"We are really big on continuous improvement," says Las Iguanas' Angela Da Silva

Las Iguanas restaurant
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This is an interview with Angela Da Silva, HR Manager at restaurant chain Las Iguanas, who won the Reward & Recognition Award at the 2014 Employee Engagement Awards. In this interview we delve into the company's approach to engagement and tease out key learnings to help others bring an evidence-based, joined-up approach to their engagement strategies.

If you had to pick one reason why you think you won the award, what do you think it was?

I think it was being able to demonstrate the various ways in which we integrate our reward and recognition strategy into our business strategy.   

We are always reviewing all of our incentives, bonuses and all of our different awards and looking at ways to improve that integration.  

We review every part of our reward and recognition strategy. From a business performance perspective we think about how we can make improvements in business performance and will then go back to our reward and recognition strategy and ask ourselves: is this aspect of the reward and recognition strategy supporting this aspect of the business strategy?

Likewise, in terms of feedback on the overall reward and recognition and strategy, feedback will come from our team. We have Voice Teams: groups of people from different departments and levels in the business who meet to discuss issues that face the business and they will put forward ideas for improvements. 

We do different things with those Voice Teams. For example, the last Voice Team looked at how we can improve communication; on site, from the office and from area managers. The Voice Team had a good think about how we can improve communication, they asked their teams and then got together in a meeting and discussed ways in which we can make improvements.      

Gathering and acting on employee feedback seems to be a key goal at Las Iguanas. What are the challenges with having this embedded in culture and how have you overcome them? 

We have various ways to receive feedback, such as our people survey and our Voice Teams. We also have “Ask Mos”, which is a form on the company Intranet (Iguananet), which anyone can fill in and ask our managing director about anything, and he will reply within 24 hours. 

We have used feedback from the team to steer some of the ideas we have come up with.

Of course, whenever you open up all of those lines of feedback you will have a situation at some point where someone will say: ‘wouldn’t it be great if...’ and we will look into it but after looking into it further we see that it is not viable. In that situation, all you can do is to be honest about the reasons why you can’t do it. I think it’s key that when we open up those lines of communication we are honest and we respond to that feedback as best we can.

Although it is not totally clear cut, your reward and recognition strategy has elements that drive business performance e.g. mystery diners and also employee motivation and engagement e.g. the Race to Rio. How do you get the balance right?

We have used feedback from the team to steer some of the ideas we have come up with and we then hang those ideas on the business strategy in order to increase business performance. 

Our ‘Race to Rio’, in which restaurants compete against each other to win a trip to Rio, is a good example. 

It’s a great opportunity for our team to see what we are trying to do as regards the authenticity of the brand, because they go to Brazil and see where we get some of our ideas from.  They also get to see where we make our Cachaça.  But they only get to go if they are exceling in service and hospitality in their restaurant.  We’re rewarding great service, which in turn improves service.  Their visit to Rio will improve their knowledge of Latin America and of our own Cachaça.  The ‘Race to Rio’ is a real win-win situation. 

Was the alignment built into your reward and recognition strategy right from the start or did it develop over time?

We are really big on continuous improvement. We have always had a bonus structure for managers, which has been very clear in terms of bonus on service, standards and sales. 

About 10 years ago our operations directors said: ‘I think it would be really great if we could send people to Rio’. 

Everything has been built around that, and because we already had in place a bonus structure for managers we linked the two.  When we put things in place in our rewards and recognition strategy we ask: how much of this is linked, and how can we improve it to make it better for the people and the business?       

We have increased the reward and recognition programme again this year. It used to be two restaurants that went to Rio – four people from each restaurant. Now, because we are growing as a business, we are sending another restaurant, so a total of three restaurants and 12 people will be going this year, plus the winner of the front of house support manager of the year and the winner of the back of house support manager of the year. 

About 10 years ago our operations directors said: ‘I think it would be really great if we could send people to Rio’. 

It seems that your engagement programme aims to increase quality and success at the point of contact between employee and customer. Do you think this is the ultimate goal?

Giving our guests outstanding hospitality is always our ultimate goal. If we get that right the business will be able to prosper.  That is why we do what we do.  There is nothing nicer that going to our restaurants and seeing thank-you cards from customers. That’s great to see because it means customers are coming back. 

