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People & Team


How the best SMEs continue to motivate high performers

Motivate high performers
Technical consultancy Amido lets its employees guide what work is accepted

A company’s top employees need to remain incentivised and engaged if they are going to remain with the business. Let them get frustrated or bored and they will leave for pastures new. We talked to two companies striving to motivate high performers.

Lots of businesses realise the importance of making employees feel part of the organisation and its success, but others do so too late. Rewards and bonuses are given to employees as both recognition of their hard work and effort and to incentive them to keep progressing and achieving.

Strategic insight agency Opinium, which has clients ranging from charities to big corporates such as MoneySuperMarket and Barclays, rewards its 37-strong staff with “industry-beating” salaries, bonuses and trips abroad to cities including Barcelona.

But it also awards employees shares in the business. To date, 25 per cent worth of company equity been given to staff since Opinium was founded in 2007. The short-term aim, according to managing director James Endersby, is for 50 per cent of the business to be employee owned.

Breed accountability

“At the beginning, the original investors believed the equity scheme would help build the business by attracting great talent and encouraging them to join us on the journey,” explaied Endersby. “To have 25 per cent of equity with our employees is unheard of in our industry, but we find that those high levels make them more motivated and engaged. It boosts performance because with ownership comes more responsibility. It’s a huge benefit for our clients.”

Every employee has the opportunity to become a partner, but the awards are based largely on individual performance. “We had an intern join us around four years ago who, because of their performance and contribution to the business, is now a partner,” added Endersby. “But it is not only rewarded to those who are the highest revenue earners, it is based on who has added value or efficiencies to the business. There is no single rule.”

Opinium’s approach to staff retention has made it award winning

Opinium’s high retention rates – 95 per cent in the last 12 months – and profit growth are testament to the success of the equity scheme. “We have very high levels of retention amongst our senior management team in particular,” Endersby said.

The MD told us the company’s flat structure also keeps its high performers motivated. “Our junior researchers work on projects alongside our directors. It is a very collegiate feel and, again, that’s not the norm for the research industry.”

“We also encourage our employees to explore passions by carrying out their own research and producing thought papers. One example of this is some work some of our staff began on multicultural Britain. They believed that not enough research had been carried out on this important issue and that has led to the company working with Labour MP Chuka Umunna to develop the project.”

Giving autonomy

Ensuring that its high performers remain equally as intellectually stimulated is technical consultancy Amido. “We are very much a people business and strive hard to find out what motivates people. That means offering more than table tennis and gimmicks,” explained chief executive Alan Walsh. “For us, motivation means giving employees autonomy. We pay good money to smart people and they don’t want to be micro-managed.”

The autonomy at Amido stretches to only accepting work which is going to challenge its employees and boost their development. The business has even turned work down because it didn’t feel that it would keep its employees fully engaged.

“We are fussy about the clients we work with because we know our staff want to work on projects that are of high quality,” said Walsh. “We get our employees involved right at the start of negotiations with a new client. We don’t just have the sales team involved, so have our engineers in there doing the heavy lifting. They are responsible for not only delivering the service but creating and forming the offering to ensure it works for them. They own the projects from the start. If we don’t treat them like adults and let them find the work which will properly engage them then they will leave. It’s a challenge, but we need to do it.”

Walsh went on to add that creating a strong support framework for its high performing employees is also crucial. “We have six Amido communities that are self-governing to help our talent learn and grow through sharing experiences and knowledges with their peers,” he explained. “For example, test engineers will gain a variety of experiences on their individual projects, but once a month they get together with their peers to review and discuss learnings to help improve the whole of the test engineering community at the company. It is about sharing their experiences and learning and growing with each other. Again, it is the concept of autonomy and not being dictated to by senior management.”

The bosses do get involved though in regular feedback and so called “brown-bag sessions” held during company lunchtimes. “We are constantly looking at how we can improve as a business,” Walsh states.

Time to breathe

Another policy in place at Amido which improves the motivation of senior high performers is the opportunity to take a sabbatical after five years of service. “We offer six weeks off, which we pay four of,” added Walsh. “We have a lot of staff here with families, so having the freedom to take a sabbatical is a great motivation for our employees. We also support our staff through schemes such as flexible working. We trust them to get their jobs done. We want to support them and look after them.”

Walsh advised other SMEs to “try new things as you grow”. “You need to adapt to how your employees change as well. You see what works and what is successful we keep. Our very good retention rates show that we are delivering.”

Work on your employee engagement skills by using our benchmarking tool to establish where you score compared to peers right now.

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