’Tis the season to reward staff

Christmas may be more than three months away, but brands are already coming up with cost-effective strategies to reward their staff over the festive season.

christmas bags

With many employers still unable to offer pay rises or bonuses to their staff, planning a rewarding festive season is more important than ever when it comes to making your workforce feel valued.

Despite money still being tight, many brands are planning to slip discount vouchers into employees’ Christmas pay packets. Staff at financial services firm Brooks Macdonald, for example, will be able to enjoy cut-price dining at thousands of restaurants thanks to the company’s subscription to a discount membership scheme.

Brooks Macdonald bought all its employees an annual subscription to the Gourmet Society earlier this year after it came third in the Sunday Times’ list of the 100 best companies to work for. While the discount can be used any time, Christmas should prove a particularly rewarding time as staff take advantage of the time to eat, drink and be merry.

“At Christmas time, our employees will be able to take people out for meals or enjoy discounts on meals in January when everyone has less money to spend,” says Eleanor Ball, marketing executive at Brooks Macdonald. “We thought it was a nice idea that our staff could use it with their family and friends.”

As part of the deal, Brooks Macdonald has its branding appear prominently on the subscription gift cards. This reflects the company’s strategy of reinforcing a sense of community and loyalty to the brand through its rewards. Last Christmas, for example, the company gave employees personalised cupcakes, while other staff gifts have included cufflinks and atomisers that feature the company logo.

Gourmet Society
Eat, drink and be merry: Brooks Macdonald has rewarded all its staff with a subscription to the Gourmet Society….

Ball says: “We try to get things that are either bespoke so that staff feel special, or things that they can use on an ongoing basis. From a marketing perspective, brand awareness is a bonus.”

This idea of community is also central to online fashion retailer Zappos’ Christmas activities. Every year, the US company asks all members of staff to help out with its call centre customer service operation, including chief executive Tony Hsieh and his management team.

Matt Burchard, senior director of marketing for Zappos, explains: “The most interesting thing Zappos does during the holiday would probably be our Holiday Helper programme, where everyone in the company, regardless of title or department, spends around 10 hours answering customer calls during peak volume periods in December.” The company claims the initiative helps to reinforce the notion that “delivering excellent customer service is at the core of everything we do”.

Beyond this, Burchard says that “Zappos does a lot of the traditional holiday stuff for its employees, including a company-wide gift for every staff member and a lavish party, often held at a casino nightclub in Las Vegas”. The party is held in January to help staff “decompress a bit from the busiest time of year”.

… While Zappos chief executives Tony Hsieh (pictured) takes on help desk duties each Christmas

When it comes to engaging staff, there is still plenty to be said for a good Christmas knees-up. Luxury hotel group Red Carnation uses the Christmas period as a chance for managers to treat their staff. The company, which also features in this year’s Sunday Times best companies list, holds Christmas dinners for its employees where managers serve the food as a way of saying thank you. Meanwhile, at Mondial Assistance UK, chief executive Serge Corel has been known to serve tea, coffee and treats to employees at their desks during both Easter and Christmas.

Incentivising staff has become increasingly important as the recession takes its toll. Rob Froome, head of New Look Business Solutions, says there has been an increased demand this year from public sector bodies like schools and government agencies that are looking to reward and engage their staff amid ongoing pay freezes and spending cutbacks.

In addition to supplying the corporate market, New Look rewards its own staff with vouchers and gift cards. This includes a music download card, which allows recipients to download singles from an online catalogue of more than 8.5 million tracks. Froome points out that this kind of reward reinforces New Look’s brand values and its association with other fashionable areas. “Things like music and social media rank very highly among our customers,” he says.

Servisair also believes rewards can inspire and motivate a workforce. This year, the airport lounge brand is launching a corporate gifting service to meet a rising demand for “aspirational and feelgood” staff rewards. The idea is that by giving out gift certificates at Christmas, companies can offer their staff something to look forward to the next time they go on holiday.

Joanne Taylor, corporate sales manager at Servisair for Business, says the concept is attracting interest from a diverse set of businesses, rather than just the big money corporates often associated with executive airport lounges. “Because of the competitive price, and the fact it’s something a bit different and new, companies can still offer a Christmas bonus or a gift to their staff even if they’re on a smaller budget than last year.”

Christmas cupcakes
Christmas cupcakes: personalised gifts help generate higher levels of loyalty

While the market for gift vouchers and rewarding experiences is growing, other businesses continue to believe in the simple power of benefits or cash rewards. French bank BNP Paribas, for example, opens its annual flexible benefits window in late November and early December in order to engage staff and encourage them to make their benefit choices before Christmas.

Sarah Oxford, head of compensation, benefits and international mobility at the bank, said last month that it is taking a low-key approach to the two-week window in order to reflect the needs and attitudes of its staff.

“I would like to run workshops to help [employees] better manage their money, but it’s a very private matter, which is why a low-level communications strategy to let [employees] know what is out there subconsciously gets them thinking about their issues,” she told Employee Benefits magazine. “You have to consider that some employees do not celebrate Christmas.”

BNP Paribas uses statistics from its employee assistance programme to better understand employees’ concerns and tailor the communications strategy. Benefits offered during the window include a pension, private medical insurance, group income protection and health screenings.

In a similar fashion, Kwik-Fit Insurance has been praised for paying capital bonds to all its workers at Christmas, in addition to its regular monthly bonus scheme. To incentivise and reward its most valued employees, the company also awards £10,000 to the overall employee of the year, while departmental winners receive £1,000 each.

Other brands take a more charitable approach to Christmas gifting. Internet services firm Rackspace engages with its staff in December by running a number of events in support of the Crisis at Christmas charity. This bolsters the company’s reputation for charitable giving at other times of the year, including activities around Comic Relief and a Three Peaks Challenge charity expedition.

