The APAC region is beginning to realise the value of employee recognition programmes.
By Michael Switow
“Catch people doing things right,” advises Tom Mehrmann, the president and general manager of Universal Studios Beijing, in “Taming the Mouse,” a business leadership book that he published this year. “For too many bosses, criticism is easy whilst praise is scant,” he writes.
Mehrmann makes a point to send personalised, handwritten thank you notes to employees who do good work. Each letter specifically acknowledges what the employee has done right, often quoting customers who have submitted positive feedback.
During the 12 years that he headed a marine theme park in Hong Kong prior to taking on his current role, Mehrmann estimates that he wrote nearly 15,000 such letters. They were well received; employees even laminated them.
“People are the core of any business and how you treat them speaks volumes about you and your corporate values,” Mehrmann reflects. For the moment, the California native’s pace of writing acknowledgements has slowed as his team paves the ground for the first Universal Studios theme park in China. He plans to get back into the habit when the resort opens in 2021, but in the meantime, still acknowledges the “extraordinary efforts” that contribute to its development.
Employee recognition is an important tool to create a positive corporate culture, maintain morale, and improve staff retention.
“There’s a massive cost savings to be made in terms of reduced recruitment costs as well as incremental gains in performance and productivity,” says Dan Kelly, vice president of strategic accounts and alliances at CR Worldwide. “When we track our client programmes, we see companies with high attrition rates reducing that attrition by up to 25 per cent.”
“If the employee is an ambassador of the company, they are more likely to stay and bring others on board,” adds Jacqueline Gwee, the founder and director of aAdvantage Consulting, a consultancy that builds HR capability systems and processes.
And if you ask people what features they wish would characterise their workplace, employee recognition tops the list. According to aAdvantage’s survey of Singaporean citizens, recognition ranks ahead of work-life balance, learning, and even health.
“The region is investing generously in workforce well-being and seeing a real pay-off from reward and recognition programmes,” says Kelly. “Within the APAC region, the average reward budget has doubled over the last 12 months and countries such as India are among the top global spenders on gifts for their workers. Thailand, Taiwan, and South Korea top our list of countries for reward redemptions.”
Software platforms can ensure a consistent approach towards employee recognition and rewards among offices in multiple countries, as well as compliance with local and national tax laws. Companies like CR Worldwide also leverage networks of suppliers to provide reward fulfillment. Prizes include gift cards, merchandise, travel, and other experiences. Whilst CR Worldwide offers a free solution, most services start at £5000 per month and can quickly rise from there.
Providers like Humu are trying to automate processes even further. Started by Google’s former Head of People Operations Laszlo Bock, Humu uses artificial intelligence (AI) to send “electronic nudges” to company managers. Texts and emails encourage them to praise their colleagues during meetings and elsewhere in the workplace. The AI tool uses inputs from personnel surveys, productivity information, and HR files.
As of last year, Humu had raised U.S.$40 million. But whilst the company tells HRO Today APAC that it has plans to expand internationally, it is not currently working with any companies headquartered in Asia.
Whilst the market for high-tech platforms is growing across the region, it can be a tough sell. Asia-Pacific companies are still more likely to adopt low-tech employee recognition solutions.
“We have a partner that provides a technology platform,” says Gwee. “He told me just this week that the uptake in the last couple of years in Singapore and even in Asia is super low. But for his customers in the States, Canada, and Europe, the uptake is easily one to two dozen new customers a day who want to leverage and discuss more.”
Resistance to new programmes can be found among employees, not just managers. Gwee discovered this the hard way when implementing a pilot programme in her own company.
“The uptake was very poor,” she says, noting that half her workforce are millennials. When she asked her team why they didn’t use the platform, several concerns surfaced. One, there was no incentive to go into the system; it felt like more administrative work. And two, her staff wondered how the data would be used.
“My intention was to build a culture of appreciation. It was not about converting points to dollars and cents or who’s going to be the top-ranked, but they didn’t get it. [I realised] the mindset has to change first before they adopt such a system. If we were to implement this with our clients, there is a lot of change management that needs to be thought through as part of the implementation of these new tech tools.”
Similarly, many Asian companies are slow to adopt peer recognition systems that allow staff to commend colleagues.
At Ocean Park Hong Kong, Mehrmann ran into resistance when adopting a recognition programme that encouraged recommendations from staff. Managers feared employees would abuse the system to give prizes to their friends. It turned out that front line employees were even more judicious with their praise than supervisors.
“People are concerned about abuse,” says Gwee. “That always comes up in this conversation. My perspective is if abuse comes in, you handle it, but by and large, you should aim to create a very positive culture and part of that drive is awards and recognition.”
Editor’s note: Author Michael Switow co-wrote “Taming the Mouse” with Tom Mehrmann.