4 Ways to Evolve Your Employee Recognition Program After Challenging Times

Headshot of HR leader smiling

As the workplace continues to redefine the new normal, you may be re-evaluating a few of your employee engagement initiatives. At a time where budgets may be tight and company financial performance can be uncertain, you might be tempted to cut back on employee recognition.


Employee recognition has a positive impact on workplace culture in the best of times, and that effect is multiplied during challenging times. At the height of the pandemic, employees that were recognized in the prior 7 days were 103% more likely to feel supported by the organization and 59% more likely to trust their leader. There was also a 47% increase in employee engagement and innovation (it’s worth noting the impact of recognition was stronger during the pandemic than during pre-pandemic times).

But when formal employee recognition is not present (whether it was never offered or was put on hold during the pandemic) employees were 23% less likely to feel supported by the organization and were twice as fearful of COVID-19. Organizations without a formal recognition program also had a 48% decrease in engagement and 20% higher intent to leave.

Recognition is more important than ever in times of crisis. So what adjustments should you make to your recognition program as the workplace evolves?

1) Move beyond transactional recognition activities.

Right now, employees crave connection and human interaction. Activities like handing out gift cards, bringing in treats for the whole department, or going out to lunch as a team aren’t as easy to do as they were before. And while they are certainly nice for employee morale, they don’t always adequately demonstrate that leaders value the unique role and contribution of each individual employee.

Recognition can’t be a check-the-box exercise for leaders. Nor can it involve only automated rewards without any personal touch or presentation. Recognition needs to be a thoughtful, sincere, and consistent part of the employee experience, especially when there is uncertainty in the workplace.

Only 32% of employees say the recognition they receive is sincere and meaningful (2019 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner)

When recognition feels like a transaction and is not seen as a priority, 68% of employees are more likely to feel the recognition they receive is an empty gesture. And 49% of employees report that they use their company’s recognition program as compensation, rather than recognition. So, move beyond transactional recognition activities with expected rewards and start providing recognition experiences that are personal, specific to the individual, and show appreciation in a meaningful way.


2) Create memorable, meaningful, personalized recognition moments.

Timing-wise, recognition should be given as soon after the accomplishment as possible, even if we are all working apart. Don’t wait to celebrate when everyone is back in the office—there’s a 71% decrease in feeling appreciated when praise or recognition is not given after an employee gives extra effort or accomplishes something great. Have virtual celebrations, or small, short gatherings at work where everyone is keeping social distance safely. Use fun virtual backgrounds, and mail awards, treats, or gifts to the recipient’s home.

70% of employees say recognition is most meaningful to them when it is personalized. However, that doesn’t always happen, as only 1/2 of employees believe their leader understands how they want to be recognized, and 1/3 of employees say the way they receive recognition makes them feel uncomfortable. Here are some ways to make recognition more meaningful and personal:


- To celebrate achievements or extra effort, recognize employees in front of their teams. Speak in detail about how their work has impacted their team and the organization. Employees want their stories to be told and want their peers and leaders to see what they’ve accomplished. Awards like gifts, gift cards, or symbolic awards for major accomplishments are meaningful.

- When celebrating service anniversaries (or years of service), be sure to provide meaningful awards that reflect your company’s culture and history and hold a celebration of the employee’s career with their teams and leaders. Be sure to highlight the individual’s accomplishments over the course of their career and show why their work matters. Connect their work to your organization’s purpose and impact on customers.      


Recognition’s effect is amplified when it’s shared and public, especially when people have been separated. Share stories of what employees have done, invite peers to comment, and leverage technology to spotlight your people both internally and externally.

“Distance can’t erode connection.” – Karl Frunz, Training Consultant-Recognition Lead, Puget Sound Energy

3) Shift the focus to authentic gratitude and connection.

As employees are adapting to changes in their work environments, recognition may need to shift from recognizing tangible results to appreciating intangible contributions like extra effort, creativity, innovation, collaboration, supporting a team member, juggling multiple responsibilities, etc. Focus recognition efforts on helping employees feel seen and valued while connecting employees to 3 things: purpose, accomplishment, and one another.

How did the employee make a difference in the lives of your customers, team members, or organization? Why are you thankful for your people? What have they done to make your organization better? Encourage leaders to take a moment each day, even if it’s short, to connect with their people and share their gratitude.

Invite clients and customers to show appreciation. Nearly 3 out of 4 employees feel their work experience is enriched when a customer shows their appreciation, and 2 out of 3 employees said they would put in more effort if customers showed appreciation for the work they do.

4) Make recognition a renewed priority.

Recognition can be forgotten during times of crisis. Communication, changing work environments and business models, financial worries, or taking care of clients often take top priority during challenging times. But as we come out of crisis, it’s important to move appreciation up the list. Remind leaders that recognition is needed right now.

Add showing appreciation to the top of the agenda in calls or meetings or build recognition moments into in daily huddles. Remind senior leaders to model recognition and managers to give it when they see great work happening. Send regular email reminders to your people to recognize one another. Even if it’s not a major award, small acts of appreciation provide a way for leaders to check in with their people often.

Make recognition a part of your culture. Only 16% of organizations have successfully integrated recognition into their company culture, and only 52% say their leaders acknowledge great work. But companies that have integrated employee recognition into their workplace cultures are:


4X more likely to have highly engaged employees

2X more likely to have increased in revenue over the past year

73% less likely to have layoffs over the past year

44% less likely to have employees suffering from burnout

3X more likely to have an extraordinary employee experience

“Recognition and appreciation are really an opportunity to show your employees they are seen, they are heard, and they are valued. It’s important to understand the value that each of your individual employees is bringing to the table and appreciate who they are as a person, both the impact they make and the character traits that contribute to the diversity and success of your teams.” —Samantha Elliot, Total Rewards Programs Lead, BASF

Need help with your recognition program while the workplace rapidly evolves? Find a partner to help you create a meaningful, impactful recognition solution that’s easy to manage and fun for your people.  

Recognition doesn’t have to cost a lot or be a complicated. Simple expressions of gratitude and moments of connection can help your people thrive, even in the most uncertain times.

Read more ways companies are adapting recognition during evolving times.