Employee Recognition’s New Normal

Headshot of HR leader smiling

As you are transitioning to the “new normal” in the workplace, you are likely reevaluating every aspect of the employee experience. This should include how to appreciate your people.

Recognition can be an incredibly powerful tool to help employees through times of crisis. During the pandemic, when employees were recognized in the past 7 days, they were 103% more likely to feel supported by the organization and 59% more likely to trust their leader. When employees were not recognized, they were 23% less likely to feel supported by the organization and 2x more fearful of COVID-19.

Even before the world had to completely change workspaces, only 32% of employees felt the recognition they received was sincere and meaningful and 40% of employees felt the recognition they received was an empty gesture. Most recognition experiences were mediocre at best before the pandemic, but with remote work and social distancing, there are now more barriers to creating great recognition experiences.

As the world slowly adapts to a “new normal”, what is employee recognition’s new normal?

Recognition is about seeing people.

Since their inception, employee recognition programs have handed out rewards for specific results, accomplishments, and behaviors. But over time employee recognition has become more and more programmatic, moving away from conveying true appreciation.

Employee recognition is not a program; it’s not just about the rewards. Brené Brown speaks about the importance of seeing, hearing, and valuing people. This notion also applies well to recognition. True recognition is about seeing, hearing and valuing people.

Think about the best recognition experience you’ve ever had. Chances are what you remember most is what people said, the stories they told, and how they made you feel.

Recognition programs can facilitate great recognition experiences. They enable consistent recognition, provide awards in a standard and easy way, showcase accomplishments to others, and track and report what recognition is happening across an organization. They are tools to track budgets, enable training, and remind people to give recognition. But the programs themselves cannot be the only part of the recognition experience.

Changing the language.

It’s time to change how we talk about people at work. “Employees are our most important asset” has been a popular catchphrase, and while true, it conveys a company, or top-down, perspective. While it acknowledges that employees are important, it also positions them as a tool an organization uses to get work done.

Consider a different phrase: “People are critical to our success.” This better encapsulates the feeling that employees are people and they are important to an organization. They are critical not just to productivity, but in helping the company be successful.


During COVID times, employees were suddenly classified as “essential” and “non-essential” workers and subject to different work experiences, which only furthered the divide between front-line and non-frontline workers. Non-essential employees still felt stressed at work and were left wondering: if I’m not essential, am I still important? Am I seen? Am I valued?

It’s also time to change how we talk about recognition. Things like giving out gift cards or bringing in meals and treats are wonderful ways to help lift spirits and morale, but don’t always show that the manager truly knows and cares for each person in their team. Many managers see recognition as an activity or task that needs to be done, but employees view it as a point of connection, which unfortunately is often missed.

The best recognition experiences connect employees: to purpose, accomplishment, and one another.

Recognition as an experience, not a transaction.

Too often, recognition is a transaction rather than a meaningful experience. Most of the time, rewards are automatically given to employees in exchange for great work, with no personal touch or presentation, and an opportunity is missed to create a peak, meaningful, memorable moment.

When recognition is a transaction and not seen as a priority, 68% of employees are more likely to feel the recognition they receive is an empty gesture. Going through the motions to give people something is not enough. The recognition we give needs to demonstrate that we appreciate and see people; not just the work they do, but their unique value and contribution they provide to the company.

There also needs to be continued emphasis on creating a personal, meaningful, memorable recognition experience, especially as employees are working remote or social distancing at work. As many can no longer gather at work or go out for a meal together, more effort must be made to create personal experiences virtually or 6 feet apart.   


3 ways to move from transactional to meaningful employee recognition

To create impactful recognition experiences in this new normal, the focus needs to be more on connection and seeing employees when everyone is apart. This can be done through strengthening connections, creating more nurturing experiences, and incorporating storytelling:

1) Strengthen connections

Our days are filled with micro-experiences, daily interactions, and experiences. These may be positive or negative, but positive moments have a longer-lasting impact. Look for ways to provide more positive experiences and points of connection, especially as work experiences are still in flux. These don’t have to be grand gestures, but small moments of true connection.

