is contributing, how many people are getting things done with those core values in mind, and that goes back to the initiative. Now you can say, “As part of this initiative, we want to spend some money directing the company, aligning to the specific task.” If the company is serious about it, they’re going to say, “We definitely want to spend the money, and try to support the initiative and a recognition program or any program that you’re launching.”

If it aligns with a corporate initiative, it will help you get it done, and they’ll have much more executive visibility, because it’s visible to the executive team, it’s visible to the board, and you can see how you’re doing against that.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

Removing the minutia from accessing budgets and automating approvals. I think we should attack that. Susan, Marques, Alex, do you have any thoughts on that? Being able to push those through, without having to go consistently to a boss or to a budget holder in order to get approvals.

Susan Lovegren, Advisor and Board Member //

Yeah, it’s the way to go. To carve it out, to create whether it’s a stipend or department budgets, I’ve been on both sides, and I’ve had to work for accounting, and frankly, it becomes then just a financial exercise and you lose the plot. You really lose sight of what you’re actually trying to do. I think anything you can do to make that as seamless as possible and put the trust on the employee, like “Here’s your pot of money, here’s what you spend it on, and here are our offerings,” typically works the best. And people feel the best about it, that they have a choice versus these checks and balances for really fairly, low-cost transactions. That seems silly, and it seems really counter to trusting people and empowering them and reporting and recognizing. That would be my advice. Anything you can do to separate it, get it out of encore, would be great.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

It seems like we’ve gotten into a more trusting environment. There was a big fear about people working from home and that there wouldn’t be productivity there. Then suddenly we have rising productivity with people working from home. Just having more trust in your employees, I think that is definitely the answer. Marques or Alex, did you have any commentary on that?

Marques Morgan, Twilio //

In that same vein of trust in employees, what we’ve done with the Espresa platform, or HootHub as we’re calling it, we’re allowing managers to go in and approve. Some of the lower levels that we have for the program, the day-to-day recognition, even the quarter-long recognition, some of our lower levels, no approvals required. Just trusting that employees are using the platform as needed. But for some of our bigger initiatives or the bigger recognitions on the platform, that will be approved by a manager, just to make sure they have full visibility into the impact that their direct report is bringing company-wide.

That’s one of the perks of a program like this.

Alex Shubat, Espresa //

We see that Marques, and that’s a great setup. We always start with, oh my goodness, if you give employees budget, they’re going to just go blow it. They’re going to recognize their friends. Actually what we’re seeing is the opposite. You actually have to encourage employees to use the budget. Maybe the first quarter it will happen, but at the end of the day, everything is visible. All the analytics are there. We see who is recognizing, who is being recognized, and who is not being recognized. That’s the tool you have.

Trust your employees to A, give them a budget, and as Marques said, what you do is escalate the approval flow based on the amount. At a certain budget, $25, $50, whatever it is, just don’t have any approval, reduce the friction, incentivize people to use it!

As you go to higher amounts, have maybe the manager approve, and at some point, you can create a little committee that could be approving the higher level rewards, and they can do it maybe per site. Maybe you have a different committee per site or committee per country, or maybe at some level, it’s global. By automating the budget flow and the approval flow, and incentivizing or encouraging employees to use the system, actually it reduces all the minutia that Sylvia you’re talking about and creates a great experience for both the recognizer and the employee that’s being recognized.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

Let’s answer this question that Stacy Bearden has put into the Q&A real quick, and then we can get back to it. With an unlimited PTO policy, how do you support work-life balance from a rewards and recognition perspective? It’s a great question!

Nancy Vitale, Partners for Wellbeing //

What some companies have done with success are these full days off for everyone.

I know that may seem like a more egalitarian approach, but what it allows is everyone is able to be disconnected. Some companies do shut down a week at the end of the year, or even a week during the summer, where everyone is disconnected or offline.

Once a month mental health days can be attached to a weekend to create a long weekend, aside from normal holidays. Some companies are doing blocks of no meeting time during certain days of the week, which also affords people this notion of work-life balance and the ability to disconnect because you don’t feel the pressures of emails piling up. That’s just one thought.

Marques Morgan, Twilio //

To add to that, Twilio also has unlimited PTO and they’ve done some good things to create a work-life balance for us as best as possible. We have no meeting Fridays. A huge part that has come during COVID, is just a rise in meetings. To be able to have that Friday where you can go heads down and work, that has been successful.

We’ve also rolled out think week, which we had last month. It was a week of no meetings at all, and just being able to go heads down at work. Some people took time off, and without having fear of getting behind on their work, that was productive, and we’ve also just had company shut downs.

