A Call for the Slow Build

  Wellness Incentives

Today I led one of my all-time favorite lunch n' learns called "Please, Don't Have a Seat" at a San Jose-based technology company. While setting up, my host filled me in on how the session was a part of their current 4-week campaign to get people moving. "Anyone who shows up today," she gleefully shared, "will get 5000 points!" And my thought was: "Oh, super!" (Please note: The sarcastic overtone is intentional.) No doubt, points, prizes and even penalties can get people in the door. But, the bigger question is – what's the fallout? And, as Rosie Ward and Jon Robison, coauthors of How to Build a Thriving Culture at Work, frequently ask, are we ultimately doing more harm than good?

So, sure enough, lots of people showed up. Altogether, we topped out at about 80 attendees, split between in-person participants and call-ins. But, let’s look at how this played out. Right out of the gate, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the participants was mesmerized by his laptop, which continued, even when I stood behind him. Unlike my days as an urban public high school teacher, I didn't feel comfortable calling him out. But, let me tell you, it took every ounce of willpower to not blurt out: “Let me guess, you’re here to collect the 5000 points – not because you’re actually interested in the topic.”

I am happy to say that the session was well received and elicited lots of “Wow! That was actually interesting and fun!” comments. Even my recalcitrant, check-the-box-to-collect-the-points attendee ultimately engaged, taking on a leadership role during a small-group activity. But, this all-too-familiar scenario begs the question: Might we be better off taking a “slow build” approach as opposed to the incentives-driven “quick hit” approach that is the norm in workplace wellness?

Call me crazy, but I’d rather have fewer people show up who are there for the program itself. Then allow them to experience a program that’s actually engaging (and not just a grin-and-bear-it avenue to a prize). If it’s worthwhile, believe me, these few attendees will share the good (and surprising) news with their coworkers. This small core will likely generate interest in future events – as long as they are also worthy. The slow-build approach requires that I, as a facilitator, develop and deliver excellent content and puts pressure on me to provide lunch n’ learns that - how shall I say it? - don’t suck.

The slow-build approach represents a seismic shift from the one-off, disjointed, check-the-box lunch n’ learns (or for that matter, any wellness programs) that depend on incentives over quality, to drive quick-hit participation. The best we’ll get with the quick-hit approach is a get-‘em-in-the-door-to-check-the-box as opposed to authentic and lasting engagement. The latter is what we need a whole lot more of if we want to have real impact.

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