Traditionally, most organizations have used bonuses to demonstrate appreciation for their employees. However, as we enter the second year of the pandemic, companies are increasingly strapped for cash. What’s more, financial incentives don’t always have the intended effect.
One study found that bonuses based on merit had negative effects on morale because employees believed that the performance standards necessary to earn the incentive were impossible to achieve.
Bonuses also don’t necessarily have long-term impacts on morale.
“[While bonuses] can boost employee performance in the short-term, they do little to instill long-term commitment because they fail to foster enjoyment or interest in the job itself.
The essential element missing is a means of providing employees with the feeling that their contribution to the organization is valued,” Dr. Chia-Huei Wu, a professor at the London School of Economics, noted. Piers Steel, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, agreed, noting, “[Rewards] can be a big distraction as the goal is being pursued.
Instead of focusing on the task at hand, people may think too much about the reward, diverting their attention and sapping their motivation. It is often better to stop emphasizing the reward once the work has been initiated.”
So, what can managers do to boost their employees’ spirits without using bonuses or financial rewards?
According to a recent study published by Harvard Business Review, employees are motivated by symbolic awards including public recognition, certificates, and cards; this type of recognition can “significantly increase intrinsic motivation, performance, and retention rates.”
In the study, researchers sent out a letter of appreciation to half of employees in an office. The first sentence in the letter told the employee they were making a difference, while the second sentence was a personalized note written by their manager.
“One month after this simple intervention, the social workers who received a letter reported feeling significantly more valued, more recognized for their work, and more supported by their organization than those who didn’t receive a letter,” the researchers reported.
There are many benefits for managers to use symbolic awards with employees. However, you should follow three conditions for these awards to be the most meaningful:
- Employees should receive feedback from key stakeholders, like those influenced by their work or senior leaders.
- Daily feedback may feel overwhelming, so you may decide to send symbolic awards at meaningful times, like at the start of a quarter or after they complete a significant project.
- The award should be presented publicly. If the group can recognize a peer’s achievement, then they may also be motivated to do better. “Staff members who want to elevate their professional visibility will take absolute delight in a little public praise. Whether you send a mass email to the team, or make an announcement at a staff meeting, the pleasure gained from this reward will far outlast any gift card you could offer,” wrote career coach Chrissy Scivicque.
- The symbolic award should be individualized. A standard email sent to the whole team has less of an impact than a letter signed in ink.
If you’re ready to send symbolic awards to your team members, here are some of our favorite manageable ideas.
- Have press releases or articles about your employees framed. If a local magazine runs a story about your team member’s deal or promotion, frame the story and give it to them so they can hang it in their offices.
- Recognize an excelling team member by offering her a standing ovation in a staff meeting or a round of claps on Zoom.
- Give your employee your “corner office” for the day. This shows a “level of respect to them and not only shows that you recognize their achievement, but that you have the humility to give up your company hierarchy,” wrote Jeff Haden for Inc.
- Write a physical note to an employee who has accomplished something noteworthy and leave it on their desk or mail it to their home.
- Create a wall of fame where you add employees’ pictures and their standout achievements for all to see.
- As a silly yet meaningful form of recognition, create a trophy that is passed to a different employee every week for a particular achievement. Let them decorate the trophy before you pass it on to someone else the next week. After 52 weeks of passing it around, retire your decorated trophy to a prominent place in your office.
- Take your employees out for dinner after they complete a major deal or project. This way, you’re celebrating their hard work and showing your gratitude.
Using Symbolic Awards
The pandemic has depleted employees’ motivation like never before. They need praise and affirmation to encourage them to keep striving for success. Though financial bonuses demonstrate a company’s appreciation of its employees, symbolic awards can be more individualized and meaningful than what can feel like impersonal financial incentives.
Whether or not your company is strapped for cash, showing how you value your employees through symbolic awards can be just as incentivizing as financial rewards.
Addional Reading: 4 No-Cost Ways To Reward Your Staff