Recognition is a key element of a post-COVID-19 employee engagement strategy.
By Marta Chmielowicz
With a dispersed workforce that operates at government facilities across the U.S., IT company T-Rex Solutions LLC already had the building blocks in place to manage remote workers before the advent of the coronavirus pandemic. But the crisis is putting massive strain on even the most prepared organizations. In fact, mental health provider Ginger reports that 69 percent of workers say this has been the most stressful time of their entire professional career, and 88 percent have experienced moderate to extreme stress over the past four to six weeks. For 62 percent, productivity has suffered as a result.
In the midst of so much uncertainty, employee recognition has emerged as one of T-Rex Solutions’ key organizational priorities.
“Currently, organizations are facing challenges from COVID-19 that are either new or gaining negative energy momentum,” says Judd Weisgal, senior vice president of sales at Madison. “These challenges include isolation, uncertainty, and invisibility. A social recognition platform can help with all three, and while not a cure-all, it is absolutely a fundamental building block toward combating these challenges.”
Jennifer Reimert, vice president of solutions consulting at Workhuman, says that an effective employee recognition strategy can help drive connection, facilitate a sense of belonging, improve engagement, and foster trust across leadership and teams. This can strengthen company culture while modeling desired values and behaviors.
From peer-to-peer recognition to service awards and spot bonuses, T-Rex Solutions’ award platform delivers recognition that does this and more while supporting employee well-being and work-life balance. A coronavirus-era substitute for water cooler talk, the company’s program keeps employees connected and engaged in the time of social distancing.
Winning with Wellness
In this difficult time, it can be easy for employees to fall into a pattern of loneliness and isolation—but being recognized for successes and showing gratitude to others can combat this negativity. Rewards and recognitions that are timely and flow freely can have a profound impact on morale, culture, and ultimately, productivity.
“Being shown gratitude makes people feel like they are part of the meaning and purpose of whatever their team is working on,” says Reimert. “That helps move the culture towards one that’s more positive and based on appreciation. When that happens really well, engagement goes up, and employees work harder for you and use more discretionary effort to feel that they’re contributing. That builds trust, which enables you to talk more openly about the real issues at work. People will bring their best ideas forward without feeling penalized or afraid. People will unleash this creativity. You have to lean into the trust and not be afraid.”
Since the start of the pandemic, T-Rex Solutions’ recognition program has evolved from focusing primarily on achievements to supporting employee well-being more holistically. According to Valerie Utsey, the company’s CHRO, “Work-life balance has been the biggest challenge. Luckily for us, we haven’t had to lay off anyone so the level of work is still there, but trying to balance that with homeschooling, childcare, and adult care has become more of a challenge for our employees. We’ve implemented recognitions that help support some of that.”
In addition to traditional acknowledgements from managers and coworkers, the company’s new strategies to support mental health during this crisis include:
- delivering lunches to individuals in need or those struggling to balance the responsibilities of work and home;
- organizing a virtual women’s group for employees to share their experiences, ideas, appreciation, and recommendations;
- offering a $25 reward to Bingo winners during informational company meetings; and
- sending surprise morale backers and trinket items to individuals who go the extra mile.
T-Rex Solutions is also planning to offer an online experience platform that houses fitness classes, art classes, and other fun extracurricular activities in place of its annual summer employee appreciation event, encouraging employees to seek fulfillment outside of work.
Business outcomes at T-Rex Solutions have improved as a result of these initiatives. “The crisis has allowed leaders to see the importance of employee well-being, and with that we’ve had an increase in productivity,” says Utsey. “Productivity has gone up as a result of employees feeling connected and committed, and that’s through some of the changes we’ve made to our recognition program.”
How can companies design an employee recognition program that delivers such positive results?
1. Engage leadership to communicate the importance of rewards. A strong recognition program starts at the top, with senior leaders who are willing to beat the drum and say it matters.
“You want to empower people and let them know that you’re going to be on the lookout for positive behaviors, you’re going to be measuring, and you’re asking leaders who report to you to let you know when the good is happening and when the behaviors are being modeled,” Reimert says. “Senior leaders have to be exhibiting and modeling that behavior because then it gives people permission to do it.”
At T-Rex Solutions, recognition often comes directly from the leadership team. Shortly after the pandemic started, Utsey says senior leaders began making phone calls to check in with every individual employee and express their appreciation—a practice that has continued until today. Employees are also recognized for their good work by leaders a level higher than their managers in what Utsey calls “skip level thank yous.”
This level of individual attention from the leadership team has greatly increased employee engagement at the company. In fact, the number of employees participating in all-hands meetings and corporate meetings has increased by 50 percent since the pandemic began.
But while engaging leadership is important, Reimert emphasizes that recognition programs shouldn’t only be spearheaded by the most senior leaders—they need to become a part of the culture among people of influence at the company.
