How employers can learn from school rewards programmes

All too often, employers use a reward programme that they see as the perfect motivator for their workforce. It’s delivered once a month, and it’s called a salary. While the pay packet is of course the primary motivator for a person to work for an employer, keeping rewards at this baseline level will reward the company with baseline performance.

A reward system needs to take the employers out of the ordinary if the company wants to benefit from better retention, performance and success in their sector. And where is the perfect model for reward systems being implemented? In education. Employers should take a look at how these systems operate and scale them up to the workplace. There are a surprising number of similarities between the two.

How school reward systems work

The typical school reward system uses what’s called a “token economy”, which can be broadly compared to a loyalty scheme in a café or supermarket. The tokens themselves are worthless except in the context of the school, or even the class, but they allow teachers to single out pupils displaying excellence or notable effort and reward them.

Like loyalty schemes, a single token won’t get much return, but the cumulative effect can add up to treats like sweets, extended breaks, library afternoons or whatever reward is appropriate to the age and tastes of the children.

It’s this slow collecting that’s the nub of the concept. It doesn’t reward individual episodes of excellence, but promotes ongoing effort over the long term, and that helps with class discipline and attainment.

What’s not applicable to the workplace

While rewarding excellence is part of the motivation for teachers, there’s also a flip side: punishing bad behaviour. Children knowing that their tantrums, daydreaming and violent outbursts will mean they miss out on – or lose – tokens is a motivating factor. In the workplace, such unruly behaviour is more likely to result in discipline up to and including dismissal. If you’re running a token system to reduce office tantrums, you might well have a deeper problem!

The learnings

There’s a positive lesson that can be taken from school reward systems, however. People do respond to having their hard work recognised and rewarded above and beyond their basic contractual obligations. It doesn’t matter if they are 5 or 50 – people can be motivated by rewards.

The second learning is that the system works best when it’s not simply a one-off reward for a single instance of excellence. Many jobs don’t have the scope or opportunity to do something dazzling, and if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to de-motivate an employee, it’s having an utterly unachievable reward dangled in front of them. Seeing colleagues with slightly more flexible roles sweeping up the bottles of wine and cash bonuses will have them drafting up their CVs in no time.

That’s why it’s much better to initiate a slow-burning reward scheme. Tempting employees to go above and beyond for a regular trickle of tokens rather than a grand gesture once a quarter makes them feel like they’re genuinely being rewarded. The cornerstone of the system is having a chain of management that’s set up to recognise when performance has its peaks. That can be:

· measurable, for example in the case of sales,

· attitudinal, such as how well employees assist with the training of new staff, or

· performance-related, for example timekeeping.

It all depends on the roles in question. There’s no one size fits all approach.

Once the token system is in place and the rewards are publicised, make sure you monitor it and get feedback from employees. It’s crucial that you have employees’ blessing and buy-in. The last thing you need is a system where employees who consistently perform well are frequently overlooked in favour of average employees who have occasional flashes of brilliance. When you’re designing your employee reward system, you really do have to go back to the classroom.

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