What Happens to Employee Recognition When Your Team Goes Remote?

When you’re a few desks down, congratulating a colleague for a job well done is as easy as walking a couple steps and saying “nice job!” Congratulating that colleague looks a little different when a few feet becomes a few miles (or more) between remote employees.

That’s the situation many teams find themselves in today as a result of COVID-19 and the protective social distancing measures it’s brought with it. In this newly remote situation, normally embedded social norms have disappeared — things like walking to your colleague’s desk, for example.

Small as they may seem, the cumulative impact of these little gestures of recognition affects your team’s morale, focus, productivity, and more. That means you need to find ways to achieve the same outcomes in more innovative ways when your team starts working remotely.

The recommendations shared in this article are inspired by the workforce’s recent shift en masse to remote work due to COVID-19, but the best practices are not crisis-specific. These strategies for how to practice effective virtual employee recognition are applicable in any situation involving remote work.

Why Employee Recognition Matters

In general, employee recognition is a highly recommended management practice because it comes with a slew of associated benefits. Before delving into the best practices for virtual employee recognition, we’ll share some of the most compelling reasons for companies to be intentional about making sure their team members feel appreciated:

Keep in mind, these are benefits that arise during normal times. Add on the fact that many employees find themselves unexpectedly in the throes of remote work and regular recognition becomes a practice that not only adds value to your organization, but mitigates loss.

The low morale, struggle to focus, and feelings of isolation all known to be associated with remote work can also be combated by employee recognition. That means now more than ever it’s critical to make sure your program is effective. Here are 5 of the most effective strategies for effective virtual recognition that you should keep in mind as you adjust to this new situation.

5 Strategies for Effective Virtual Employee Recognition

1. Keep It Simple

Because COVID-19 has thrown the world on its head, you can count on the fact that your team is dealing with all manner of disruptions to their day-to-day routine.

Whether it’s learning to balance a suddenly integrated family and work-life or adopting new precautionary procedures due to the threats associated with COVID-19, employees are probably near the limit in terms of patience and cognitive capacity.

If you implement an employee recognition program that feels like one more thing to keep track of in the never-ending list of changes employees must juggle, it might be received less than warmly. On the flip side, if you design your program right, it can be a fantastic tool for actually recognizing all that extra work they’re doing now — not an addition to it.

The key here is to make sure that sending recognition is no harder than writing a text or tweeting a tweet. To make this possible, you’ll need the right platform.

Look for something with plenty of room for customization and granular analytics on the backend, with a clear cut, easy-to-use UI. Not only will your employees have the best attitude about the program if you do this, it also makes them more inclined to participate meaning you get the most value out of what you invested in the program.

2. Have Managers Take the Lead

Newly remote employees tend to develop a sometimes unhealthy focus on proving their productivity under the adjusted circumstances — and even more so now that companies are enduring mass layoffs.

As a result, it’s possible an employee recognition program could be perceived as trivial, and might be mentally bucketed into the category of ‘things that distract from real work.’

Of course, this is a misconception—recognition takes hardly any time at all, and the benefits it brings make it far from a detriment to your company. So how do you send the message to employees that your recognition program is more than just a nice-to-have in a way that inspires them to participate? Have senior executives lead by example.

Whether you’re launching your employee recognition program for the first time or revamping it to keep your team engaged through COVID-19, you should encourage managers to take the lead.

Make it easy by setting up custom recognition occasions and eliminating manual tracking. If senior executives regularly recognize their peers, other employees will soon follow suit.

3. Recognize Regularly

For recognition to be maximally effective, it can’t be an every-now-and-then kind of thing. That’s the cultural equivalent of lifting weights once or twice a month and expecting to see significant changes to your fitness. In both cases, minimal effort delivers minimal returns.

The point of supporting employee recognition at a time like this is to keep company culture alive through genuine moments of peer-to-peer appreciation, delivered virtually.

The practice literally has the potential to revolutionize your team’s day-to-day working experience, but in order to exercise its impact at scale it needs to happen regularly. 

The standard recommendation is one recognition per employee per month. This keeps your recognition feed active enough for employees to stay engaged, and helps everyone feel included without setting unrealistic expectations around the frequency of recognition.

Once again, having a streamlined platform and executives who lead by example is critical to hitting this benchmark successfully.

4. Get (Virtual) Face Time

In-person face time might no longer be an option but that doesn’t mean you can’t get any face time at all. Most of these recommendations are centered around ways to practice employee recognition via a publicly accessible online feed, but your program will be most powerful if it’s punctuated with periods of face-to-face appreciation.

As long as the world continues to social distance, this will (of course) have to happen through screens, but even so, letting employees hear their colleagues clapping for them and see their smiling faces can lead to a significant spike in morale.

You can bring this recommendation to life by scheduling a virtual awards ceremony, or create a weekly tradition where outstanding performers get shoutouts from their peers.

It doesn’t even need to be its own separate meeting — face-to-face recognition can also be a practice you tack on to something in an existing recurring meeting, like monthly team check-ins. It only takes a couple minutes, but will elevate your recognition program by reminding employees that their colleagues are more than usernames and slack statuses.

5. Tie It Back to Your Culture

Finally, recall that a major goal of launching or revamping an employee recognition program at a time like this is to ease feelings of loss that employees might experience as a result of not coming into the office.

Although your company culture might have been alive and well in-person, it’s more challenging to inspire the same feeling when everyone is in a different location — but that doesn’t mean you can’t inspire it at all.

An employee recognition program that ties back to company core values is one of the best ways to do this. Your core values are (or should be) the central tenets of your company culture. As you adjust to remote work, be sure to recognize employees who continue to live up to them even in a virtual context.

For example, say you have a core value of transparency and one employee readily admits to a challenge they recently struggled with. You should recognize them for this show of transparency. This communicates that even when you aren’t in the same office, your company culture and the values that define it persist.

Look for an employee recognition program that allows you to set custom recognition occasions, and set one for each core value your company has. This way, you make it easy for employees to keep core values top of mind whenever they recognize a colleague, which in turn furthers the objective of keeping culture alive virtually.

Final Thoughts

Implementing these strategies is more than a short-term investment; they’re best practices for a flexible workplace that will continue to serve your company long after the peak of the pandemic has passed.

These are high-level best practices that you should keep in mind for an employee recognition program under any circumstances — they’re just especially important now, as employees need active, intentional recognition more than ever. Follow these recommendations and you’ll set your company down the path to having a powerful, cohesive culture that transcends physical distance.

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