Our $30 Paradigm Shift – 3 Months with a Recognition Program at Macoscope

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Does this sound familiar? You arrive at work one morning and immediately set out towards the kitchen to have your first coffee. You open the cupboard… to reveal empty shelving, no cups in sight. Undeterred, you make your way towards the dishwasher but instead of a set of clean tableware for you to use, you discover a new civilization living inside the machine and it’s well on its way to discovering the wheel. Doing what a typical human would do after encountering an alien civilization, you shut the door and start the “summary annihilation” cycle. Forty-five minutes later you empty the dishwasher, clean mugs gleaming in the morning light. Unfortunately, your heroic deed goes completely unrecognized among your coworkers, no paparazzi, no camera flashes to greet you even though you made a sacrifice for the greater good; there is just no place for altruism in this cold and cruel world. Your heart hardens and in this bout of despair you decide to forge a ring of great power.

With the ring adorning your finger, you start to make plans for world conquest when suddenly, a coworker walks through the door. After seeing what you did inside the dishwasher… they happily exclaim: “That was great of you, thanks! Take a seat, I’ll make us some coffee.” Pacified with the kind words, you sit down at your station and go to work a little bit happier.

An unfamiliar scene, you say? Well, as our everyday duties keep piling up, it gets increasingly easy to forget that we’re only human and as such, very keen on receiving recognition for the things we do for others. It’s even easier to forget the satisfaction we can get from recognizing the deeds of others.

Here’s a brief summary of our efforts to counter that here at Macoscope using bonus.ly, one of the few software solutions on the market designed with that particular goal in mind. Although I started to write this piece after 30 days with the system, I quickly came to realize that a month is simply too short of a time period to accurately to give rise to any significant conclusions. I gave myself a little more time to conduct my observations and arrive at a diagnosis. The piece you are currently reading is the result of my quick inquiry into what did the staff here at Macoscope gain by using a recognition program and what the long-term consequences of using this or a similar system can be.

The Facts

0) bonus.ly is a piece of software that enables members of a team to award small amounts of money to each other in order to recognize someone else’s good deeds or acts of support. Each company that employs the system determines the initial amount each member receives at the beginning of each month and the tip scale (e.g. $2, $5, $10, and $15), however, the “upfront” cash you get does not add up to the tips you receive, i.e. you cannot spend more than your initial $30 on tips. Each transactions requires a description (e.g. the reason for the tip) and you can even use tags like #innovation, #teamwork or #mastery to categorize the bonuses. Tips are distributed on a monthly basis.

1) bonus.ly was introduced in Macoscope on July 1, 2014

2) monthly amount each employee can distribute as tips: $30

3) the number of people involved in the system and their positions:

  • 7 iOS developers
  • 1 Project Manager
  • 1 Office Manager
  • 2 Graphic Designers
  • 1 UX Designer
  • 1 Account Manager
  • 3 Executives

4) location of people throughout the office:

  • 2 Graphic Designers are sitting in a separate room upstairs on the 1st floor
  • 2 Executives have a top floor suite
  • 1 Executive shares a separate 1st floor room with the Account Manager
  • the Office Manager has her own room
  • the rest (developers, 1 PM, and the UX designer) share an open space on the ground floor

I’m mentioning the specific placement of employees because, as it turns out, the “location, location, location” adage still holds true here and that locus significantly influences tipping decisions.

5) we’re currently three months into using a bonus system

This piece describes only the way the system worked here at Macoscope. Each company has its own distinct structure, its own set material and immaterial relationships that embody individual needs and multiple meanings, identities, and habits. And as such, the recognition system a company ends up picking has to match its own particular nature.

“Great Job!” is Not Enough

Daniel (one of the executives at Macoscope) suggested introducing bonus.ly around two months ago. It was a reaction to the issues revolving around motivation and the lack of recognition of small acts and deeds (because either they were too small to notice or there’s not time to recognize the act publicly) that were raised during our last evaluation meeting. The dissatisfaction this state of affairs was causing was so pervasive that we couldn’t just let the matter fester further, we had to do something. “Great job!” was simply not enough.

We didn’t lay down any hard rules. Our bosses said: “Let’s check it out; if the system won’t hold, that will be a useful signal for us, as well.” Slightly skeptical and distrustful towards the idea of rewarding ourselves with money, we nevertheless jumped head first into the experiment.

Coming back to Macoscope…

That’s the Spirit

The knowledge that we can quickly express our gratitude for someone’s help and support quickly lodged itself in the back of our heads and stayed there. It was especially easy given that the tipping itself didn’t really cost us! You tip someone your virtual $10, that someone gets real money while you don’t spend a dime of your own hard earned cash. Everyone gets ahead (either mentally or financially). That’s some wickedly clever good right there!

And so it went! Things that previously went unseen now became prominent – even little things like helping someone to unload the dishwasher, hang a poster, or teaching Boomer (a dog owned by yours truly) to shake. Only one person had to recognize another employee’s small act for the rest of the group to immediately catch on to it and follow suit. Suddenly, we all started noticing things that were once obscured by our daily obligations and tasks.

Some of us tipped only actions that exceeded one’s everyday responsibilities, others did the opposite and used this recognition program, as a way to express their gratitude for another person’s help or the precious time they spent on helping them overcome some problem. Still others mixed the two approaches. And just like that, bonus.ly gave everyone a very individual way of expressing their gratitute, admiration or approval.

