“I just wanted to say thank you!”
Everyone knows it’s important to say thanks. Research proves that employee recognition makes a positive impact on both day-to-day interactions and long-term workplace culture. Yet with so many ways to say thanks, what are the best methods to do it? And when are the appropriate times to express gratitude? In this article, we’ll share employee appreciation ideas and discuss both the “when” and the “how” to appreciate employees and coworkers. But first, a quick reminder on why it’s so important to show appreciation in the first place.
Why is employee recognition important? First of all, it’s a terrific idea to boost morale or make someone’s day by sharing how much you appreciate their work. Even more importantly, the long-term advantages of sharing appreciation are considerable for any company culture. Such benefits are most often achieved through a formal employee recognition program (for all the details on building a recognition program, see our Complete Guide to Building Successful Employee Recognition Programs).
Research shows that frequent appreciation can improve employee engagement and motivation, increase job satisfaction, and even help you retain employees for a longer period of time. Consider that organizations with an effective and integrated recognition program are:
more likely to have highly engaged employees1
more likely to have increased revenue over the past year1
5X more likely to stay2
more likely to have strong business results including increases in shareholder return3
Even with all of these amazing reasons to appreciate, many organizations struggle to get recognition right. In fact, 45% of employees feel their recognition program is stale and disconnected from what’s important at their organization.1 When engagement surveys start to indicate that your recognition solution has grown stale, it’s time to refresh your efforts. Keep reading and we’ll discuss best practices as well as a few employee appreciation ideas for large companies.
Before considering some specific employee appreciation ideas, let’s brush up on a few broader employee recognition best practices. Reviewing best practices on a regular basis can help ensure that you maximize the results of your day-to-day appreciation program.
First tip? Appreciate often. During the Covid-19 pandemic, O.C. Tanner’s research found that when employees had been recognized in the previous seven days, they were 63.7% more likely to believe that their senior leaders had their health and wellbeing in mind.4 Frequent appreciation is a formula for success in a crisis. But it also adds power to your recognition in more ordinary times.
Another best practice adopted by modern leadership is to focus on linking the accomplishment to what matters. In other words, how did the employee’s actions support the organization’s purpose? Communicate to the employee or team how their contributions helped accomplish specific company goals.
For remote employees who work from home, try to maintain high-quality communications for virtual recognition. Instead of just using chat, provide opportunities for a video call and invite team members to participate. Employees who have a best practice recognition experience are 43.3% more likely to feel successful.4
Remember, recognition and rewards don’t always need to include a monetary component. A personalized presentation with a symbolic gift can dramatically improve the perceived value of employee appreciation, and can also complement a monetary reward.
Finally, no matter what type of recognition program you choose to employ, ensure that your employee appreciation tactics match your company culture. In the best places to work, culture and appreciation strengthen and reinforce one another. If you want to learn more about culture, explore O.C. Tanner’s Company Culture Guide.
Now that we’ve reviewed some of the benefits of frequent, specific appreciation, let’s talk about when it’s appropriate to celebrate and recognize. Remember, recognition should flow freely. So rather than worry excessively about when to appreciate great work, simply keep your eyes peeled.
People everywhere do amazing things every day. So begin to notice all that greatness around you and then simply appreciate in the moment with a heartfelt thank you or an eCard every time you are awed by someone’s achievement. If you need a little stronger prompt than that to get your appreciation gears turning, consider these recognition opportunities:
Leaders can recognize employees every time their performance merits a mention. When they go above and beyond or do work that delights or is exceptional, for example. Organizations with a formal employee recognition program, such as O.C. Tanner’s Victories Employee Recognition Program, can easily nominate employees for formal awards through convenient work integrations using programs like Microsoft Outlook or Google Chrome. These plug-ins put recognition tools in the flow of work, so leaders and peers can formally recognize in email, or through their web browser, without visiting their recognition program. We’ve found the easier tools are to access, the more likely peer-to-peer recognition is to occur.
Another perfect time to celebrate great work is when teams meet specific goals or complete special projects. Some recognition programs can track and reward team-level goals in addition to running a company-wide employee recognition program. When teams and individuals complete special projects or initiatives, it’s an ideal opportunity to give them the credit they deserve. O.C. Tanner’s Initiatives feature let’s leaders set goals attached to specific awards or point levels, then reward their team members when the goal is achieved.
When employees reach significant work anniversary milestones, it’s standard practice to call out their career and achievements. Organizations that celebrate years of service anniversaries enjoy long lasting benefits. For example, employees stay 2-4 years longer when their company has an effective years of service awards program.5
One example of this is O.C. Tanner's Yearbook program that makes these type of awards more engaging and encourages peers, leaders, and family to participate. Yearbook turns a career anniversary into a celebration among friends at work, gathering comments, photos, and videos from peers that honor a celebrant’s contributions to the team over time.
