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Elon Musk’s sledgehammer style of restructuring, which has involved firing a bulk of Twitter’s workforce purportedly to manage bills better, threatens not just the reputation of his own ‘personal brand’ : It puts at risk the future of his other key businesses (like Tesla) as well.

At the other extreme of the spectrum, when the CEOs of Salesforce, Morgan Stanley, and Visa come together and announce that there won’t be significant layoffs going forward, they lay down the frameworks of a ‘higher commitment’ to build a society that serves all, not just a chosen few.

In 2023, as a potential recession looms and companies start scrutinizing employee perks and placebo’s with a magnifying glass, we need more of the latter behavior from those who lead business and society.

Laying off isn’t paying off

Caring for the troops who go to war for you every single day isn’t just the right thing to do from a human perspective. From a business standpoint too, they are the smart thing to do. Leaders who had cut back on workplace incentives during the Great Recession (a good 72% of companies did, actually) will be thinking twice before repeating something like that in today’s age.

After all, if history has taught us anything, losing critical talent will hurt productivity and profits in the long run. During periods of market volatility, rising inflation, and uncertainty - when the need to clench one’s teeth and simply survive is stronger – losing reliable personnel who have been holding the fort can be particularly crippling. Additionally, the additional cost will be incurred when re-hiring begins, and training picks up again.

However, where the organization takes the greatest punch is its reputation within markets and communities that matter to it. Cutting back on incentives and perks when the chips are down – a reptilian reflex – instantly sends a red flag to workers that this is not an organization they can rely on.

When the good times return, the best guys will be the first to fly the nest. It is also often a clear signal to partners and associates that the company not worth investing emotionally in. In an era of peer reviews and dark social where news travels fast, this wrecks the brand irreparably.

The cost of scrimping on rewards

→ An under-motivated bunch of workers can cost an organization up to $550 billion a year. (Source: Gallup)

→ Employers lose over $5,000 every time a worker puts in the papers. (Source: SHRM)

→ Organizations boasting actively motivated teams tend to realize a 27% higher profit. (Source: Teamstage)

→ Even if you lead a ‘small’ business of 250 people, a complacent attitude to rewards can cost you over $3 million a year. (Source: Forbes)

Caring is good (for) business

On the other hand, having an inclusive and expansive approach can work wonders. During the 2007-9 recession, when the S&P 500 suffered a 35.5% decline in stock performance, companies with the most inclusive cultures grew by 14.4%.

In general, inclusive companies are 2X more likely to meet or exceed financial goals, 3X better poised to score high on performance, 6X more innovative, and 8X more likely to achieve superior business outcomes.

Each trait multiplies in power when times are not rosy, like a recession. And yet, retaining a workforce with a healthy mix of backgrounds is usually the last thing on a CEO’s mind when hard times fall.

What doesn’t destroy us only makes us stronger

Panicking during a recession blinds us to the simple fact that employees and employers are both in the same boat and fighting for survival. Research suggests worker efficiency increases during a downturn. Why not turn the common situation into a strength… as a united team?

3 Ways to rethink the 3 r’s of motivation : rewards, recognition, reinforcement

Just as companies thrive on incentives, individuals do, too. It's time to talk about how employers can use rewards and incentives to help employees do their jobs better and feel more appreciated. That's the whole reason for doing what we do.

1. Reset the game

Recessions are life-altering occasions. There’s little doubt nearly everything and everyone in its path will be impacted somehow. Why not leverage the malleability of the moment to reimagine the building blocks and first-order principles your organization is designed around? It'll be easier now than ever to seed new mindsets and culture tentpoles, weed out stubborn bottlenecks, set new visions and expectations, and usher in a hopeful new chapter in the team’s journey.

First step? Create psychological secure zones to make people feel uniquely valued and supported. Step two? Prioritize and promote traits, habits, and skills that take an outfit from good to great. Seize the moment to champion behavior pillars that drive profit, engage customers and build positivity.

Rewarding these consistently will fuel grassroots level transformation across levels and hierarchies, turning the business not just recession-ready but equipped for the horizons that lie beyond.

Motivate employees during recession with rewards

Channelize these virtues into a points-based rewards formula:

  • Trust and transparency
  • Balance and equanimity
  • Listening and empathy
  • Adaptive thinking
  • Taking tough decisions
  • Ability to bounce back
  • Innovative problem solving
  • Learning appetite
  • Informed risk-taking
  • Lean efficiency (doing more with less)
  • Seizing initiative
  • Motivating teams
  • Time management
  • Communication
  • Collaboration

2. Amplify the Alternatives

Motivate employees during recession with rewards

There are several ways of cutting costs without shrinking the incentive purse: Hybrid work models that delete both operational and travel costs, using technology more effectively, coaching employees to manage their own finances better, and long-term incentive plans like ESOPs, to name a few.

Thinking out of the box is where leaders must double down on when the chips are down instead of jeopardizing proven incentive programs which, in the current day and age, are much more than just a ‘nice-to-have’. Strategically laid out stimuli and stimulations not only bring home the bacon (sometimes with an extra layer of cheese) by helping sell more. They also build a strong (and, ironically, recession-proof!) people culture, boost customer loyalty and lift brand goodwill amongst markets the company serves.

