How to Incentivize Employee Engagement in a Virtual Workforce

The move to remote-first working means businesses need to rethink how they incentivize their virtual employees. We explore different types of incentives, from cash and reward cards to non-monetary and social benefits. Learn how to maximize the impact of your incentive programs and discover the different types of rewards that can motivate your remote employees and increase productivity and satisfaction.

The virtual workforce is on the rise. What started as a slow shift to remote working accelerated into an inevitable change as COVID-19 forced businesses to adapt and keep their employees safe. New technology and communications platforms became household names as organizations invested heavily in productivity and collaboration tools. But, in the shift to remote working, some things have fallen by the wayside and businesses need to work to bring them back.

Now that we have the technology in place and remote working is the new normal, it’s time to focus on one of the less tangible aspects of a successful business—how your virtual workforce feels. This has a huge impact on the success of your organization. Motivating and incentivizing your employees means they’re more likely to stay in their jobs, continue being focused and productive, and contributing towards your bottom line.

The question, then, is how do you continue to incentivize employee engagement when the world has moved to remote working?

We have some ideas.

Focus on Both Business Culture and Employee Incentives

Company culture and productivity are inextricably linked, and we know that worker incentives also boost productivity. This means you can’t “just” improve the culture or offer employee rewards in isolation—they work hand-in-hand to boost morale and make your business a great place to (virtually) work.

There are many guides to enhancing your company culture that focus on how to do so virtually. Creating those “water-cooler moments” and happy hours are a great place to start, but we’re going to focus on the other side of the coin—incentivizing your employees.

Rewards, incentives, and other benefits clearly show employees how valuable they are, and keep them engaged over the long-term.

Cash Incentives Matter

When you want to incentivize employees you need to use a combination of cash, non-monetary rewards, and recognition. It makes sense—cash gives immediate purchasing power, non-monetary rewards offer new experiences, and social recognition shares achievements with colleagues.

Reward Cards Let You Reinforce Your Employer Brand While Motivating Employees

We believe the best place to start is with your cash incentives. It’s the most tangible type of reward and your employees can enjoy the benefit immediately. You can make these rewards even more tangible and tied to your business by sending out reward and incentive cards, pre-loaded with money. Then, when an employee earns more rewards, it’s easy to top up the card so they get immediate access to the cash.

Provide Immediate Cash Rewards During Tasks or Offer Them as a Lump Sum

There are a couple of ways to offer cash rewards to virtual employees. Research from Cornell University shows that providing monetary incentives immediately can actually increase employee motivation.

“‘The idea that immediate rewards could increase intrinsic motivation sounds counterintuitive, as people often think about rewards as undermining interest in a task… …But for activities like work, where people are already getting paid, immediate rewards can actually increase intrinsic motivation, compared with delayed or no rewards.’

That’s because an immediate reward strengthens the association between the activity and the goal of the activity, making people feel like the task is rewarding in and of itself.” —Cornell University Chronicles, It’s about time: Immediate rewards boost motivation  

So, for example, you could link your task management and performance review systems directly with a payment service to immediately add rewards to cards. This tells the employee that this action links to this cash, creating a strong association and greater productivity.

Alternatively, you could award a lump sum, either on a regular or one-off basis. This might have a greater impact on the employee’s perception of your business.

Non-Monetary and Social Incentives Matter Too

Incentivizing employees with cash is fast and easy, but there are other ways to encourage good work. Non-monetary rewards can create a great experience for the employee and may have an emotional value different to cash.

These incentives may be linked directly to their working conditions, like flexible hours, accommodating work and life balance, or greater autonomy. They might also be more tangible rewards like providing an extra day off or providing gifts like a spa day or seats to the big game.

Social recognition is vital, too. Celebrating an employee’s success or creating nomination-based programs (with cash or non-monetary rewards) help virtual workers develop a sense of connection and belonging. The acknowledgment and respect of peers is a powerful motivator, and essential to developing a positive company culture.

Maximize the Impact of Your Virtual Employee Incentives

You want to ensure your employee incentive programs have a big impact on your workforce. If the program becomes an expected part of compensation or just fades into the background, then it quickly loses its value. You can help your incentives stay relevant by making them positive, immediate, and certain.

  • Positive rewards use incentives for positive reinforcement. They tie the incentives directly back to a feeling of motivation and engagement with the business to boost morale and culture.
  • Immediate rewards don’t require employees to wait for benefits. Instead, they can enjoy their rewards as soon as they have earned them.
  • Certain rewards mean it’s very clear that a specific employee action will result in a defined outcome. If an employee meets particular goals, this is the benefit they get.

Investigate Different Types of Reward and Incentive Programs

Every business, every virtual workforce, and every employee is different. The approaches we’ve discussed are great starting points, but there are many ways to implement them. For example, your programs might include:

  • Nomination-based programs that encourage employees to recognize and share the efforts of their peers.
  • Safety and wellness programs designed to promote healthy employee behaviors.
  • Length of service programs that award long-term employees.
  • Quarterly or annual incentive bonuses that link employee objectives with the company’s strategy.
  • Immediate spot rewards that provide a bonus for completing a task or goal.
  • Gain-sharing rewards that focus on the combined productivity of a team or department.
  • Project rewards for completing a series of tasks within a specified time.

There’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Instead, talk to your employees about what makes the most sense for them. Involve them in designing your incentive programs so they’re investing in their own and the business’s success.

Motivating your workforce is an important part of keeping your employees happy and meeting your business goals. As our work shifts to a remote-first approach, consider and develop new incentives to keep morale up and boost productivity. That’s good for your business, your employees, and your bottom line.