“When a company is first starting up their recognition program, we suggest they find ambassadors,” she explains. “These are people of influence who others look to, and sometimes they’re people in natural leadership roles. Maybe they’ve been at the organization for a long time or they’re someone warm who everybody naturally gravitates to. You find connectors in your organization and they start to model that behavior and then people will follow what they do.”
Managers are also an essential piece of the puzzle, with a study from Gallup reporting that 70 percent of the variance between highly and lowly engaged workplaces results from management practices. Roy Saunderson, chief learning officer at Engage2Excel, says that senior leaders need to set the expectation of one-on-one phone or video meetings between managers and their direct reports, where managers can open up a two-way dialogue about successes, growth points, and needed areas of support.
He also recommends that managers be given the education and resources to make recognition more meaningful, whether it’s through online courses and webinars, practical “how-to” articles, or checklists to guide their behavior.
T-Rex Solutions engages managers in its recognition program by offering weekly rewards for high-performing teams. “We do a weekly manager meeting where managers talk about successes that their team has had in the past week, and senior leaders choose one or two that they resonate with. If a team had a really big deliverable, they get chosen for a reward,” says Utsey.
By showing appreciation to their teams, managers can actually learn to lead more effectively. According to Reimert, recognition gives leaders deeper insight into their team’s good work without requiring micromanagement. This is especially important in a remote world where managers cannot not see everything that their teams are doing.
2. Encourage social recognition. While feedback from leaders and managers is critical, a recognition program cannot gain momentum without peer-to-peer social recognition.
“COVID-19 has changed the working landscape and many think this will be the new normal or at least some facet of it. There will be more people working remotely in our environment than ever before and for longer periods. This changes how we utilize rewards and recognition. The focus is shifting from in-person events to virtual peer-to-peer and social recognition. Companies need tools in place to execute on these new focuses,” says Scott Russell, director of engagement strategies at C. A. Short Company.
Recognition programs can only help organizations through this difficult period if the entire workforce is on board, genuinely valuing the contributions each person is making. Social recognition enables this appreciation by allowing everyone in the organization to offer praise anytime and anywhere.
While employees could traditionally express their appreciation in person by walking over to a coworker’s cubicle, Utsey says that her team at T-Rex Solutions has come to rely on virtual solutions that broadcast recognition on a live Facebook feed visible to the entire organization. From expressing appreciation in video chats to leveraging Yammer to communicate across the organization, communication tools have become the company’s new water cooler.
“While I will always tell you that nothing beats a handwritten note, in times like these, fast and present electronic recognition runs a close second in my book,” says Russell. “Leaders need simplicity in this crisis, so your tools have to be easy to manipulate and seamless to utilize.”
Web-based communication tools like Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Skype, and even Words with Friends can ensure that recognition is delivered frequently without being a hassle to the workforce. According to Weisgal, audio, video, push notifications, and social streams only enhance the utilization of these tools.
Formal recognition platforms can also enhance a program, providing a one-stop-shop for all recognition-related activity. “The remote workplace is inundated with collaboration and communication tools as teams work together to complete projects and remain connected,” says Dr. Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at Achievers. “But when a project reaches the finish line, employees cannot simply high-five each other in the break room or walk up to peers and offer on-the-spot recognition in-person. That’s why the ability to have an always-on tool that automates and streamlines the entire recognition and rewards process for employees is so vital.”
Weisgal says that these platforms can reinforce top-down messaging and goal setting, driving communication that will fend off uncertainty and create positive momentum.
3. Recognize more than achievements. At a moment when news cycles are dominated by overwhelming negativity, recognition can keep employees feeling motivated at work.
Russell says that organizations can maintain a culture of appreciation by focusing on the positive and making employees feel responsible for their company’s success. “Provide positive reinforcement to your employees,” he says. “Share the good news about your company and how the efforts of your employees keep the wheels spinning and the revenue coming in the door. Put the focus on the positive and stay engaged with your workforce. People are hungry for some sense of normality and community, so you have to give them what they need in new and innovative ways.”
Sharing employees’ milestones and successes outside the workplace can also foster a stronger sense of connection across the workforce. HR leaders should ensure that they celebrate things like:
- major life events, including having babies, getting married, finishing advanced degrees, adopting pets, and buying homes;
- service milestones and work anniversaries that encourage employees to share heartfelt moments of working together;
- birthday celebrations; and
- small wins when employees achieve a goal.
“Other things to keep in mind are using eCards and continuing to celebrate career milestones,” says Saunderson. “Receiving an eCard from someone can lift people’s spirits more now than ever before. Make the time to utilize these simple yet very impactful messages from your recognition program to a give a deserving employee acknowledgment. When possible, celebrate milestones and accomplishments using video conferencing technology or by sending video recorded greetings from leaders and peers. Get creative in making your celebrations special even when apart.”
All of this will build trust and a sense of community which will ultimately strengthen the organization. Weisgal says that when done in a thoughtful and strategic manner, an employee recognition program will lead to better retention, higher engagement, and above and beyond performance that is easily seen and measured.