The little things can make a big difference and at a macro level, employee recognition initiatives that increase engagement could make a huge difference to operational performance, suggested Meir Adler, Head of Organisational Effectiveness at Sainsbury’s at a recent Xexec event. 

The retail sector was given as a good example of the proof of employee engagement – as Adler pointed out that “when you have supermarkets with a multi-billion pound cost base, a 3% uplift on productivity is going to have a much greater impact than driving hundreds of millions of pounds worth of costs savings”.

The view was delivered at an industry discussion at The Ivy, hosted by Xexec titled “how to make the biggest impact with the smallest changes”. Attendees included Shell, The Francis Crick Institute, Marks & Spencer, Deloitte and Pizza Express. As well as parallels being made with relationships at home, between friends and family, and those in the workplace, arguing that both function best when they are not about money, but about small gestures of kindness, gratitude and, indeed, recognition, a key takeaway was that employee recognition had the power to define the relationships between employees and employers, as well as employees and their colleagues.

We caught up with Jamie King, Head of Global Reward at Xexec to give the other big summaries of the day. 

Start small and scale up

Small gestures were also crucial to the thinking behind behavioural economics, a key discussion topic within the HR community for a number of years, argued Adler. In fact, “starting small” was crucial to the success of initiatives across the board, not just in employee recognition, but also in general project management. Sainsbury’s had enjoyed great success by piloting certain projects, such as new concessions, in a single store and scaling it massively if it proved a success, suggested Adler.

Adler suggested that all of these factors should be important considerations for reward and recognition professionals given how rapidly their role was likely to evolve in coming years.

Acknowledging performance and changing behaviour

Employee recognition today represents an “activity that we engage in to acknowledge performance and encourage specific values and behaviours”. According to Xecec, the most successful recognition schemes often shared five key characteristics:  spontaneity, the ability to foster a shared purpose, fairness, a personal touch and the ability to change how employees experience the workday. The event covered one Xexec client initiative that involved awarding a star employee a parking space for a month that was usually reserved for senior directors. Though the cost was minimal and the gesture relatively small, the impact on the employee was huge because it had shared a number of these characteristics.

Change is coming

Adler suggested that further change is coming for the reward and recognition sector. Whether it be the impact of millennial workers (or even generation Z), the ‘uberisation’ of the workforce, or the proliferation of AI and analytics, all of these factors would greatly impact the type of workforce that reward and recognition teams will be dealing with, as well as the very purpose of reward and recognition.

Crossrail was a prime example of some of these challenges. Utilising a workforce of one hundred and one thousand workers over the course of the project, only 6,000 will actually work for cross rail. “So how does a reward and recognition professional go about engaging such a disparate workforce?” asked Adler. For such a mammoth task, starting with small initiatives and scaling would be the only way.

At the same time, tech developments would mean that many of the tasks that the reward and recognition function had traditionally managed would become automated. With that in mind, it was crucial for reward professionals to consider where they could add the most value. Talent acquisition and retention, argued Adler, was one of these areas. Whether embedding “talent metrics into manager roles”, as some major pharmaceutical companies had begun to do, or mapping the data points at which people leave an organisation and using that information to inform how you engage with those staff, there were a number of ways in which reward and recognition professionals could continue to make a big impact.