Let’s be honest, a recognition system is not about money. It never was. Every team that has decided on implementing a similar system echoes that sentiment. Positive reinforcement lies at the heart of the system – noticing things like giving someone a hand, helping out with a problem, etc. Punishment is overrated. Nothing builds mutual trust and team cohesiveness like casual expressions of appreciation. Money became involved only to establish a scale of “gratitude.”

I often wondered whether equating money with gratitude will end up making these gestures so shallow that we will stop recognizing them in any meaningful way and will just throw money at each other. I’m glad to report that nothing of the sort happened here at Macoscope. Maybe we’re still careful not to slip. I hope it stays this way. You know what they say, “Eternal vigilance is the price of experimenting on yourself.”

In any case, we jumped at the opportunity to test the system head first and some of us burned through all of their money quite fast, while others exhibited more restraint. As I mentioned before, we didn’t have any hard rules as far as tipping is concerned. The only certainty was whatever is left from the $30 we began the month with will perish as the system does not allow any carryovers. That realization made us eager to use our assets to recognize as many small acts of kindness as we could, as it would be a damn shame to let that money just go to waste.

Maybe we should think about what good could we do with the unused remainder of the money instead of tipping someone just because there’s something left? Maybe we should pass this good on, pay it forward, to use a phrase coined by queen Oprah, let it flow beyond the walls of Macoscope…

Everyday Roleplaying (or There’s $10 and Then There’s $10)

bonus.ly isn’t a tool that enables us to IMPARTIALLY and FAIRLY distribute tips to everyone on the team. Our bonus system is more like a game made up of a set of rules, strategies, characters with a set of attributes, and payouts (both financial and not). In this particular case, the game facilitates the recognition of incidents and interactions that take place between people constituting a team. The system made us even more aware of the dynamics shaping our staff: who’s always there for everyone else, who’s the most prolific helper, what are our standout abilities, what gets tipped most often and why, what don’t we have time for, etc. These insights constitute a great prologue for a more thorough analysis of the relationships between people and how to employ them to root out bad habits and sustain the good ones.

We assumed that not everyone will have the desire to play and so participation in the system wasn’t, and still isn’t, compulsory. We received a tool but the will to use it rests solely with each and every one of us. I was worried, however, that the introverts among us may feel discriminated against and excluded. So I waited and observed how the situation developed. It turns out that the invisible and amazing always surfaces! bonus.ly proved to be an incredible tool for the socially reticent members of the team that gave them the opportunity to communicate their recognition (and tipping the proverbial $5 isn’t all that common even for the most outgoing of us). As of this moment, each member of the Macoscope team “plays” the game according to their own individual strategy.

I think that some pre-eminent game theory specialist should take a closer look at one such bonus system and thoroughly analyze it from every possible perspective. That’s one report I’d gladly read through.

Group Doubts

One major issue brought up in numerous discussions of the system among Macoscope members was the “inadequacy” of the amount tipped in relation to the time and effort that a given act required, i.e. a person received the same tip for helping with dinner, which took about 20 minutes, and preparing a blitztalk, which carried significantly higher costs, both in terms of time and effort. We still haven’t arrived at a proper solution to this particular problem. We can’t just impose caps on tips for specific acts, either helping in the kitchen (sometimes, a person that rarely helps out does something so spectacular that we want to tip them huge amounts of $) or blitztalks (given that our talks cover a wide variety of subjects, are presented by different members of the team with distinct public speaking skills, some people put a lot of effort into the look of their deck, while others not so much, etc.)

Additionally, it turned out that for people working outside the open space downstairs, getting involved with everyday acts of kindness is much harder, and not because they’re either less inclined to or cheap. Working in the open space is no guarantee of involvement, either: some projects require such intense focus that people forget that a recognition system is even in place. Despite all of that, our downstairs open space is the agora where most everyday activities take place for the majority of the Macoscope staff. That’s where we hold open meetings, where we eat, work, and talk.

We spend a lot of time together, we’re an established group with its own rituals and rules; five times a week our group sits down to work together and eat together. We know each other pretty well by now. We know, and can predict with some accuracy, when certain things may be needed by certain people, and we’re aware that certain situations occur with specific frequency. And this recurrence, this repetition, also became a very hot subject during our discussions of the recognition system. Can we still tip to recognize an action that has already been recognized any number of times? How fast does a recurring act become less noticeable, if not downright tiresome? Even actions that lead to the improvement of the overall living and working conditions in an office can quickly become mundane – a routine with positive results, but a routine nonetheless.

The location of our desk, people sitting next to us, the time we arrive at work, the projects we’re involved in, the general mood in the office – all of these factors influence whether a given deed will be noticed and later recognized, and by whom. It might be interesting to observe and check the outcomes for patterns. Each office should be a place where the needs of employees are thoroughly taken care of.

Persistent Deficits of Good Deeds

Before you introduce a bonus system, you may want to contemplate on laying down some universal rules and whether giving participants too much leeway will give rise to misunderstandings and conflicts. We’re still testing it out. I believe that each team has to naturally adapt its inclination to recognize acts of goodwill and kindness to its particular work structure, the number of employees, its energy and the space it inhabits.

But learning to express your gratitude is worth it. bonus.ly or not, show your appreciation to one another.

Three months after the introduction of a recognition program at Macoscope, we’re all much more thoughtful and deliberate in our tipping practices. Although the initial excitement is long gone by now, we’re still a long way off from becoming indifferent: you still get a fiver for putting someone’s lunch in the fridge.

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