Although it’s beneficial to appreciate regularly throughout the year, it’s especially valuable to celebrate annual calendar events such as Employee Appreciation Day. In a survey of nearly 1,000 workers nationwide, O.C. Tanner found that 44% of employees think that setting a day aside to celebrate employee contributions is ‘extremely or very important.’
You’ll find that there are many employee appreciation week events each year that you may want to celebrate at your organization as well. Two examples are National Nurses Week and National Hospital Week.
A natural celebration event for every employee is their birthday. Organizations may choose to celebrate birthdays on a company level, a team level, or both. A team lunch at a favorite restaurant or some cake in the break room can lighten everyone’s day. Recognizing an employee’s birthday sends the message that team members care about their special day.
Additionally, organizations can create their own special occasions like employee of the month when a chosen employee is honored for their efforts or unique contributions. Every organizational culture varies, but choosing to celebrate special occasions is a fantastic way to appreciate great employees.
Also, don’t forget the value of celebrating together. Many companies offer a company-wide gift (or substantial points deposit) to every single employee to celebrate shared milestones like a company 50-year anniversary, passing $100M in sales, completing a successful merger, and so on. These celebrations can bring people together and create a real sense of belonging to something bigger.
The “how” of celebrating is the fun—and also challenging—part. HR leaders and others in charge of managing employee recognition programs constantly look for new employee appreciation ideas. They also want to ensure that the types of employee appreciation (formal/informal) they offer are effective in delighting and motivating employees.
Informal recognition can happen just about any time, like when you take a few spontaneous moments to give thanks to someone for completing a project in a team meeting. Formal recognition is a bit more structured. It is usually planned ahead of time. This often happens with years of service anniversaries where a presentation is thoughtfully planned and invites are sent out in advance.
But what awards should I give? Everyone wants to know, “What are the best employee appreciation gift ideas?” Sometimes this can be as frustrating as asking a close friend what they want for their birthday and not getting a straight answer. Fortunately, we have some research to point you in the right direction. As identified in the 2021 O.C. Tanner Global Culture Report, the awards employees found most meaningful for achievement recognition included (in no particular order):
• Experiential gifts
• Cash or gift cards
• Custom or personalized symbols
The list for the most meaningful awards for service recognition was similar, but also included “meals out” as an additional preference. But leaders shouldn’t feel like they need to limit their gifts to any one type. A good mix of gift types to match each celebration will keep things interesting throughout the year. Allowing recipients to choose their own gift from an online catalog is another way to help ensure employees are happy with their rewards.
There are countless ways to celebrate and reward employees with tangible and non-tangible gifts. Below, we’ll highlight some of the most popular ways to give employees the appreciation they deserve. For even more ideas, check out 20 creative ways to show employee appreciation. You may also choose to gather ideas from your own employees with a suggestion box.
Nothing says thank you quite like a gift that you can choose yourself—with points. Most modern recognition solutions include a points bank and multiple ways to give and receive points over time. This encourages peer-to-peer giving, which is important because research shows giving recognition has benefits that rival those of receiving it. Points can be given in many denominations, from small to large, that keep the good vibes flowing. Then, when points add up, the recipient can visit the recognition site to choose from a practically unfathomable selection of gifts.
For times when you want to send a bigger thanks, as some companies do for celebrations like Employee Appreciation Day, you can simply make a larger points deposit to every employee in the company at once. This can also be a great idea for special occasions like organization milestones, or perhaps for a team that completed a lengthy or difficult special project.
For organizations that manage an employee recognition program based on points, a quick and substantial gift is as easy as issuing points across a team, a department or the whole company. This is one reason that giving points is one of the best employee appreciation ideas for large companies. Another advantage of points is the fact that employees can redeem their points at a virtual reward center or online catalog. Giving points is like giving unique rewards to each employee—and you avoid the hassle of having to scope out employee appreciation gift ideas that would work for everyone.
The beauty of a points deposit is that employees have the freedom to choose the gift they prefer—including a gift card. But for those without a points-based recognition program, or for special occasions, organizations may choose to distribute gift cards to their employees instead of points.
Gift cards can be specific to one retailer or shopping site, or they can be prepaid cards that can be used anywhere a credit card is accepted. Again, our 2021 Global Culture Report indicates that both gift cards and cash are seen as a meaningful recognition gifts.
Part of what makes recognition successful is participation. When teams gather to celebrate a coworker, they’re not just taking part, they’re adding energy to the celebration. You could say the same thing about social recognition. Many programs feature an internal social wall where employees can see and comment on colleagues accomplishments. It’s like pinning them to a bulletin board—only a social wall broadcasts accomplishments to your entire company, even if it’s a global one with tens of thousands of employees.