Some ways to connect with your people:

Connect employee accomplishments to a bigger purpose. Show employees how they are furthering your organization’s purpose or making a difference for your customers, even with small efforts or accomplishments.

Build gratitude into existing interactions with employees. Put recognition on the agenda for meetings and huddles, and provide prompts in the flow of work to remind leaders and employees to recognize when they see great work happening.

Expand your recognition toolbox. Offer plenty of ways to recognize and have resources available to teach leaders and employees how to give recognition in an authentic (not overly programmatic) way.

Check in with employees often. Whether it’s through weekly one-to-ones or regular rounding, discuss what they are working on, what help they might need, and most importantly how they are doing.  

Regular one-to-one meetings are a powerful tool to stay connected with employees. Employees are 87% more likely to feel appreciated when they have biweekly or weekly one-to-ones. Organizations also see a 58% increase in engagement, 31% improvement in productivity, and 15% decrease in burnout when leaders hold regular one-to-one meetings.

Helping employees connect to purpose, legacy, and brand can give them a sense of stability, psychological safety, a place of belonging. This is particularly important during challenging times. It shows the work they are doing has purpose, and employees are 121% more motivated to do their best work when recognition is tied to organization’s purpose. —2019 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute

2) Create nurturing experiences to help support each individual

An important part of recognition is showing gratitude for employees and that you care about them as people. You can help nurture them by seeing the entire person and supporting their emotional and social wellbeing.

How can you create nurturing experiences to show employees you care and appreciate them?

Check in frequently. Don’t just ask about work, start with “how are you?”. Get a pulse on their wellbeing in addition to their workload.

Host discussions to support social and emotional wellbeing. Even better, develop a network of coaches to support remote work and provide tips to maintain wellbeing.

Mail care kits to employees’ homes. This can include treats, but also equipment or anything to make their space at home more conductive to work.

Send reliable communication daily.  Whether it’s informational, inspiring, or comforting, regular communication like a daily email provides a base level of reliability and security for employees. Ensure all communication, both from senior leaders and direct managers, is transparent and honest.

• Create virtual “water cooler” moments. These can be calls where there is no other purpose other than to get together, or meetings for employees to socialize and team-build.

Modern leaders foster a sense of nurturing well by not directing or being gatekeepers of work, but by mentoring, listening, and connecting their people to purpose, accomplishment, and one another. Organizations with modern leaders see:

• 57% reduction in burnout

• 66% increase in wellbeing

• 86% increase in incidence of great work

*2020 Global Culture Report    



3) Share workplace successes through storytelling.

Storytelling is powerful. It helps share successes and strengthens bonds as employees work together towards the same purpose. Who is telling your employees’ stories?

Spotlight your people internally and externally. Recognition’s effect is amplified when it’s shared and public.

Great ways to incorporate storytelling in your employee experience:

Create megaphone moments. These are times where you gather employees together and share major accomplishments or even just to express sincere gratitude.

Utilize storytellers. Deliberately recruit people who are great storytellers and arm them with tools to do it and ways to share.

Model recognition as a priority. It is particularly important for senior leaders to actively recognize employees and show it’s an important part of your workplace culture.

Create a gratitude wall, whether it’s virtual or a physical wall of notes. Or host a social media takeover where the entire day is dedicated to posting recognition and notes of gratitude.

Share recognition with the community or clients and connect it to a broader purpose. Employees love hearing how their work contributes to the greater good. Show how their work makes a difference by sharing it externally.

Recognition isn’t just about a program. It’s about your people. It’s about each of us connecting with, valuing, and seeing one another. Companies can take these steps to create a new, better normal for employee recognition, and help their people thrive.

Learn more about how to connect with and appreciate your people as we move to a new normal.

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