Cost-Effective ways to Motivate Teams in a Challenging Economy

If there’s one bright spot in the current economy, it’s that there’s more talent on the street and voluntary turnover is likely at an all-time low. So assuming you’ve pruned your deadwood, and that the people you have are the people you want to keep, it makes sense to keep them focused, happy and productive in these challenging times. Since most management problems—in good times or in bad—turn out to be people problems, let’s discuss some practical and creative ways to motivate our team members through the “new” 3R’s: recognition, rewards, and recessions.

First, don’t de-motivate. Most employees intrinsically want to do well at work. The reason we even consider offering rewards and incentives to our teams is because something—or someone—is causing the team to be de-motivated. Identify the cause or the person behind it and then eliminate the offending system, schedule or supervisor. This may solve your problem without having to implement a contest or incentive.

Demonstrate resolve and energy. A recession also affects your hourly team members. They read the same websites, papers, and blogs you do, and too much bad news impacts confidence, morale, and hospitality. So it’s important that supervisors demonstrate resolve and realistic optimism, not doom-and-gloom. The donkey Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh is not the ideal manager. Foodservice managers cannot be “energy-neutral. You are either giving people energy or are draining it from them.

Invest in training. Since everyone’s productivity is expected to improve these days (especially if layoffs occurred), then training becomes more important than ever for improving confidence. For every dollar you invest training your team, you save 50 cents in advertising.

Get back to them quickly. When a team member or manager suggests a cost-saving or revenue-generating idea to a supervisor respond promptly, but thoughtfully. High-performing supervisors have a “48-hour” promise; they will investigate every team member idea and offer feedback within two days of the suggestion. In fact, this “rapid-response” strategy may save you money in the long run; there are many employees who will demand a raise simply because they’re unhappy about their suggestions being ignored or feedback undervalued.

Offer flexibility and frequent small raises. “We deal mainly with high school kids and younger workers in our operations,” says T.J. Schier, a WhichWich franchisee in Dallas TX. “Many want lots of hours; others want to work only one day a week and we try to accommodate them–flexibility is a huge motivator. Frequent reviews and frequent small raises also work well to recruit and maintain an ‘A’ team.” Schier sees a connection between a happy crew and a happy guest. “Guests really recognize the importance of friendly employees and familiar faces time after time,” he says, “so we know it pays off and the employees see and feel it. Treat them right and they treat the guests right. We know it works because we continue to get a constant flow of applications due to employee referrals.”

One size does fit all. Your house key won’t start your car. And your car key won’t open the front door. So what makes you think that a cook, a server, a cashier or an assistant manager will be motivated by identical rewards or gifts? Situational recognition is critical. Consider too the breadth of generational and cultural diversity among the different positions in a restaurant. Some people may be motivated by a raise or promotion, others by an iPod, still others by the company’s commitment to the community. Poll your team members on what kind of prizes will best motivate them.

Music. Gift Certificates for iTunes or Amazon mp3 downloads are both cost-effective and appreciated by most team members. Use them as small, unexpected rewards for jobs well done. For Rock Band or Guitar Hero aficionados on your team, the Track Packs or expansion packs of additional songs for the games are a very popular incentive or reward.

Quick and unexpected contests. Not all contests, awards or prizes designed to motivate teams have to be lengthy in duration. For instance, daily shift contests for servers to sell specific menu items will routinely motivate a complacent waitstaff. And Louisville, KY-based Fazoli’s recently executed an entire systemwide instant contest overnight. “Our most recent internal promotion was ‘Sales Blast Day’ for gift cards,” says CEO and President Carl T. Howard.” We sent each restaurant an email at midnight alerting them that tomorrow would be the day for the gift card Sales Blast contest. Each restaurant had an opportunity to win, determined by number of gift cards and most dollars sold on that particular day. Everyone who was working in the winning unit that day got to choose prizes ranging from cash to cool logo items. Fazoli’s set record gift card sales in 2008, even with slightly less total units than the year prior. Employee motivation, recognition and rewards are more important now than they have ever been.”

Surprise food treats. If you’re a pizza restaurant, bring in Chinese food for a staff meal after the lunch rush. Steakhouse? Spring for burritos for the staff. The little things mean a lot.

Ultimately, employee recognition and motivation is a practice, not a program. It should be woven well into every shift and also into your hiring, development and career-path systems. And for those few who don’t respond to motivation, recognition and rewards? Consider the words of author Tom Peters who said: “Give a lot, expect a lot, and if you don’t get it, prune.”

By Jim Sullivan

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