Brandon Lew, vice-president, human resources, T-Systems, shares how the firm combines welfare, development, and engagement to successfully motivate employees without financial incentives.

Money makes the world go round but people come in all shapes and sizes. Monetary incentives are good, but if cash could increase satisfaction proportionally, we would not hear stories of unhappy millionaires.

When it comes to motivation, there is a gap between what science has shown and what businesses currently do. Our current business operating system is built around the conventional, carrot-and-stick motivators (monetary).

However, Daniel Pink’s book shows that this reward system can potentially do more harm than good. He pointed out that extrinsic rewards work if a task or a job is mechanical and rudimentary. But if the task is strategic and requires specific problem-solving skills, the conventional way of using monetary rewards as means for motivating staff may not work all the time - it may even impede work progress.

While money is still important and we should pay our staff enough to take the issue of money off the table so they can focus on work, at T-Systems, we prefer to focus on our welfare and development activities. The trick really is in employee engagement. How do we keep everyone focused and interested in work?

First of all, we formalise informal walkabouts by the HR team. We periodically get out of the office and literally walk about to do our HR operations (we do not waste time) and take the opportunity to observe the staff. We talk to any of them if we sense any distress or unhappiness. We do not wait till something happens before we counsel the team. The HR team gathers daily to talk about potential problems for the week. We conclude with who and how we should resolve it. Preventive actions need to be taken everyday and consistently.

Successful engagement in HR is not about the big team building events that happen twice a year, engagement is successful when it is done consistently by a dedicated team of warm personalities who are genuinely concerned about their colleagues. Management messages must be deliberately and strategically shared with the team in cosy conversations consistently. This drives alignment and enables the team to synchronise their actions and work. This drives the corporate strategy. While we have flexible timings, we strongly discourage people to work from home. It is simple - embers burn strong when gathered. A hot coal will cool once you separate it from the furnace.

Second, with HR functions being squeezed to do more with less, we leverage on strong external partners who leverage on government funding to run wellness programs for employees. We focus on nutrition and mental wellness. It’s simple for us - we are what we eat and we are how we think. If our employees eat well and think well, they will be healthy and productive. Above all, we also promote family bonding through interventions such as ‘eat with your family’ and ‘kids@work’. We believe happy families make happy employees.

Thirdly, bad performers must be managed. Imagine seeing poor performers get rewarded. Anyone will be demoralised. I think what works for us is a very fair, effective and supportive managing director. Poor performers are warned, given counselling and support to improve. It’s shape up or ship out after that. Seeing timely management effectiveness creates a strong sense of comfort and satisfaction. You know that if you perform, you will be rewarded and it is motivating to know that you’re working with highly effective colleagues. Morale and energy is built up with effective management. This helps generate employee satisfaction. We have different positions in the company but natural justice and basic integrity are valued by all.

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