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The power of the gift

The art of corporate gift giving

Strategic Facility Management Advisor and Hybrid Workspace Design House SIGNAL ISS asked approximately 3.500 employees in a major bank to prioritize a number of services to be offered at their future workplace at the bank. Lunch and coffee options came up on top, scoring markedly higher than social events and gym facilities.

But if the prospect of a good lunch and coffee of your choice today are the primary reasons why employees might consider to show up at their workplace, perhaps it is high time for top management to revisit and redefine the art of corporate gift giving.

The power of the gift

Humans have used gift giving as a vessel to constitute and maintain important bonds from our earliest tribal communities. And gift giving has remained an important part of our interaction ever since. Giving a gift makes all parties involved feel good. The gift giver experiences the thrill of anticipation. The recipient will experience the surprise and joy of receiving. Accepting a gift creates a special bond between the giver and the receiver. The connection, thus established, brings a new equilibrium in a relationship. The vital detail for such magic to happen is that the gift must be freely and gladly accepted. 

Behold the Statue of Liberty. Designed by Frederic Bartholdi, the 305-foot-tall neoclassical statue took nine years to build. It was then shipped to the U.S. in pieces, where it took another four months to reassemble. It is the universal symbol of freedom and democracy, and it was a gift of friendship given to the United States in 1884 from France. Arguably, the most generous and strongest bond-forging gift ever. 

The Art of Corporate Gift Giving

Can the power of the gift be transformed to a professional exchange in the workplace with the workplace as the anticipating giver and the employee as the happy receiver? And can the exchange be facilitated by an intermediary? 

The introduction of a new generation of community- or floor hosts as an integrated part of a new generation facility management drives on this very basic idea. 

A new corporate gift giving is the uninvited attention of the “floor host” or “office steward”. And the new repertoire of gifts and small tokens of appreciation such as the reoccurring juice-, icecream- or candy treat at your workstation or the odd invitation to a surprise quiz or an ABBA dance off mark an important first, small step in the right direction and is hugely appreciated by the receiving end, the employees. 

Examining the gift

But is this really an exchange that can ultimately create bonds? Or is it, because the community of the workplace and the social contract between workplace and employee is no longer a given premise, high time to develop a new repertoire for gift giving?? And should this new repertoire be more about offering an experience of community and purpose? 

To visualize the changes, we have designed a Maslows’ pyramid of corporate gift giving: 

Whereas most of the old perks used by companies to acknowledge employees were focused on the individual, the new bond makers are focused on celebrating the community, and the new essential gifts are about offering the right to belong and the right to make a difference.  

New gifts for a new generation of changemakers

Enter Generation Z, an activist generation. As children, they had to live through the 2008 Financial Crisis and the great recession that followed with anxious parents. They have watched melting Icecaps while listening to the count down to the point of no return. They have experienced the short comings of the old political systems to deliver comprehensive action and the global business community to act responsible. As a result, they take strong positions and expect others, including brands, to do the same. And while they are naturally used to instability, they are drawn to stability. They look for places where they can place their trust. 

Aligning with Gen Zs’ and millennials’ values is key. According to the Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey, nearly two in five say they have rejected a job or assignment because it did not align with their values. Meanwhile, those who are satisfied with their employers’ societal and environmental impact, and their efforts to create a diverse and inclusive culture, are more likely to want to stay with their employer for more than five years.

Employee Resource Groups – a new gift of purpose

More and more international corporations which are struggling to attract and retain talented employees and/or struggling with growing attrition, have started to listen to Generation Z’s desire to work for a company that does good for the world, and is thus offering both time and resources for their employees to become activists for a higher purpose. In doing so, the traditional Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are being supplemented by ERGs that are working for a higher purpose.

As ERGs have become more popular different types of new groups have formed which are based on interests rather than characteristics. 

