Mercury Rising: An HR Predicament

When the beach beckons, how do you keep an employee’s mind on work?

By Dana Wilkie Jun 9, 2014

The mercury’s rising, the days are lengthening, the beach is calling—and distractions like vacation-planning, restless kids and gorgeous weather may be tempting your employees to give less than 100 percent at work.

How do you keep them motivated?

Tried-and-true techniques still seem to keep workers enthused, apparently—things like condensed work weeks, short Fridays, work-at-home flexibility and casual dress policies. But HR experts are also experimenting with some inventive ideas that move beyond the conventional company picnic or ice cream social.

It’s About Time

“Time off” and “flexible schedules” are frequently cited as among the top benefits that workers find motivating in the summer.

A June 2012 OfficeTeam survey of 449 working adults and 515 HR managers found that employees’ top preferences for summer benefits included flexible schedules (41 percent) and leaving work early on Fridays (28 percent). Three out of 4 HR managers said their company offered flexible schedules during the summer, and more than 6 in 10 noted that workers were allowed to leave early on Fridays.

“No one wants to be cooped up indoors when it’s nice outside,” said OfficeTeam executive director Robert Hosking. “Taking time off allows employees to get out and enjoy the warm weather. With kids out of school for the summer, parents appreciate the opportunity to spend quality time with their families and take vacations. Having a flexible schedule could mean professionals can adjust their work hours to account for their children’s summer activities schedule, or get an early start on weekend or travel plans.”

Summer Casual

Also at the top of workers’ summer benefits list is a relaxed dress policy.

“It can be uncomfortable wearing a two-piece suit when the weather heats up,” Hosking said. “There’s also an opportunity to show some personality with your outfits if the dress code is more relaxed. When employees feel comfortable with what they have on, they’ll likely be more focused and productive.”

Cheryl Kerrigan, vice president of Employee Success at software and services provider Achievers in Toronto, said her company encourages employees to dress to their own style—all year long.

“It’s about creating a work culture where employees can focus on the work they are delivering without being concerned about fitting a corporate image,” she said. “If you want to dress up or dress down, it’s the employee’s choice.”

Stacia Pierce, a career expert and CEO of Ultimate Lifestyle Enterprises in Orlando, Fla., said casual dress policies are attractive because “summer dressing requires lightweight fabrics to keep cool. For workers, it is an opportunity to wear more relaxed clothing instead of a stuffy suit.”

Company Picnics

According to the OfficeTeam survey, only 11 percent of workers identified company outings as their most coveted summer benefit.

“Most employees view all company sanctioned events as ‘on the job,’ whether it’s in the office or not,” Pierce said. “While employers seek to create a relaxed fun environment that builds relationships, employees are constantly thinking about how to make the right impression while there.”

Instead, Hosking said, employees prefer perks that give them control over their schedules and allow them to better balance work and their personal lives.

“Some people just aren’t as social or don’t like company get-togethers,” he said. “It’s often an unwritten rule that you should attend company events, but many employees would rather spend time on their own terms. It can also be difficult for employees to fit work outings into their busy schedules, especially when the festivities occur outside of business hours.”

Kerrigan was more blunt.

“You want successful?” she asked. “Stop hosting picnics. Although [picnics are] easier than being creative and asking and delivering on what your employees’ real interests are, it’s really important to challenge the status quo. You need to know what is most motivating to your employees.”

Off the Beaten Path

Hosking said employees are fond of “themed Fridays,” such as a Hawaii theme that encourages workers to wear flowered shirts and leis. Holding meetings outdoors is also a welcome perk when the weather’s nice, he said.

Pierce has taken her team on vacation to Disney parks. “The parks are so inspiring and excellent, and our team usually returned back to work with a ton of ideas and newfound vigor to complete projects,” she said.

Kerrigan said one of the most popular summer events at Achievers is a Wellness Week that features fun events surrounding health and well-being, such as badminton nets set up in the office, in-office massage therapists and free fruit smoothies.

But if your company is still sold on having a picnic, ask for worker input on what they’d most enjoy at the event, Hosking said.

“Organizations don’t have to spend lavishly,” he said. “Catering the event to the group’s interests helps to ensure everyone feels included and has a good time. If the event will be held outside of normal business hours and many workers have children, you might want to make sure there’s plenty of kid-friendly entertainment. Or if a lot of people in the office have pets, maybe this is something to keep in mind when choosing a venue and activities. Some companies also include philanthropy as part of their festivities by organizing a donation drive or volunteering at a local nonprofit.”

And be sure everyone knows such events are entirely voluntary.

“The success of summertime activities depends on the company culture,” Kerrigan said. “If you have a culture where employees enjoy each other’s company and are friendly, then these events don’t feel like a chore. However, if employees feel these events are mandated and they have no choice but to show up, that will feel like another work task that they must complete.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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