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Why businesses need to 'pay it forward' with Employee Engagement

Pay it forward

We live in a time of peak employment with fewer people out of work and the best talent in high demand. That’s why business leaders are increasingly focused on figuring out why staff come to work and what makes them perform to their greatest potential.

For a long time the answer was simple: a salary, and the fear of losing it. But things have changed. Younger people are less driven than their parents or grandparents by job security and a healthy pension. Workers of all ages have started to judge their career less by their pay packet and more by a number of complicated measures, both tangible and less so.

For their part, companies understand that being able to recruit and retain the top talent makes the difference between success and failure. That’s why the last decade has seen a surge in innovation in the way businesses keep staff engaged.  

Technology has led the charge with the development of online reward and recognition programmes that make it quick and easy to nominate colleagues, celebrate staff achievements and redeem rewards. HR leaders have also learned to think differently too, challenging themselves and senior management to embrace new concepts designed to build a better workplace culture.

There’s perhaps no concept more challenging – and potentially more rewarding – than ‘paying it forward’. This is different to ‘quid pro quo’ where I give you something and in return you give me something else. Instead it requires a leap of faith: doing a good deed for someone in the hope that it will encourage them to help out somebody else (hence the term ‘paying it forward’).  

"I have always believed that the way you treat your employees is the way they will treat your customers.”

So said Richard Branson, who knows a thing or two about running a successful business. This quote encapsulates the main benefit of ‘paying it forward’. The idea is that treating an employee with dignity, kindness and generosity means they are likely to adopt the same approach when dealing with clients, stakeholders and colleagues. Not a bad thing for the business, surely?

This approach has been championed by tech pioneers in Silicon Valley. Founders there understand the importance of creating a work environment that encourages hard work and creativity, often by removing distractions and concerns elsewhere in their employees’ lives. From offering on-site childcare to unlimited paid leave these organisations often go above and beyond what is expected of them.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of what ‘paying it forward’ could look like in your workplace.

Flexible working

The perception of flexitime as off-the-books annual leave is, thankfully, changing. More and more managers understand its true intention: replacing a one-size-fits-all approach to work with an individualised, tailored approach that gets the best out of employees.

As staff mature, personal commitments and family dependents create a greater burden on their time and emotional health. Companies can either ignore these challenges or help their staff overcome them. Sure enough, recent studies have shown that flexible workers take less leave and are more productive.

Flexible working is a great example of how ‘paying it forward’ can benefit the business. It improves employee retention, lowering recruiting costs. It attracts more and better talent. It increases productivity (imagine life without a commute!) and improves structural efficiencies. It can save costs, too, given you don’t need the same office space, and it’s better for the environment.

Sure, any company based around a centralised command-and-control structure is threatened by this new way of working. But we’d argue that flexitime is ultimately a good thing.

Multi-generational employee engagement

Most businesses employ a diverse range of age groups among their workforce. And with the number of working people aged 65-69 set to increase a third by 2024, the importance of addressing the needs of both young and old will only intensify.

Thankfully, a pay-it-forward mindset is equally attractive at either end of the age spectrum.

It’s already part of the millennial mindset. A recent poll found that this age group was more likely to volunteer and give philanthropically than Gen Xers and baby boomers. 

They are also more likely to highlight ways in which their employer can implement more sustainable practices – and companies would be wise to heed their call. By introducing a greener workplace culture – for example by reducing single-use plastic throughout the office, introducing paperless processes, or reviewing energy efficiency – they can cut costs while strengthening their employee relationships.

Older workers are no less likely to be motivated by an employer who understands their needs. Many enlightened businesses allow time off to deal with unexpected emergencies, a breakdown in childcare or family members who may be unwell. If you’re interested in employee engagement – and you should be – it pays to show you care.

Staff are your greatest asset. Show them you know that and they’ll reward you through loyalty and performance. If you want your people to realise their potential – with all the benefits that entails for the business – you might start by ‘paying it forward’.

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