We’ve done a couple of company shutdowns, a couple of different options, just because someone always has to be on. One of the things I recently saw on LinkedIn, it was called Friyay, which I thought was pretty cool. I believe it’s at Slack. Once a month there’s a company shut down on a Friday that’s just designed to give people time off and away. It was just taking that company-wide shut down, but just really embedding it into the culture by having it once a month.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

I absolutely love that. And having technology that’s working for you while you are not, is always a good thing as well.

Andrew Meadows, Ubiquity Retirement + Savings //

Sylvia, I just want to share, we’ve been playing around with the idea too, unlimited PTO, we’ve piloted a program which has four day work weeks because we had some employees put together a really strong proposal of here’s how we would do a four-day workweek, so we tried to pilot it a little bit. One of the things that’s really been the most successful though, and I think whether you have unlimited PTO or not, is actually calling immediate or necessary time off a little bit, something different.

We have these things called U Days. You had a bad night, you and your spouse or boyfriend, girlfriend had a fight. You were up all night with a sick dog or kid. You just write and say, “I’m taking a U Day.” No explanation necessary.

We know that means you are focusing on your mental health. Something immediate came up. Even if you have unlimited PTO, even just calling it something different than I’m just taking the day off, actually calling it like a U Day, it just is like immediate forgiveness because oftentimes people don’t take the PTO for unlimited PTO. They’re worried about the work they’re going to put on to someone else. They’re worried about the appearance that they’re not doing as much as other people, whereas if you can create a program that actually celebrates time off in a way that is immediate, that some days you just can’t plan off, that you just don’t know that, that Friday is going to feel that way. Naming it a U Day, and it’s U for Ubiquity, but also you, Y-O-U. It is a U day.

Take it. It’s celebrated because everybody, at some point in time is going to need a U day, and you just need to celebrate it so that you feel great about taking the time off. They feel great about taking the time off, and you’re not feeling even mentally attached to work. The work won’t get done for a day, it’ll be fine. It will be fine and come back the next day, recharged. If you’re not coming to work at 100%, then you’re probably creating more work for other people or even yourself in the future. Take a U day, it’s completely forgiven and we celebrate it.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

It’s the, I can not even day. That is a good thing.

Now, onto employee adoption, and this question is important because these programs are only as good as their adoption. When you’ve got a bunch of different platforms that you’re using, the employee is having a bunch of different experiences on each of those, and they don’t necessarily have a full understanding of what that benefit is or why they need to take the time to actually engage in that technology.

What I’d like to know is what challenges do you face in promoting a rewards and recognition program to employees? And do you have advice for getting one successfully off the ground in a way that you’re going to see that adoption? Then we can get into the data portion if people have any time. Susan, do you have thoughts on that, on adoption?

Susan Lovegren, Advisor and Board Member //

Going back to measuring your results certainly helps with adoption. Encouraging people to obviously use the platform, communicate the benefits, all of those things, and then to actually start measuring what your adoption is, and digging into how you need to tweak your program. Maybe you didn’t communicate things clearly enough for people to really understand it. Helping your leaders to influence people to embrace whatever the platform might be. I think all of those things can certainly help. Listening to your users. Really it’s a lot like your customers. Listening to them and really understanding why aren’t they using, or why is it not being adopted?

Maybe again, it’s not the right set of offerings, or maybe the technology is cumbersome. I think staying close to it, especially during early implementation will help you better assess your adoption rates and tackle those barriers to entry if you will, early and often, if you have them.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

Marques, I think just being the person who was really championing our company, what is it that it took for you as an internal champion to really get the adoption rates for those employees up and get people excited about Espresa?

Marques Morgan, Twilio //

We took a phased approach. Because our company has grown so much, we had a pilot group with two orgs, we wanted to make sure they were regionally distributed. Once we landed on the two business units we would have, the services team and our people team, we just attacked it different than how we would normally communicate. Typically we send out an email to employees, and we would also promote on Slack, but I think with the opportunity of working with Espresa and having a platform, we were very heavy demo-based. We held multiple demos throughout different times zones during working hours, where employees could get excited about it, see the platform before we launched it, be able to ask questions. I felt like that gave them more skin in the game and they felt a part of the process.

