Foodservice Operation of the Month

Offering incentives that truly inspire staffers

Centra Health taps into what workers really want—and carefully implements a variety of incentives for different scenarios.
employee incentives
Photo courtesy of Centra Health

“It’s an arms race for talent right now,” says Wren Roberts, managing director of support services at nonprofit healthcare system Centra Health in Lynchburg, Va., echoing the current thoughts of most operators across the country.

Many operators are raising wages—Centra included—to draw in applicants. But Roberts notes it’s building a culture of respect and appreciation that keeps staffers sticking around. Here’s how he and Centra incentivize and reward employees in ways that truly make a difference.

Pizza parties are nice, but not for every situation.

Roberts thinks of incentives as a variety of tools in a toolbox: Each have their place, but they’re not one-size-fits-all.

“Pizza and goody bags can be just fine in some scenarios, but you have to know when to use the right tool,” he says. “Know the value of the outcome and match that with the value of the incentive.”

For example, for smaller needs like enticing the team to fill out an employee engagement survey, Roberts might leverage that pizza party or a catered barbecue lunch. But for key successes like patient surveys reflect well on foodservice staff, that’s where he “brings out the big guns” with financial incentives.

“If it directly impacts the patient experience, that’s crucial for us and therefore warrants a more meaningful incentive,” Roberts says. “Figure out what you value most and incentivize that accordingly.”

Ensure even the smallest gestures have meaning.

That doesn’t mean those goody bag-level incentives should be throwaways. Centra is careful to be mindful about what really matters to its staff, says Timothy Schoonmaker, corporate director of nutrition services, and tries to ensure every gesture is a meaningful one.

foodservice worker
Photo courtesy of Centra Health

“During the pandemic, in particular, we made sure goody bags included not just a few pieces of candy, but more importantly hand sanitizer, soap and laundry detergent,” Schoonmaker says. “That may not sound like a big deal, but for these caregivers who are tight on money and use laundromats, buying those little bottles of Tide adds up. We really look at what’s useful for them, and they do notice the effort.”

Not every “incentive” must be a tangible one, Roberts says. A handwritten note from leadership goes a long way, he says, in showing team members that their efforts are noticed and appreciated—and that they are highly valued as individuals.

“These mindful efforts are depositing into what I think of as people’s emotional bank accounts,” Roberts says. “If we as leaders aren’t constantly adding to that account by showing our staff we understand and appreciate them, that bank account will be tapped out—and so will the individual.” 

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