How to get a return on investment on fun

There’s a wide range of fun benefits out there, but it’s often hard to track the return on investment. Success depends on realistic objectives, and doesn’t have to come at a huge cost. A work-life balance policy can deliver, says Alison Coleman

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Employers which want to motivate their staff have plenty of means at their disposal. There are motivation initiatives for boosting everything from sales to morale, and reward schemes designed to curb sickness absence and staff turnover. And the focus of these schemes is increasingly nosed towards fun. The question is, how do employers get a return on their investment (ROI) from these initiatives?

Most motivation experts agree that this depends on a number of things; not least the business objectives behind the schemes. Rik Burrage, managing director of motivation provider Grass Roots Group, says: "In the current labour market, there is tremendous pressure on employers to retain and motivate their staff, and they are constantly on the lookout for fresh ideas. Dangling a carrot in the shape of novelty reward schemes addresses only part of the motivation issue, and on their own may not provide any return on investment."

Reducing staff turnover is a key issue, but a more pressing one for many organisations is a rising level of sickness absence. According to the latest Employee absence survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, absence costs industry £588 per employee per year, with minor illnesses and stress being cited as the main reasons for absence. But are novelty incentive schemes the answer? The Royal Mail seemed to think so, and last year it introduced a scheme allowing staff with no sickness absences for six months to be eligible for a prize draw offering holidays and new cars to the winners.

Charles Fair, research director at organisational consultancy Rightcoutts, says: "I would be quite sceptical about tackling sickness absence in that way. The problem with a scheme like that is it doesn’t get to the root of the problem: what is happening within that organisation that has led to so many people taking time off work? The possibility of winning a car may bring a temporary reduction in sickness absence, but long term it is not an effective way of motivating people." The Royal Mail, however, reported a drop in sick leave of 11% in the first seven months of its scheme, so while it is still early days, it does seem to be working.

Many motivation consultants feel there is a lack of understanding of the benefits and potential of motivation techniques among UK organisations. Too many employers jump at the creative aspects and don’t pay enough attention to what they really want to achieve. Bill Brown, communications officer at motivation company Projectlink Motivation, explains: "All too often, organisations implement motivation schemes in a knee-jerk fashion focusing on the reward element rather than the performance issues that they are facing. The success of a motivation or incentive scheme lies in getting the fundamental principles right, and also by identifying the cause of any problem areas.

If you spend time on understanding the objectives and your audience, it will produce a return on investment." But success also depends on how realistic the objectives really are. No amount of fun will improve productivity or staff turnover if employees have not been given the right training and development to achieve targets in the first place. Nor will they be motivated by a scheme that is perceived to be administered unfairly, for example, if it is structured in a way that certain people are seen to have a better chance of winning, or that doesn’t appeal to their personal interests.

David Whitehead, sales director at incentive and motivation specialist Capital Incentives & Motivation, says: "Employers tend to assume that everyone in their organisation will enjoy a company fun day, with quad bikes, barbecues, hot air balloons, and all the activities that might go with it. In fact, a motivation event like that will really only appeal to a proportion of the workforce, generally management and the high earners. "If you were to give people a choice between the fun day and, say, £100 of gift vouchers, the majority would choose the latter. With the cost of corporate activity days running into many thousands of pounds, it pays to find out on an individual basis what would motivate [people]." Motivation schemes don’t have to be elaborate, expensive, or require taking staff out of the workplace in order to be seen as fun.

"In a call centre, for example, a lot of the reward initiatives are aimed at boosting performance and sales targets. Generally, they do deliver results, but there may be other ways of implementing them that would give a higher ROI. "Individually, these schemes may not motivate everyone, but by making it into a team event, pitching staff against each other in a light-hearted way, perhaps having a themed contest or awarding a small trophy to the top team at the end of it, your ROI is likely to increase," says Grass Roots Group’s Burrage. Initiatives with a health and wellbeing element are seen as a sound business investment. They can also be seen as fun, although the results can be harder to measure and will often be long term rather than immediate.

Jon Denoris, managing director of health club chain Catalyst Health and Fitness, runs a corporate fitness programme Catalyst Energy Coaching. "The really enlightened companies are trying to ensure that there is a work-life balance element in their staff motivation programmes, and they can reap considerable benefits from these. They can also see tangible evidence of the impact these have on staff motivation," he explains. Programmes include yoga, Tai Chi, and even juggling, as well as formal exercise programmes, held either on company premises or at one of Catalyst’s own studios. "The juggling is seen as a fun thing to do, and surprisingly, something that anyone can do if they are taught in the right way.