The new generation of ERGs connect employees with similar value sets and passions rather than shared backgrounds, but the most radical change is perhaps that is the mandate they have been given from executive management. A mandate to make a difference! 

In the new ERGs, employees come together to change company policies (parental leave, gender transition policies etc.), culture (inclusive language, reduction of micro-aggressions etc.) or even colleagues demographics (e.g. recruitment of more people with disabilities or more black women in senior leadership etc.) in order to make their company be more inclusive, diverse, sustainable and so on. The most common ERGs we see amongst our clients are Ethnicity & Culture, Gender Balance, LGBTQ+, Abilities, Climate Action and Social entrepreneurship.

The promise of empowerment, the invitation to act and the experience that your work can actually make a difference for you and your colleagues is perhaps the greatest gift and the strongest bond maker a company can offer its employees.

Two ERGs with strong outcomes

Given the fact that 100 percent of women, 25-50 percent of men and 80 percent of trans- and intersex people go through menopause, the world’s 4th biggest employer decided to make an official Menopause Policy. The ERG responsible for the work of the policy, went on to win a total of seven global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Awards for their ground-breaking work. Another strong example is the Gender Balance ERG, launched by a global company in 2021. The ERG’s first action was to take a local US female mentoring program and turn it global. The mentoring program targeted women (and in particular women of color) in supervisor- or first level manager positions, empowering them through structured mentoring to break the glass ceiling. Since the start of the program 24 percent more women have taken on senior leadership roles within the teams that have signed up to the program. 

The ultimate gift: Leading with the heart

While a new generation of ERGs can offer the employee an opportunity to work for a higher purpose within the framework of the company, another all-important bond builder is leading with the heart.  

As part of a global survey last year, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) asked 6,000 people what attributes they want most from their leaders at work. The top four qualities are all related to what BCG calls actions of the “heart” or emotional well-being. Respondents said they most want more recognition, coaching, listening, and caring from their leaders. Recognition meaning to inspire people to believe that they can do the remarkable and that their contribution matter. Listening meaning to truly be present and listen without an agenda. See figure below. 

So what are some of the key elements in this new leadership of leading with the heart:

  • Respect 

The most common reason to leave a job is poor leadership.  The most common reason to stay is good colleagues. Let’s examine the primer. According to McKinsey, organizations worldwide are reporting unprecedented levels of turnover. 40 percent of employees report that they are likely to leave their job within the next 3-6 months. McKinsey’s research shows that employees across industries are leaving because they do not feel valued and have poor work-life balance.

In Denmark, bad leadership has for a number of years in several surveys been singled out as the primary reason for Danish employees to voluntarily leave a job. 

Rather than staying and try to make things better, employees for many good reasons have decided to abandon ship. But the arrival of Me Too and Woke combined with a new generation prone to local action, is bad news for leaders who fail to recognize and appreciate or straight out abuse their employees. 

A recent example of an effective local action against bad leadership is the non-contractual work stoppage in Denmark’s second largest trade union HK, where almost 400 employees for a day and a half in October closed down work. The work stoppage started by the employees in one sector in protest against the sector management’s handling of a letter of complaint from the employees. The letter was about a manager who, according to the employees, had created a psychologically unsound working environment over several years. HK Privat’s work stoppage was then followed by work stoppages from other HK departments in sympathy. The outcome: The forementioned manager has been sent on permanent leave. 

  • Renewed focus on the human behind the employee

To lead with the heart in a workplace where working from home is the new normal, it becomes ever important for managers not just to check in with their employees, but to really understand what motivates and drives the individual employee. To expand the yearly the annual employee development interviews to an ongoing conversation about performance and satisfaction with current tasks and about longer-term development goals and thereby contribute to aligning the individual employee’s personal goals with the company’s. Part of this conversation could be about how to work with and cultivate a passion, to refer the employee to an existing Employee Resource Group at the workplace that comes together for this purpose or to encourage her to establish one and hereby offer the ultimate gift – the mandate to act.