From daily practices to special occasions, use these ideas for employee recognition to show your employees how much you appreciate them.
Nearly everyone who’s worked in a corporate setting has been on the receiving end of a generic thank-you gift. While these gifts may show generalized appreciation, nothing about them helps the recipient feel truly special—like they’re an individual whose unique skills actually make a difference in their company.
Often, recognition gifts with little thought behind them do more to hurt your appreciation attempts than to help them. In fact, our survey results show that 40% of employees feel the recognition they receive at work is an empty gesture.
Your people should never feel like they’re an afterthought—and even a fantastic employee rewards and recognition program can still benefit from a few fresh appreciation flavors. Let’s look through some creative employee recognition ideas that will turn generic gifts into unexpected, thoughtful, and unique rewards.
1. Start every meeting with appreciation.
What better way to start a meeting than with some fun, positive cheer? Begin each meeting by highlighting recent employee accomplishments or saying thanks for great work. Employee recognition themes you can incorporate into your meetings include appreciation for extra effort, above and beyond work, career milestones, innovation, exhibiting company values, customer service, and excellence.
2. Write a handwritten letter—and mail it.
As adults, we rarely ever look forward to receiving mail. Surprise your employees with handwritten letters—actually sent to their home! This shows that you are happy to go the extra mile to make your recognition meaningful.
3. Start a work area (or home) decorating tradition.
A great way to build camaraderie and celebrate your employees is to decorate their work area: Balloons, streamers, banners, even confetti. If your people are working from home, consider hanging up some streamers or signs on their front door or in their front yard.
4. Celebrate personal milestones.
Even though most people spend a third of their lives at the office, many employees still don’t know much about their coworkers. Remedy this by celebrating their personal achievements as well as work ones. Did they recently run a marathon? Have a new baby? Master a new hobby? Have a high school graduate? Send a note of congratulations along with a small gift to acknowledge these important events in their lives.
5. Share accomplishments on an internal Wall of Fame.
Showcase the great work your people are doing on a company Wall of Fame. You’ll get extra bang if you have a way for peers to add their own comments and recognition, like with O.C. Tanner’s Culture Cloud.
6. Showcase employees on social media
Don’t stop with just internal fame—highlight your employees on your company’s external social media as well. This is particularly useful for large companies where cross-departmental collaboration occurs often but people are spread all over the globe.
7. Pass along a work perk.
Got a first-class upgrade on a flight? Give it to your employee. Receive a basket of treats from a vendor? Share it with your team. Lucky enough to score hard-to-get reservations for a nice restaurant? Send your employee instead and pay for their meal.
8. Surprise your employees with random treats.
Start by surveying your people about their favorite treats or snacks—anything from candy bars to carrot sticks. Then, surprise them by mailing those treats home or bringing them to work.
9. Give small, personalized gifts.
Show your people you value their individuality by giving them gifts that represent their unique interests. They don’t need to be expensive; personalization is the important factor here. Perhaps Josh gets a new bike lock while Melissa receives a festive cupcake tin. Just make sure they are unique employee appreciation gifts.
10. Send something to the families.
These days, most employees are spending a lot more time with their families. And their families’ support is also what helps them be successful at work. Mail home treats, games, or flowers—but address it to their family. Tech M sends associates a customized note from their Chief People Officer, along with flowers and a restaurant gift card to their home so their families can celebrate their service anniversaries with them.
11. Go big for holidays, like Employee Appreciation Day.
You don’t have to spend a lot to ensure all your employees feel appreciated. But you can make the holidays or events like Employee Appreciation Day special. Consider something like custom recognition gifts that are branded and symbolize your company culture and history. Or give employees a choice of gifts where they can select something meaningful to them. If you have an existing recognition program, a large points deposit to add to their points bank can have a substantial impact. There are plenty of employee appreciation party ideas and ideas for Employee Appreciation Day that won’t break the bank.
12. Let employees choose special projects.
It may seem strange to reward employees with more work, but our research shows that when an employee participates in a special project, they have a 26% increased sense of opportunity. Give your team the chance to create special projects that they love, and that benefit both them and your company.
13. Have employees lead for a week.
A great way to show you not only appreciate but trust your people is to let them lead. Give them the title of Boss for a week. Have them lead meetings, make important decisions, and sit in on executive meetings. Not only will they feel empowered, but they’ll feel more ownership in the company’s success long after the week is over.
14. Make an employee the Subject Matter Expert (SME).
One of the lesser-known employee rewards ideas that is incredibly powerful is developing someone to be an SME. Help them connect with other employees so people come to them for help and guidance. This highlights the employee’s unique strengths and shows how employees are valued.
15. Extend the invitation to an executive meeting.
Most employees don’t get much face time with their senior leaders. Many may never attend a meeting with their CEO. So invite them to one. Better yet, recognize their accomplishments in front of the C-suite.
16. Advocate on their behalf.
When you advocate for your people, it shows you value and believe in them. Actively help them get the tools, resources, and career development they need.
17. Go out for a socially distanced lunch.
If it’s safe, and your local rules allow it, take employees out for a socially distanced lunch. Use the time to catch up and connect with them. Don’t just talk about work; be sure to check in and see how they are doing personally and what they are looking forward to for the future.
18. Give a day off or flex time.
Let your team off work at noon one Friday or give them an extra day off around a holiday. The small, surprise PTO shows you see and appreciate the hard work they’ve been doing.
19. Spend a day learning something new.
Send out a questionnaire asking your employees about subjects that interest them. Then, for your next team building event, hire an expert in the top-polled field and spend the day learning a new trade, skill, or hobby as a team.
20. Call just to chat.
Every once in a while, call your people and just chat about them. Not a one-on-one about work, but about them. Their interests, family, hobbies. Be genuine and get to know them as individuals. Because ultimately, appreciation is seeing and valuing someone for being them.
As with all staff appreciation ideas, you should always pay close attention to what your employees will actually enjoy. And remember, not all recognition has to be a surprise—in fact, giving your employees a goal to work toward often ends up being much more rewarding than a surprise that hasn’t been earned.
Ask your employees about what interests them, then base your ideas around their answers. Sara may hate donuts but would love a new mixer to bake cookies at home. Let your employees be your guide—then let your creativity run wild.
More Employee Recognition Resources
There are so many different ways to recognize, appreciate, and celebrate your employees. Here are more resources for guidance:
• Guide to Employee Recognition Programs
• 11 Employee Recognition Ideas
• 22 Awesome Employee Recognition Gift Ideas
• 9 Tips for How to Choose Employee Recognition Software
• Heartfelt Employee Appreciation Quotes to Say "Thank You"
• Benefits of Peer to Peer Recognition
• Best Practices for Virtual Employee Recognition
• Guide to Years of Service Awards
• Tips to Celebrate Work Anniversaries
• Employee Recognition in the Modern Workplace
• Victories: Modern Recognition Software
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