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The royal treatment

How employee engagement can affect the bottom line

By Tegan Jones

Everyone wants to be appreciated. Whether it’s for working long hours, going above and beyond for customers or finding ways to work more efficiently, acknowledging employees who consistently bring their A-game goes a long way. And in a tight talent market, keeping team members engaged can have a big impact on the bottom line.

It’s a job seeker’s market, and an abundance of open positions has turnover rates skyrocketing. According to the Work Institute, more than 27 out of every 100 U.S. employees left their jobs voluntarily in 2018—a figure that’s 88% higher than it was in 2010. That’s putting pressure on companies to keep employees happy and engaged.

“[Employees] can go back to their desks, unhappy about something that just happened, and send their resume out to 10 new companies,” says Kathy Harmon, CPM, ARM, and president and CEO of MyCoach, LLC in Minnetonka, Minn.

Although compensation plays a big part in an employee’s decision to stay in a position, how valued they feel also tips the scales. Rewarding and recognizing people who do good work can help make the hard days easier—especially in the world of property management, where the phone only rings when something goes wrong.

“When the trash is emptied every day, nobody calls and says, ‘Good job.’ When it’s not emptied, we get called,” says Philip Schneidau, CPM, president of Woodbranch Management Inc. in Houston. “And because of that, the need to keep a positive atmosphere is probably a little bit higher.”

Finding what works

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to making employees feel valued. And the rewards people find meaningful are changing along with workforce demographics. That means leaders must listen to their teams to create recognition programs that are meaningful to their staff.

“We have five generations in the workplace. So the same old, same old doesn’t work anymore,” says Harmon. “We have to talk about what excites them, what motivates them, what they like to do.”

Even when companies keep the lines of communication open, it can take some experimentation to figure out what works. For instance, Schneidau launched an employee-of-the-year program to motivate his top performers, but he decided to cancel that initiative after he saw that it had some unintended consequences.

“I realized that when you’re saying this one person is employee of the year, it’s really a negative message,” he says. “You’re recognizing them for working hard, but you’re telling the others at the same time, ‘You’re not working hard enough.’”

Rather than giving a few top performers big rewards in hopes of spurring some friendly competition, Schneidau now takes a more holistic approach, opting for rewards that the whole team can enjoy.

“I’ve got a lot of really good people, and I’m proud of all of them. They should all be patted on the back,” he says.

A daily habit

Some companies will lean on annual bonuses or holiday parties to thank their teams for a year’s worth of hard work. But these one-time rewards don’t necessarily keep people motivated as the months wear on. That’s why Schneidau offers daily and weekly benefits to help people get through the doldrums. From free sodas in the fridge, to donuts on Fridays, to office toys that encourage employees to have a little fun, Schneidau says providing consistent perks has helped keep turnover rates low.  

“We try to focus more on what we can do year-round than any one program that makes a statement in particular,” he says.

Harmon agrees that the little things often have the biggest impact. Surprising someone with lunch from their favorite restaurant or a $2 lottery ticket can do a lot to brighten their day. Even a handwritten note highlighting something they did well can be a memorable and meaningful way to recognize an employee’s value.

“I think surprise is part of the key,” she says. “It needs to be something that’s not expected.”

Many companies will offer a bonus as an incentive to encourage workers to meet ambitious performance goals. But bonuses can quickly become an expected part of an employee’s compensation package, rather than a reward for going above and beyond. For instance, if someone knows their bonus could be as much as 20% of their salary, they will be disappointed by a bonus of only 5% or 10%.

“It ends up being punitive rather than rewarding,” Harmon says. “And they end up being disincentivized for the upcoming year.”

Karoline Peralta, ARM, asset and property manager for Virtue Properties in Boston, says mentorship and professional development help keep her teams engaged.

“You’re recognizing them for working hard, but you’re telling the others at the same time, ‘You’re not working hard enough.’”

—Philip Schneidau, CPM

“I try to assess people’s skills and what their ambitions are, and I try to channel their strengths in those directions,” she says, “because the more they know, the more productive and empowered they become, and the better they’ll feel because they’re getting ahead.”

Peralta mostly works with independent contractors, rather than full-time employees, so she also uses referrals to reward people who consistently hit the mark. She says her service providers, from cleaning services to locksmiths, work hard to earn those referrals because they help drive long-term business growth. “To me, that’s worth more than any bonus,” she says.

Measuring up

Regardless of what type of rewards a business might offer, leaders need to clearly communicate how they’re measuring team member success. Sometimes, employees fall short simply because they don’t know how they’re being assessed.

“Put it in writing,” says Peralta. “Sit down and have clear conversations. Follow up with memos or texts so that you have a written record of what was discussed and agreed upon.”

To avoid spending time and money on incentive programs that aren’t increasing engagement, Harmon also suggests taking the temperature of the team on a regular basis. In addition to asking people to share their thoughts on what’s working, what’s not and what improvements could be made, she says leaders need to spend time in the general workspace to gauge overall employee morale.

“Listen to how happy people are. Do they laugh? Do they seem to get along? How much do they volunteer to help somebody else on their team when they sense that there’s a deadline to be met? All of that stuff can give you hints as to how engaged your people are with the job,” she says.

Ultimately, rewards and recognition efforts should help build a positive company culture and encourage collaboration. While friendly competition can be fun, companies should avoid pitting team members against each other. Rather, rewards should inspire people to pull together to help the company meet its goals.

“A great culture will encourage that,” Harmon says. “If people feel personally valued for their talent and contributions, they’ll put forth as much effort as is needed to succeed.”

Journal of Property Management

Tegan Jones is a contributing writer for JPM®.

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