There’s no surefire way to spread festive cheer among workers, of course, but companies that focus on making their staff feel special – while staying true to their internal brand values – will stand a better chance of engaging their staff this Christmas. After all, no boss wants to be called a Scrooge.

Workforce blues: CIPD survey

The latest Employee Outlook by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) suggests many employers will have their work cut out this Christmas if they want to improve staff morale. Although the survey’s engagement index rose again this summer for the third consecutive quarter, 58 per cent of employees who responded remained neutral – meaning they feel neither engaged nor disengaged with their job.

Other troubling trends from the index include increased negativity in perceptions towards senior managers. The outlook shows that employees remain most negative about leaders’ consultation regarding important decisions (-26), while there was also a noticeable drop in confidence in leaders (from +11 to +3).

The proportion of employees agreeing or strongly agreeing they achieve the right work-life balance also fell slightly from the last quarter to 60 per cent, while the proportion of employees saying it is likely or very likely they could lose their job as a result of the economic downturn increased to 19 per cent.

The CIPD also notes that “compared with last year, there has been little change in the proportion of employees receiving a pay increase or the size of that increase”. It found that 38 per cent of employees saw their organisation make redundancies as a result of the economic downturn, up from 35 per cent the previous quarter.

It isn’t all doom and gloom, however. The CIPD reports that job satisfaction has maintained the previous quarter’s high of +47. This is a large improvement on the summer 2011 survey when the figure stood at +35. However, this score incorporated sharp differences between the public and private sectors. Employees in the private sector (+49) were most satisfied with their jobs, while those in the public sector were least satisfied (+38) and significantly less satisfied than spring 2012 when the figure stood at +45.

The CIPD has also warned that 73 per cent of employees believe their organisation offers them no form of financial support or advice to help them better understand and manage their finances.

Top tips for staff rewards

Do reward hard work

Staff want to feel loved and know their hard work is recognised. Employers can help get this message across with a big gesture that employees will genuinely enjoy. In past years, Tesco has offered staff an additional day’s paid leave and extra discounts on their in-store shopping as a sign of appreciation for their hard work during the busy Christmas period. These benefits have been made available to all employees across the stores, head office and distribution centres. In 2008, the extra discounts offered amounted to £25.4m worth of potential savings.

Do understand staff needs

Not all workforces are the same and not all employees will appreciate a boozy Christmas party or a high street voucher. Employers should therefore treat Christmas as a time to home in on their employees’ particular needs. The Royal British Legion (RBL) has previously offered a counselling service to its staff in the run up to Christmas to ensure its workers and counsellors have access to support services themselves. When it launched the service, the charity said that because Christmas is often one of the worst times of the year for struggling families, RBL staff needed extra support too.

Don’t give unwanted gifts

There’s no point handing out big gifts to staff if they’ve got nowhere to put them. Ikea was embarrassed a few years ago after it gave each of its 9,000 staff a bicycle. Soon after the branded bikes had been handed out at the company’s annual Christmas breakfast, it emerged that nearly 100 had appeared for sale on eBay.

Don’t make payroll errors

Christmas is a time when employees’ finances come under pressure like no other time in the year, so it’s important the payroll department is running smoothly and everyone gets their wages in time for the festive season. The Co-operative Group experienced a major payroll failure in the run-up to Christmas 2009, though in this case one worker was paid an extra £1.4m. The worker in question contacted the company about the error and was rewarded for his honesty with a £1,000 bonus and a crate of beer. The Co-op, meanwhile, was forced to confirm to the press that it wasn’t in the habit of paying seven-figure Christmas bonuses.

Source: Employee Benefits, a sister title of Marketing Week

Sponsor viewpoint

MS logo


Hayley Santus
Client relationship manager
M&S for Business

With the summer months well and truly gone, our next thought naturally lies with Christmas. Companies have just a few months to think about how to make this Christmas better than the last in these difficult times. Whether that’s by rewarding staff with retail gift cards or with Christmas hampers, the sentiment is always the same. It is a time to incentivise staff to drive sales and build goodwill.

It is this time of year that Marks & Spencer really feels the added value of the brand in the corporate gifting world. With a diverse range of products on offer for staff rewards, incentives and loyalty, our gift cards, hampers and evoucher solutions can be a treat for staff to receive during the festive months and are a gift that everyone values.

This year we have also launched URL links for our egift vouchers, which allow businesses to easily manage and distribute their egift stock.

When looking at incentives and gifts offered as part of a festive motivation scheme, you have to consider the broader audience and choose something that appeals to all. M&S is known for its Christmas ranges, whether that’s in our food halls, or seasonal gifts and clothing lines. So no matter who you’re providing a gift to this year, they’ll love being able to spend it at M&S.

Following the economic downturn, retailer vouchers have proved extremely popular. Where many are making budget cuts and are feeling enormous pressures to perform, you can never under-value your staff and clients. They are the cogs that enable your business to work and without them, where would you be?

Even through these tough times, everyone would love a pay rise, but what can you offer them instead? Something they can use for themselves, their family or their friends; something that has a clear value and something associated with a brand people know and trust. Gift cards and vouchers may sometimes be underrated, but choosing to use an M&S Gift Card or product could be the key to keeping a good relationship with staff and clients and not just at Christmas. All year round gestures, whether the value is low or high, help to ensure staff feel valued and important.

So dust off your Santa hat, grab a mince pie and settle for the best this Christmas. Use M&S Corporate Gifting for all your staff’s motivation and incentive needs.

Vital statistics

58% of UK employees say they are neither engaged nor disengaged with their job

60% of employees agree or strongly agree that they achieve the right work-life balance

54% say their managersrecognise when they have done a good job

19% say they are likely or very likely to lose their job because of the economic downturn

Source: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development