Three in Four Workers value Intangible Rewards over Cash or Gifts

Praise, likable co-workers and fun office are among top reasons employees stay

By Dana Wilkie Jun 19, 2013
Nearly three in four workers value praise from peers and managers, affable colleagues and a fun office environment more than they value gifts, cash awards or lofty job titles, a new survey found.

Seventy-one percent of respondents said “meaningful recognition” has no dollar value for them, according to the online survey of 1,200 workers in the services, health care and technology industries that was conducted in April and May 2013 by two California-based companies: Make Their Day, an employee-motivation firm, and Badgeville, an employee engagement consultancy.

The percentage of workers who value noncash incentives is on the rise: A 2007 survey by the two companies found that 57 percent of respondents said meaningful recognition had no dollar value.

“The value of nontangible recognition is clearly identified in our findings,” said Cindy Ventrice, author of Make Their Day! Employee Recognition That Works (Berrett-Koehler, 2009). “Workplace technology today, such as gamification, provides many new opportunities for nontangible recognition. With nearly one-fifth of meaningful recognition being delivered virtually, it is clear that these methods can be effective.”

Gamification is the use of game mechanics to motivate workers and solve problems. One approach is to make work tasks feel more like games, perhaps by giving employees rewards (e.g., points, virtual “currency” or elevation to “higher levels”) for finishing tasks. The rewards can be visible to other workers and create a sense of friendly competition.

The results of the survey, Recognition Preferences in Today’s Work Environment, are in line with a 2009 report released by McKinsey & Company, which revealed that workers considered praise, attention from leaders and opportunities to lead projects more motivating than performance-based cash rewards, an increase in base pay or stock options. The McKinsey report noted that while companies around the world are cutting back on financial-incentive programs, few have used other ways to inspire talent; it recommended that businesses consider nonfinancial incentives.

“The results of the [Make Their Day/Badgeville] study align to … numerous reports over the last few years on the changing face of what motivates employees today,” said Badgeville CEO Ken Comee. “Workers of all ages, especially the rising Millennial population, are motivated by real-time feedback, fun, engaging work environments and status-based recognition over tangible rewards.”

Other survey findings:

  • Only 14 percent of respondents said a gift worth more than $1,000 was the most meaningful or motivating recognition they had received.
  • Sixty-nine percent said the praise that most motivated them was that which recognized their individual work.
  • Seventy-six percent said praise from peers is “very” or “extremely” motivating; 88 percent said the same about praise from managers.
  • Ninety-one percent said a fun work environment is “very” or “extremely” motivating. In fact, respondents ranked a “fun” workplace as more important than job titles, cash equivalents or gifts. Only 69 percent said performance-based rewards were “very” or “extremely” motivating, while 54 percent said the same about status indicators like a new job title or exclusive perks.
  • Eighty percent said working with people they liked was among the top reasons they stayed in their job; this statistic increased to one in nine for respondents who were 36 or older. By comparison, 61 percent said pay increases were the reason they stayed. In addition, 77 percent said the top reason they stayed at a workplace was the opportunity for growth; this statistic increased to one in nine for workers who were younger than 25.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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