You may also choose to celebrate employees on public social media channels like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. For that type of recognition, you’ll want to set clear rules of which employees will qualify to be featured and make sure you have their permission to give them a public nod of approval.
Nothing celebrates great work like an old fashioned party. With food, treats, banners, and fun activities, you can help your employees celebrate on special occasions. Throw a themed lunch party for events like Employee Appreciation Day, and encourage individual teams to celebrate team member birthdays with smaller get togethers. For bigger celebrations, like a founder’s day or holiday party, consider an evening party with food or even live music—and allow employees to invite a companion to join in the fun.
Workplace anniversaries are more meaningful and fun when thoughts, photos, and achievements can be gathered and published. Consider creating and printing a permanent keepsake for employees when they hit a work anniversary. For example, O.C. Tanner's Yearbook can help you collect leader and coworker comments and photos to deliver in a printed book.
You can also publish Yearbooks virtually for easy access for everyone to enjoy, with the additional feature of including video clips. With both options, employees have a permanent record of their achievement or milestone that they can treasure throughout their careers.
When thinking about creative ideas for employee appreciation, you might not guess that sending an eCard could make much of an impact. But you’d be wrong. One organization made the connection that employees who stayed with the company longer had received more non-monetary eCards and monetary nominations during the year.6
Furthermore, employees at the company had a 73% less chance of attrition when they received at least one eCard a month, and 79% when they received one nomination a month. This made the case that eCards, even those without a monetary award attached, can have a positive impact on employee satisfaction and retention.
If you want to show customers, vendors, and everyone else who walks through your front doors that employees come first, consider building a wall of fame. You can display photos and accomplishments of individuals or teams who have earned special recognition.
Your wall might include inspiring appreciation quotes from leaders. It could also include congratulatory messages from peers and customers. Once established, the wall can serve as a monument of appreciation for those who’ve accomplished great things, sure to inspire employees each time they walk through the area. Such a display may be physical cards, posters, and photos, or digital, on a large monitor. O.C. Tanner recognition programs can broadcast accomplishments on monitors throughout your company.
Symbolic awards never go out of style. Consider the Oscars, the Olympics, or the Grammy’s. Symbols become part of your culture. They tell its stories. They honor its purpose. They become meaningful objects of desire employees simply cannot buy anywhere else. They have to earn them.
A symbolic award expresses the true appreciation an organization feels for its outstanding employees. Employee appreciation award ideas can take the form of a trophy, pin, book, jewelry, an acrylic design—or any other creative idea you can dream up. Often, these are accompanied by a letter of appreciation.
During the pandemic, healthcare workers across the nation made heroic efforts to care for patients while putting their own health at risk. Many employers looked for ways to thank their healthcare workforce. Partnering with O.C. Tanner, some of these organizations chose to present Frontline Hero awards to every employee in the form of beautiful custom pins that celebrated each employees’ selfless efforts and accomplishments in a difficult year.
Another way to say “great job” to employees? Help them reach their self-development goals with professional learning resources. Give your workforce access to premium training sites where they can take courses to learn a new software program or pick up new skills and certifications. You can also show appreciation to specific employees by sending them to industry conferences or workshops.
Offering employees a mentor to help them develop new skills is another educational reward. Or you may choose to reward employees by naming them to special projects or allowing them to choose which new projects or committees they’d like to join.
There is no rule that states that employee appreciation can only take place on company property. Want to switch things up? Schedule time for employee recognition during an off-site team building activity or while dining together for a special team lunch at a restaurant.
Whether indoors or outdoors, unique surroundings can help make the accomplishments you are celebrating even more memorable. It’s a great option when appreciating entire teams or groups and can be enhanced with branded gifts to mark special occasions like Employee Appreciation Day or a significant company anniversary.
Once you understand the “when” and “how” of celebrating employees, it’s time to put your creative ideas for employee appreciation to work. Remember, by appreciating frequently and with purpose, your organization can enjoy many of the long-term benefits of employee appreciation and recognition.
Don’t be afraid to try new ideas—even if your employee recognition program automates the majority of your recognition experiences—mix it up, keep trying new things to keep appreciation fresh. You can gauge the success of each new effort by measuring your employees’ feelings via engagement surveys or keeping tabs on your employee net promoter score.
Whatever you do, keep on appreciating. Because celebrating great work together is the key to a healthy and thriving corporate culture.
12021 O.C. Tanner Global Culture Report
2O.C. Tanner Whitepaper “5 HR Challenges and 5 Ways Recognition Can Help.”
32019 O.C. Tanner Global Culture Report
4Cutting Recognition Takes a Toll
5Years of Service Awards Guide
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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