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21 creative & virtual employee recognition ideas

Jamie Bell

The non-stop conversation about the “Great Resignation” might have you absolutely terrified about attrition, but don’t worry—it’s time to take a deep breath.

While it’s certainly true (and it always will be) that a few members of your team might seek out greener pastures or something new, try not to focus entirely on the employees who are looking to leave. Instead, reframe your approach from last-minute retention grabs to an ongoing, encouraging cycle of employee recognition.

After all, the two things are deeply linked: out of 1,500 respondents in a recent SurveyMonkey report, 63% of those who were “always” or “usually” recognized said that they are “very unlikely” to job hunt in the next 3–6 months. (In contrast, only 11% of those who are “never” or “rarely” recognized would agree.)

And before you bust out a bulletin board or hit up a local trophy shop, here is a long list of creative ways you can recognize employees (with a strong emphasis on the virtual experience).

1.) Ask them to present at a company-wide or team-wide meeting.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve watched a department head or CEO present the work of a specific individual who deserved all the recognition in the world. If someone on your team put in a ton of work to lead a project or spearhead an initiative, give them the limelight (in person or over Zoom) to present their work and share that success story.

It’s a small but meaningful gesture (and it also keeps your meetings from being a single voice droning on and on). 🙂

2.) Create a system to give “kudos” to the employees who have gone above and beyond.

Yes, you can definitely buy software for this. Or, you can create a really simple nomination form/process (we’ve always used Typeform, to be honest).

You can either opt for a traditional “Employee of the Month” system (here’s a nomination form template you can use), or you can create and brand your own little recognition program. We built one at our previous company called “Fly Fives”; our form connected straight to Slack, so employees could see any time there was a new Fly Five nomination submitted. (This meant that they often got the public recognition in a few different formats: in Slack, in the company newsletter, and at a monthly all-hands meeting).

3.) Share a secondhand compliment.

This is one of my all-time favorite ways to recognize an employee. If someone Slacks you a little “job well done” on a particular project, or if your boss compliments the work of someone on your team, screenshot it/verbally share it with the person directly. It generates ALL the warm fuzzies in the world to hear that your work is being recognized through the grapevine and across the organization.

4.) Ask them how they prefer to receive recognition.

Getting to know your employees is key to knowing whether the recognition you’re giving is actually being received well. One way to get to the core of this is to ask questions in one-on-ones like:

  • What are you most proud of? What do you feel you contribute most to the team? (This way, you’ll know what they want to be recognized for.)
  • Do you feel valued and appreciated?
  • How can I do better in this area?
  • Do you have any recommendations on how the company can recognize hard-working employees more effectively?

To validate their contribution to the organization and to keep them engaged, it helps to understand what makes your team member specifically feel appreciated, not just what makes people feel appreciated in general. Some people don’t feel comfortable with public speaking, others may feel like gifts are a bit disingenuous, and still others may think the public recognition feels more like a performance.

Also, remember that people want to be recognized for more than just the big wins. Many team members contribute in ways that aren’t visibly tied to particular projects or company-wide successes. The time and effort they put in, the expertise that they share with the team, and the values they display are also worthy of appreciation.

5.) Include an employee spotlight in your company/department newsletter.

So easy! We include a section for an employee spotlight in our all-company newsletter template. Each month, we recommend combing through your nominations/lists of “kudos” and selecting one employee to highlight. In our case, we also have an easy-to-access folder of every employee’s headshots sitting right in our image library…so within about 60 seconds, that section is ready to go!

We create our employee newsletters in Workshop! This is a small section of our company newsletter template (which is included in our library).

6.) Celebrate anniversaries and birthdays!

While there may not be cake in the break room these days, there are still plenty of ways to celebrate special days virtually. For anniversaries, we recommend that every manager dedicates the first day of every month to writing personalized emails to any employee with an anniversary in that month.

Though Workshop is most frequently used for company- or department-wide communication, I’ve hacked it a bit to make celebrating employee anniversaries easier than ever. I made a template for this email that includes 1.) a place to link to a gift card, 2.) a place to add a photo from the year prior, and 3.) an email signature. Then, I can simply schedule these to go out to those employees on their anniversary, and it’ll all happen automatically! (Just don’t schedule it for a weekend.)

As for birthdays, you can do something really similar to make them feel extra special on the day of, or include a section in the first newsletter of each month.

7.) Mail a letter or small gift to their family.

This is an idea that Dusty swears by. If you want to absolutely make someone’s day and you know their family means a lot to them, send a letter of recognition or a small gift to their home by mail. This is especially great for 1.) onboarding, when you know they’ve made a major career move, or 2.) after a particularly grueling project, when they might have worked additional hours to get it done. Writing a note to their spouse/family to let them know that you recognize that it can also be difficult for them, too, and that their spouse is an invaluable asset to the team…well, that’s just extra thoughtful. 🙂

8.) Take a collective day off.

While an individual vacation day is always appreciated, it’s been reported that collective, company-wide days off are often better for combating burnout. This is because employees often feel like they have to check in or delegate additional work to other employees while they’re out; after all, the rest of the organization is still online and projects are still moving forward. By opting for a more global day off, your team can truly check out for the day and not worry about new emails or Slack messages.