So now once it’s time for a survey and we’re asking for feedback, they’re happy getting feedback, knowing that the feedback that they share with us will get incorporated into the platform. That was the big thing for us. Also engage with leadership. Things at our company they’re very successful when they do come top-down. I engaged with key leaders to make sure they were also sending out comms, champion the program. Because there’s so much change management, there was also manager enablement involved as well, so connecting with managers and setting expectations of, this is what we’ll need from you for this program to be successful, and just working with as many segments of the population that will be on the platform as possible.

Once we got to roll out, people were excited, they were informed and were ready to be a part of it.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

Having that executive champion and rockstar internally to go in and take it through to the end. Absolutely that is the way to go. Nancy, I think you had some thoughts on this as well.

Nancy Vitale, Partners for Wellbeing //

Susan mentioned the importance of employee input and feedback. It gets to what I was mentioning earlier, just in terms of incorporating employees, both in the design, but also in the ongoing feedback and input. Then just thinking here about choice overload as well. People can be very overloaded and trying to access technologies when they need them, so it’s just being mindful of that.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

How about we end it with psychic caps. Tell us where the future is in HR. HR and people teams have been the heroes of this pandemic. What is next? Anyone.

Andrew Meadows, Ubiquity Retirement + Savings //

The future of HR in my perspective is when this is so much in the hands of the employee. More than ever, we are seeing so many employees be able to show up in a really authentic way at work. We’re asking folks to be vulnerable. Everyone had to be vulnerable, I think over the past year, especially, so we really need people to come in and start to look at how their job really does benefit them in both personal and professional way. You’re an employer who’s not listening and adjusting your programs to illustrate that, your work community will see it. They’ll note it, and then they’ll move on. It’s not even what you’re saying these days, it’s not even how you’re performing. It’s all the spaces where you’re not. Where you’ve been not thinking about.

It’s really, really important for us to be listening, to actually do something with those quarterly surveys, to show you asked for this, we did this. Really, really drawing a direct line from what the employees are asking for, and then if it’s not good for the business, then being transparent as an employer and saying, why. It’s just a matter of being transparent and helping everyone understand what the rules of the game are, and making sure that everyone can benefit by having all the information versus this command and control monolithic style management. Instead, really flipping back, listening to our employees, has made my job so incredibly easy.

It takes so much of the guesswork out what I have to do. You tell me what you want, and then put the work on me to create something creative, exciting, and something new. That is what is going to be important in the future, just to continue and even more so listen to your employees and what they’re actually wanting.

Susan Lovegren, Advisor and Board Member //

Once you have that listening strategy down, you have that incredible information.

You are now the architect of the employee experience. That is your job. End to end. Every touchpoint, every moment that matters, you get to design that you are the architect of all of that.

Nancy Vitale, Partners for Wellbeing //

Just to add onto that, I think employee experience is getting so much attention these days, but I think on the horizon is life experience because the lines have been so blurred for people working between home and work, or between personal life and work, that I think more and more HR teams are going to be thinking about how to enhance the overall life experience of employees, not just within company walls, and we’ve seen some of this in the latest research at Josh Bersin Academy as well. I think that’s a big topic on the horizon.

Marques Morgan, Twilio //

They knocked it out the park. Between the three, what was said, I fully support that. That’s the future. I really loved the idea of life support, is not life support. The return to office strategy, I think that’s probably where we’re going next, and just navigating how are we going towards from a hybrid or virtual environment to a hybrid or in-person, there’s just so many moving parts that I think for the short term, that’s the next avenue I could see HR going.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

I love it. And Alex, do you want to finish this out? Why are you guys so interesting? This is why we’ve gone over time because you were so darn interesting.

Alex Shubat, Espresa //

It’s unfortunate the environment that we’re in, put HR in the spotlight, and it started with a lot of pressure. We had to shut down facilities and there were layoffs and furloughs, and then making sure employees can work from home, and now we’re back to recruiting, and that’s becoming front and central. It’s very difficult for everybody to hire quickly, you have to retrain people. I think that definitely there’s momentum here for HR and we learned about automating processes, making them more digital will improve some of these challenges and address them.

Definitely the remote or hybrid environment, a lot of people predict that they will stay with us, so you have to then take care of the employee in their own environment, which is totally not easy.

We could be sitting on Zoom and we’ve seen that in a few feet from us, somebody could be sitting with their kid could be on Zoom, so how do you help that new environment? A lot of opportunities, a lot of ways to touch employees in a new way, and help them, whether it be in the office, they’re at home, their hybrid, all of that, there’s a new challenge, and will take a lot of attention.

Sylvia Flores, Espresa //

Thank you so much for being here and for spending this extra 15 minutes of your lives to be here for those who stuck around, thank you, and to our lovely panelists for your insights.



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