The interaction between the customer and the employee is key, but you can’t do it alone with just a reward and recognition strategy; you also need all the training that we give regarding the differences between service and hospitality. We talk to people about using their own personality. It’s about our team being able to read our guests and we do a lot of training on reading and understanding what type of guest we have. Is it someone who is quite happy to sit and have a relaxing afternoon eating tapas? Or is it someone who is in for a business lunch and wants to be in and out within 45 minutes? 

Part and parcel of that training is being able to reward them when they are doing things really well. We also make sure we are employing people who are passionate about caring for people and delivering good service. We have done a lot of work this year with our recruitment processes to make sure we are finding those kinds of people.   

How do you communicate the vision and values of the company to new employees?

We are right in the middle of a big project to completely overhaul our recruitment process. For us now, it’s about finding someone who is motivated by caring about pleasing guests. All of our new recruitment systems are designed to find out what people are motivated by. We can train people how to serve, but it takes a certain kind of person to care for the guest.     

I have been with Las Iguanas for over 10 years now and we have never stood still.  We are constantly looking to improve what we do and we are never satisfied. I’m always thinking: okay, I have rolled out a particular project, how can I now get feedback from all of the managers on the floor in terms of how they are using the process? That feedback will enable me to make changes for the better to ensure it’s integrated, it’s used properly and that it gets buy-in from the managers, who will be the people using it.

That’s key to any engagement on any level from any of our team: we ask them what they think of something and then make changes based on their feedback. We work in a customer-led business and I see all of the employees as my customers.   

You give manager autonomy to run their own incentives at the restaurants, but you provide guidance. Is this an important part of the overall approach? How else do you ensure store managers are bought into the engagement strategy?

Our reward and recognition strategy is comprised of elements of company-wide bonuses and incentives, but there is also a structure in place around which managers can run their own incentives. 

The part which they can manage their own incentives is called Iguana-Points. Managers can reward and give out points for various incentives that they set up in-house, for example, points for up- selling or points for best scores on our customer feedback cards. 

The manager can use a certain number of points to drive performance in their restaurant on an individual basis. The key to getting managers engaged is making sure they have all the information at their finger-tips. Everything they need is on Iguananet: from information booklets, to feedback forms, to all the incentives, ideas and guidelines on how they might use the Iguana-Points.

You informally link your awards ceremony to internal opportunities e.g. support managers who have been promoted to general managers. Can you give us some other examples of how you link engagement outcomes to business objectives?

Some of our other awards at our Las Iguanas Awards Ceremony are also based around performance. For example, we have a Golden Standards Award, which is for great performance in all business standards areas, such as health and safety. We have also decided that our Stars of the Month initiative in each restaurant will be collated over 12 months and we will then have a Star of the Year Award at our awards ceremony in 2016. That was something which previously wasn’t integrated but now is being integrated. 

For organisations which are starting to create an effective reward and recognition scheme do you have any tips?  

I would say it’s very important to understand your employees in terms of what they want.  We know people like some monetary prizes, awards and definitely recognition. We know that mix works for us because we know our team.     

Also, speak to your team and get feedback from them. I would also say, not everything has to cost money. There are lots of times when you can just pick up the phone and say: ‘well done, really appreciate your effort’. 

An example I have of that is that our CEO will have a meeting with the whole of the office team every week and will say, for example: ‘this person has really excelled, and you may not know but that site only has two managers at the moment, so they have been doing a fantastic job. If you are talking to them this week congratulate them whilst you are on the phone to them’. 

We get that feedback from the top and then everyone in the office knows that if we are speaking to them we will say: ‘I’ve heard you have been doing really well’. That speaks volumes.    

What are some of the challenges in terms of keeping the momentum of your reward and recognition programme going?

We naturally review it every year for our budgeting purposes so we can understand what is and isn’t working. Why would you spend money on something that isn’t working and conversely why wouldn’t you put more money into something that is working really well?  

We also have an incentives coordinator who is dedicated to looking after the programme as we feel this is a really important part of our business. Previously when we couldn’t afford a dedicated person that was half of my role.

How important is being able to demonstrate a return on the investment made?

As we have grown in some ways quite organically, I have always worked quite closely with our finance director. I think it is important for the top team to understand how important engagement and reward and recognition is. I’m lucky enough to say that I have that!  

Sometimes it takes convincing, but I can think of other areas outside of reward and recognition where I might put together proposals for our finance director and he will say: ‘I’m not sure what you are talking about’. And so I will need to rewrite and try again.

A lot of the time you can see a return on investment if you link it to the business strategy – your end goal is engagement but it is also a business objective.

About Matt Evans

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