As well as being enjoyable, it improves hand-eye co-ordination and is used as a physical metaphor for juggling time, [which is] something everyone identifies with," adds Denoris He believes the ROI is produced through reduced stress levels, an improved sense of wellbeing, and a feeling of being valued among employees, thereby boosting productivity and reducing sickness absence. "Before we start a programme, we establish a baseline through online questionnaires and staff interviews of how people are feeling.

We give everyone an index score and then track the various parameters throughout the duration of the programme, which then shows whether or not it is having an impact at individual level." It is the need to produce results from motivation schemes that often puts pressure on the provider to measure and prove the return on their client’s investment. Amy Bisek, director of performance improvement at communication and motivation firm BI, says: "If you don’t measure it, you can’t prove it is making an impact, so how can you expect companies to understand the benefits and potential of motivation? You must make a conscious effort when you are designing a programme to build in appropriate measures to gather the right data at the end so you can evaluate if it’s been a success or not." BI helps its clients to measure the return on investment and return on objectives of their motivational events in several ways, including the use of an online evaluation tool.

This analyses an individual’s position before and after participating in a scheme by comparing responses to online questionnaires. The process can be used to measure motivation levels and gather feedback on the event itself, such as how useful people thought it was, and their thoughts on the choice of venue or location. But fun isn’t always the answer. Sometimes only financial rewards will produce results. "Where you have temporary seasonal staff, for example, at a theme park, where a lot of those temps are students, there can be real problems getting them to stay right until the end of the season. Once they feel they have earned enough cash they disappear. "You can try to inject fun into incentive schemes through competitions and prize draws, but often the only way of motivating them to stay is by rewarding them with something they can’t redeem until they finish, and that generally has to be cash," says Capital Incentive’s Whitehead. Clearly fun can be a real motivator.

But as with any scheme, whether it is a one-off event, or something designed to lift spirits in the workplace, there is no guarantee of a return on investment unless the basics are right. "Companies often try to implement these schemes without getting the whole employment package right. If there is a culture of blame, command or control, or there are poor relationships between staff and their line managers, [employees] will simply see them for what they are, a novelty gesture. "Our own research has shown that people need to feel valued and that their values count. Once you have that right, it becomes much easier to find the right motivation scheme for the business objective, whether it is a sales drive or a reduction in sickness absence, that does have an element of fun and secures a good return on investment," says Rightcoutt’s Fair.

The psychology of fun

Everyone has a different idea of fun. So if organisations really want to win employee support and boost their motivation levels they need to spend time working out what makes staff tick. Bernard Cooke, principal consultant at business psychologists OPP, says: "Employers need a clear understanding of the beliefs and values that influence people’s behaviour; their needs and preferences in the way decisions are made and communicated, and the style of interaction that motivates them. "Essentially it is about knowing what turns people on, or off. Motivation is a complicated subject, but sometimes the people who are best placed to see what motivates people at an individual level are line managers. With good training and development, they are in the best position to identify their motivational needs."


The Vort-x model is one example of a method that employers can use to measure employees’ motivation and commitment. It focuses on four key areas:


Relates to the importance an individual places on doing a good job, and on their career and professional development – a connection to the nature of the work itself.


Encompasses the extent to which an individual feels that the values, systems and policies of the company align with their own – a connection to the way the organisation works.


Describes the importance of an individual’s connection to their colleagues, customers, and managers, and is based on emotional connections with people – a connection to co-workers, managers and clients.


Covers the value an individual places on the tangible rewards of their job, based on a personal need for motivation, money or status – a connection to the terms and conditions of the job.

Case Study: Scolarest

Scolarest, part of Compass Group, is a specialist provider of catering services to schools, colleges and universities. Eighteen months ago, the company implemented a motivation scheme for around 5,000 employees working in secondary school catering to address a number of key areas, including staff turnover, sickness absence, and a desire for public reward and recognition flagged up by the company’s annual employee satisfaction survey. HR director Paula Eavis says: "The survey identified that staff were satisfied with the recognition they received at a local level, but wanted to take this to a higher, national level." Working with motivational consultancy Projectlink, Scolarest implemented a motivation scheme, which offered financial rewards for the achievement of key criteria, such as attendance and staff retention.

"We needed something that staff would enjoy, and that would create an element of fun through a variety of team awards, but would also allow us to monitor the impact on the three key objectives. On attendance issues, for example, operators were given the opportunity to set their own individual targets." This was the first time that the company had implemented such a scheme.

Over the last 12 months, staff turnover has reduced by 11%, while the agency labour bill – effectively the cost of covering staff sickness absence – has fallen by 45%. "As well as the achievement of our objectives, there was also no financial pain with this scheme. It paid for itself. And the feedback from last year’s employee satisfaction survey showed a much higher percentage of satisfaction with public recognition," explains Eavis.