If a full day off just isn’t feasible, then spontaneous late arrival or early departure days are always well-appreciated. For example: send a quick email on a sunny Friday that says, “It’s a beautiful afternoon. Go enjoy it!”

9.) Offer a budget for professional development opportunities.

Employees are eager to learn and grow, and you don’t have to offer a massive conference and travel budget to supply those opportunities these days. A small budget for your team to use to buy books (we’ve even run book clubs as a part of this!), take an online course, or attend a virtual conference can do wonders. You can also offer employees discounts on Skillshare or MasterClass to help them develop a huge variety of personal and professional skills.

10.) Just say thank you (seriously).

If you’re not saying “thank you” to your team members on a regular basis, you’re missing a huge, free, and easy opportunity to make them feel appreciated. A RewardGateway survey found that 70% of employees say that motivation and morale would improve “massively” with managers just saying thank you more.

11.) Donate to a charity of their choice.

While free lunches and gift boxes can be greatly appreciated, employees may prefer that you use those funds in other ways. Donating to a charity they’re passionate about in their honor can be a meaningful way to show you care about what they care about, and that you want to show support, as well.

There likely may be a special local charity drive (ours is Omaha Gives); we took our planned donations for the year and had each employee select two organizations to donate $50/each to.

If you offer client services, you can also put together a program where staff members select a non-profit for the organization to work with for free.

12.) Ship them something special.

This is probably the most common idea cited for employee recognition, although most will tell you that ‘care packages’ or gift boxes is the way to go. Truthfully, though, you want to ship them something that’s relevant to them…and it’ll feel more meaningful if 1.) it’s something you know they love, or 2.) if it’s been created uniquely for employees of the company.

A branded swag box to kick off the new year can do the trick, or send them a box of their favorite coffee, snack, wine, etc. (We include a survey as a part of onboarding where we get each team member’s t-shirt size, their favorite food/snack, beverage of choice, etc. and then reference that when we need ideas!)

13.) Create an all-company awards show.

At our previous company, we hosted an Oscar-style awards show every year in replacement of our company holiday party. It was an event we all looked forward to every single year (and everyone had a plus one, too!) and we celebrated MVPs of each department, the entire company as a whole, and a few whimsical additional awards here and there. 🙂

14.) Invite them to shadow (or replace you) at a meeting.

Bring an employee along to a leadership meeting that they typically wouldn’t attend, or have them replace you if you can’t make it and report back afterwards.

15.) Celebrate great employee referrals.

Openly recognize employees who have suggested a great candidate. You can do this with a referral bonus/budget, or just with a thank you note or an announcement and thank you at a department or company meeting.

16.) Encourage them to start a community or champion a cause within the organization.

If a team member is particularly passionate about a hobby or cause, encourage them to create a community for it within the organization. The possibilities for this are pretty endless: a running club, a book club, a women’s leadership group, a new ERG, mini Friday “TEDTalks,” you name it.

17.) Offer family-friendly activities after hours.

A lot of employee recognition events center around happy hours or team dinners. While those are almost always a good time, offering more family-friendly activities (like a campfire after work, a Sunday picnic, a family movie night in the breakroom, etc.) can be a really fun way to switch things up and help promote a better attitude towards work-life balance.

18.) Create a unique virtual experience (not just a Zoom happy hour)

We’ve gotten a lot of feedback that a standard virtual happy hour over Zoom can be more draining than motivating. Find a way to offer unique value to your team. We’ve worked with companies who have offered things like sommelier-guided wine tastings, chef-led cooking classes, artist-led painting workshops, pilates, meditation exercises, and more. It’s a great way to bring people together (after all, experiences are a great way to create memories and connections) and remind your team that it’s about having fun and working together.

19.) Give them a shoutout on LinkedIn or Twitter.

When a new project is launched, one way to immediately recognize your employees is by giving them a quick shoutout on LinkedIn or Twitter. It can come from the company account, but it’s often more meaningful for them to see their direct manager or another leader on the team doing the celebration. You don’t have to wait for the next all-hands meeting; all it takes is a quick post, and you can easily highlight the successes that are happening in your office every day.

You can also write them a LinkedIn recommendation (I tend to do this any time I leave the organization, for all of the people I enjoyed working with, and/or if I know someone who is actively searching for a role).

20.) Recognize their personal achievements and milestones outside of the workplace.

As another way to recognize work-life balance, be sure to celebrate your team members’ personal lives, as well! If they got engaged, married, had a new baby, etc., be sure to celebrate that publicly. You can also celebrate their hobbies and activities (like running a marathon, playing in a new band, or winning a kids’ soccer tournament).

21.) Give them more opportunities to lead and grow.

According to Deloitte’s Employee Recognition Study, a new growth opportunity is the most valued type of recognition. Other forms of recognition—salary increases, high-performance ratings and bonuses—were far less popular, selected by 23%, 21% and 10% respectively.

Simply stated, if an employee does a really incredible job, volley that into a new opportunity for them. It doesn’t have to be a promotion, either: have them run a meeting, lead a bigger project, outline a major strategy, or speak in front of the company.


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