Managers often mistakenly believe that employees know they’re appreciated. They may think to offer praise only when employees go above and beyond their job descriptions. Yet appreciation these days is more critical than ever because the pandemic has everyone re-evaluating what is truly important.
"Recognition is such a core human need,” says Lindsay Lagreid, senior advisor at Limeade Institute in Bellevue, Wash. “And it’s more important than ever because recognition connects to our deep psychological need to feel that we matter and we are valued.”
Many experts believe appreciation will become increasingly important. The wide acceptance of remote work has created a workforce that can work from anywhere, opening up new job opportunities that will test employee loyalty.
“What was once a global economy is now a global workforce,” says Todd Saffell, manager of HR and payroll at Control Installations of Iowa Inc., in Des Moines. “The ability to work from anywhere existed before COVID, but the legacy was you went into the office. Now it’s very common to work from somewhere else. If I’m not being given the opportunity to grow, advance and learn, I can go somewhere else.”
Shane Metcalf, chief culture officer at software company 15Five in San Francisco, agrees that meaningful recognition has become even more essential this year. “If we’re working somewhere that we don’t feel genuinely appreciated for our contributions, we’re out the door,” he says.
And while free food and swag are nice, they don’t necessarily translate to employee engagement. “Employees don’t stay engaged because of Taco Tuesday, nice swag, a pingpong table in the break room or early-release Friday,” Saffell says.
Here are five meaningful ways to show appreciation for your employees.
Assign Work That Matters
Managers and HR professionals need to help employees understand how their roles fit into the company’s larger mission and what opportunities will be available for advancement and career development, Saffell says. Then they need to make sure those opportunities match up with employees’ career goals.
There may be no greater way to show employees appreciation than to lay out their career path. It’s as simple as saying to them, “You’re starting out in quality control. Here’s what we’ll train you to do next, and here’s what that role will look like. After a year, we’ll train you to do this, and here’s what your next role will look like, and so on,” Saffell says.
Commending employees for their strengths and talents and encouraging them to leverage those attributes at work is a powerful way to recognize someone, Lagreid says. Often, managers think about projects employees can do outside their core job, but a better option might be to focus on giving employees opportunities to demonstrate their strengths within the job they currently perform.
For instance, Lagreid suggests, ask an employee who enjoys creative work to design a layout and cover for a report the department is writing and explain, “I want you to do work on this because you have a creative mind.”
Offer a Personal Thank-You
Don’t underestimate the power of a handwritten thank-you note, particularly if it comes from the CEO.
“Employees love to know that the people at the top of the organization appreciate what they do,” says Danna Hewick, SHRM-SCP, vice president of human resources for USSI, a Bethesda, Md.-based cleaning and janitorial services company. Receiving a handwritten note from the CEO indicates that either the top executive noticed something the employee did or the manager made a point of telling him or her about it, she says.
However, it’s essential that the note is personalized—not a form letter—and mentions specifics about the employee and his or her success, says Lisa Chui, director of human resources at Cheetah Technologies Inc., which supplies food to mom-and-pop restaurants in San Francisco. If the CEO isn’t available to write a note, managers can say thank you by penning their own handwritten notes, sending e-cards, or phoning the employee to congratulate him or her on a job well done.
“It’s a nice surprise for the employee to open their e-mail and not have another task but instead a thank-you,” says Alexis Daur, global head of human resources at ISS, a financial services firm in New York City.
Employees at the Marion Area Counseling Center in Marion, Ohio, were pleasantly surprised to receive handwritten birthday cards in the mail from their managers, says HR manager Jessica Geyer.
Give PTO—and Permission to Use It
Because many employees put off using their paid time off (PTO) last year, managers might consider working with the HR department to allow employees to roll over unused vacation time, says Natalie Stute, chief human resources officer at Gainwell Technologies in Washington, D.C.
Companies concerned about having to pay out unused vacation time to someone who leaves the organization this year can address the issue by adding a new policy to the employee handbook, according to Rachel Alansky, founder of Seamless HR Solutions in Arlington, Va. Such a statement might read, “Due to the pandemic, we are allowing each employee an additional 40 hours of leave. However, if an employee leaves the company in 2021, those additional hours will not be part of the vacation payout.”
Extra PTO is meaningful only if managers give their employees permission to use it, Stute notes.
Alansky recommends telling employees who are taking time off, “Please turn off your computer. We will let the staff know you will be out.”
Offer Respite from the Day-to-Day Schedule
Back-to-back virtual meetings are tough on employees, so at Ephesoft Inc., a digital document processing company headquartered in Irvine, Calif., Wednesday afternoons are meeting-free to give employees a break from being “on,” says Heather Dilley, senior vice president of culture and people.
The company also has been offering “surprise” days off, extending three-day holiday weekends into four-day breaks by giving staff the Friday before the holiday off.
“We realize people are working different hours and there is real fatigue,” Dilley says. “It was an amazing boost to our staff that we recognized this.”
Listen to Employees’ Concerns
Letting employees know their manager cares about them, especially since many employees have been working from home for a year, is more important than company swag or free food. “We need to be more thoughtful around what it means to work from home and what productivity tools are needed,” says Adam Segal, CEO of Cove, a Washington, D.C.-based software company that enables telecommuting.
Remote working is likely to continue even after companies invite employees back to the office. As that transition to the workplace happens, it’s important to listen to workers and their concerns, USSI’s Hewick says.
Some employees might not be comfortable returning to an office. Others might need to arrange their work schedule to accommodate the needs of children who are doing online learning at home.
“Working with employees on their schedule and needs is a huge way to show appreciation,” Hewick says. “People like money, but you do more to show employees you appreciate them if you’re consistent on a day-to-day basis, rather than providing a one-time thing.”
Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.