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Rewards to surprise and delight your staff


Why there’s value in a surprise and delight type of rewards strategy – and how to successfully implement one in your workplace.

Science has shown us that the human brain is hardwired for rewards. What it’s now also shown, thanks to researchers at Emory University, Atlanta – and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) – is that it also loves surprises. As Dr Gregory Berns, the lead author of the study explains, “…if you get a present for your birthday, that’s nice. But you’ll like it a lot more if you get a present and it’s not your birthday.”

Small wonder then that surprising and delighting employees has been used to such great effect as a reward strategy over the years. And there are some excellent reasons to connect with your staff on this emotional level:

  • It shows them that you really do care about them as individuals.
  • If done well, it’s guaranteed to make them feel more loyal to the company.
  • It gets them talking about their experiences with friends and family and paints the company in a wonderfully positive light.

Here are five ways you can lay the foundations of a successful surprise and delight rewards strategy.

1. Make surprise and delight creative

This is possibly the most important component of a successful strategy and here’s why: Not only is it impossible for employees to be surprised by rewards they’ve received over and over again (think company-branded merchandise, vouchers and yes, even Friday afternoon pizza), the usual suspects also tend to be impersonal, which lowers their rating on the delight scale.

Tim Dorsett, who works for UK brand Innocent Drinks, has had plenty of fun surprising and delighting the company’s staff members. And so he should – it’s his job. Tim has been employed by the company to “make people work better and go home happy,” and one of his favourite surprise and delight reward moments was ‘The Lift of Lurve’, a whimsical activation that cost just £60, and involved heart-shaped bunting, helium balloons, Barry White crooning on a portable CD player and post-it notes on which employees could write the names of colleagues they fancied. The result? As Tim puts it, “This guy Dan had a terrible day at work, but the thing he wanted to go home and tell his girlfriend was: look at what Innocent did today.” Case closed.

2. Make it personal

This is a tough one because we’re all individuals with different ideas, tastes and dreams and what may seem delightful to one could appear dismal to another. How do you deliver surprises that delight everyone? The key is to make your employees feel valued with rewards that are as unique as they are and speak to their individuality. So…

  • Get to know your staff as people. Find out what they love, how they enjoy spending their time and who they enjoy spending it with. In other words, what makes them tick.
  • Use the data you have available to you to your advantage. You know the age, gender and home addresses of each of your employees, now make it work for you. For example, if you’re planning a voucher for a twenty-something in your team, make it for the most happening eatery in their hood – and throw in drinks at a swanky gin bar while you’re at it. Then again, if the recipient is a forty-something married mom of two, treat her to a kid-friendly breakfast or lunch somewhere close to home.

3. Make the timing unexpected

No, I’m not suggesting that you give expected occasions like birthdays and work anniversaries the boot – unless you’re planning the same desk drop as last year and the year before that and the one before that, in which case it’s definitely time to relook your strategy. Instead, I’m suggesting that you consider identifying and celebrating the less obvious moments and opportunities, too. Like the end of a staff member’s probation period or, celebrating new moms- and dads-to-be with a surprise baby shower, as my husband’s company did when we were expecting our first child. Funny story: the party was planned for the day our daughter arrived, a little ahead of schedule, so the quick-thinking party planners arrived at the hospital later in the day, laden with flowers, balloons, and a haul of baby gifts – both surprising and delightful!

4. Make it about the recipient

When a creative team I was once part of went through a season of low staff morale, the studio head was asked to investigate ways to revive the company’s earlier culture – something that had been lost when the business grew rapidly. His solution was a weekly lunchtime cycle through the city and down to the water’s edge. A wonderful idea if you a) happened to be as passionate as he was about cycling, which two thirds of the team wasn’t and b) owned a bicycle, which two thirds of the team didn’t. And so, every Tuesday, a third of the team got on their bikes and hit the road, while the rest of us sat in the company cafeteria and ate lunch together. You get the idea.

5. Make sure there are no strings attached

Finally, it’s important to remember that there should never be conditions attached to a surprise and delight rewards strategy. It is simply in place to create an emotional connection with staff members, show them that the company cares about them as individuals and increase their sense of loyalty.

Is there anything to be learnt from brands that are cracking the surprise and delight brief?

Absolutely! Just Google the topic and you’ll come across multiple brand stories guaranteed to warm your heart and put a smile on your face. Like Lego sending an 11-year-old boy a discontinued train set after he had spent two years saving for it and Sainsbury’s renaming Tiger Bread, Giraffe Bread after a 3-year-old girl sent them a letter saying it looked more like a giraffe than a tiger.

But the one that really stood out for me is that of a giraffe named Joshie and the staff at the Ritz Carlton on Amelia Island, Florida who went above and beyond for the sake of the little boy who loved him. Here’s the short version… When Joshie was left behind at the hotel, the boy’s father told him a rather tall tale – that the lovable giraffe was “just taking an extra long vacation at the resort”. And, when the hotel called to say that they had located his son’s furry treasure, this smart dad asked if they could take a photo of Joshie relaxing at the pool to add a little credibility to his story. Not only did they oblige, they also returned Joshie with an entire travel album, one that showed him enjoying a massage in the hotel’s spa (complete with cucumber slices over his eyes), hanging out with other fluffy toys (presumably also left behind by their owners) and driving a golf cart on the beach.

Does this charming tale tick all the surprise and delight boxes? Let’s take a look.

Screenshot 2018-10-24 at 13.13.09



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Candice Ghignone

About Candice Ghignone

Candice Ghignone feels incredibly lucky to make a living from playing with words. She has written for numerous well-known brands and plenty of smaller ones, too.

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