Rolling back on carrots as one hunkers down to let the dark clouds pass may be the go-to schtick when there’s a recession ahead, but it overlooks a simple truth: Only when businesses are led with empathy do they have the strongest chance of survival.

A slowdown offers businesses to discover that elusive – but priceless - balance between the two and convert it into a lifelong advantage. Companies that juggle paralysis and aggression deftly emerge from the crisis stronger. It’s a hack worth mastering. Rethinking incentives with an open mind allows a business to turn troubled times into opportunities.

3. Think beyond Moolah

Despite firms spending billions every year on incentives, there is a huge crisis of motivation in most large corporations. The reason is that we tend to equate recognition solely with financial rewards. In the process, we underestimate the pull of non-monetary spurs, which can be just as (if not more) fulfilling, value-for-money and sustainable. Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory reminds us that human motivation isn’t something one can manipulate by throwing money at the problem.

Employees are ‘moved’ by a host of other factors beyond cash - such as the responsibility and faith reposed in them, working conditions, personal growth, relationships, and the ability to make a difference. A fine example of the latter is the Virgin Group’s offering employees the opportunity to engage in skills-based volunteering to help people in underprivileged communities and developing countries become successful entrepreneurs.

How to Make Online Reward Program Better Than Your Competition's

Motivation is a layered outcome of complex internal triggers and external impulses. According to Wharton management professor Adam Grant, intrinsic rewards – such as the opportunity to do enjoyable work that leads to personal development and brings a sense of accomplishment - are the most valued form of incentive across generations like Baby Boomers, Millennials, Gen-Y, and Gen-Z.

And, contrary to popular perception, extrinsic rewards - which map to more materialistic motivators like money, prestige, and indulgence – only come in second. Low tides, like recessions, are when workers must be given extra space, resources, and consideration, all of which complement and align with intrinsic motivations.

According to John Challenger (CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based global outplacement firm), “If the company has a set of perks adapted to what that person needs, then it’s hard for the employee to leave.” What better insurance than the loyalty of battle-scarred veterans does a company need when a recession threatens its existence?

This presents the perfect premise for CXOs, entrepreneurs, and people leaders to stash the cash for a rainy day and get creative with non-monetary incentives.

Here’s what that can look like:

  • Learning and mentorship opportunities
  • Career progression tools
  • Administrative support like virtual assistants that cut down collateral time wastage
  • ‘Alone time’ for a side hustle
  • Mental and physical wellness support
  • Membership in like-minded communities and clubs
  • Outlets for hobbies and talents
  • More meaningful titles
  • Offering sabbaticals
  • Child-care assistance
  • Tips for personal finance management
  • Flexible hours with remote options
  • Volunteering opportunities
  • Employee-giving programs that add meaning and belonging to work
  • Experiential gifts
  • Swag merchandise
  • Handwritten notes
  • Lunches with the leadership
  • Public recognition

Gamify eligibility. Express gratitude. Loosen the leash. Do stuff together. Invest in betterment. Celebrate the little things. One’s imagination limits the list here.

Start by asking these 5 questions

Employees are the greatest wealth-generating assets of the company, and the right reward tells this important demographic that the leadership ‘gets’ them. The trouble is, employees, come in a variety of different avatars. So, indeed, do perks and incentives. Where should you begin if you were to stitch together an effective incentive roadmap?

Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard offers a handy guide: “One way to think about making perks worthwhile is to look at your company's culture: What are the values, norms and behaviors that reflect its core identity? Then choose perks strategically around that.

There are, of course, several other considerations as well. Designing a bespoke reward and incentive paradigm, therefore, must begin by asking the right questions. Some of them are:

There are, of course, several other considerations as well. Therefore, designing a bespoke reward and incentive paradigm must begin by asking the right questions.

Some of them are:

Is it efficient?
What is the benefit to investment ratio? Does implementing the stimulus plan drain too much of the organization’s resources and time?

Is it impactful?
Does the recognition or reward deliver the intended end result and tick the desired KPI box?

Is it timely?
Make sure incentives aren’t delayed, or they lose both meaning and momentum.

Is it fair?
Remember, it is important to reward effort and involvement too, not just achievement and numbers.

Perhaps most importantly, is it relevant?
Is the reward aligned with the wish list of the receiver and personalized enough to touch a chord? Does it have the right ratio of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? 

Key takeaways

Guesswork can be costly, so conduct a sentiment survey or dipstick to ask your folks about what they want, and then design a workplace around those needs. AIG UK Benefits has shown that even though 86% of employers claim to consult with workers on the issue of sops and stimuli, only 23% of employees confide that their opinions were solicited. When recessionary times force businesses to re-think and re-format incentive approaches, the best strategy is to co-create it by involving employees in the decision-making process. Make them feel they helped shape the decision.

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Manoj Agarwal

Manoj Agarwal LinkedIn

Manoj Agarwal is the Co-Founder and CPO at Xoxoday. He is an MBA from IIM Kozhikode comes with 14 years of experience in building companies, technology, product, marketing, & business excellence.