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You’ve surely been on the receiving end of one of those mass emails praising a team or the entire company on a job well done. While well intentioned, the message comes off as basically: Thank you for working. 

How can we do better?

This holiday season, with its odd 2020 rituals of Zoom cocktails and virtual ugly sweater contests, represents an opportunity to more sincerely and meaningfully express gratitude and appreciation toward employees—and to make it a year-round practice. Some gestures that stand out: 

  • Personalized, specific notes on how a contribution made a difference. 
  • Kudos or compliment boards that the entire team or staff can see and contribute to, filled with high fives and lavish praise.
  • Real-time feedback to employees commending how they handled a specific project or situation. 
  • Gifts that show a manager really knows an employee. 
  • Replacing gifts with donations to charity or organizations aligned with the values of the company.
  • Connecting an employee’s behavior to how it aligns with the company’s culture and values
  • More trust and flexibility on work schedules, perks such as prime parking spots and benefits such as childcare and elder care. 

When asked about gratitude that was meaningful and memorable, it’s rarely about fancy gifts but the sincerity with which it was delivered. 

“The best ‘thank you’ I received was a Slack message after a difficult conversation,” said Fabienne Lauture, who works in human resources for a tech company. “An executive reached out to say thank you for demonstrating courage in a difficult moment and that my ability to share the critique afforded her the opportunity to lead better. It was a sincere thank you that acknowledged my contribution and the impact it had on her.  It was also in real time and not in a formal channel—that lent to the authenticity of her gratitude.”

Getting this right is not just a matter of better management but of staff retention. According to workplace consultant O.C. Tanner’s research, 79% of employees who quit their jobs say that a lack of appreciation was a major reason for leaving, and nearly two-thirds of Americans say they weren’t even recognized one time last year. 

Because many workplaces cannot have a holiday party this year, company leaders say the season is a chance to rethink what such gestures were really all about in the first place. 

“Gratitude is not about a one-time holiday party, day off, or spot bonus,” said Aron Ain, the CEO of Ultimate Kronos Group, a workplace software company. “It cannot be an afterthought or a check-the-box activity. It is about creating a culture of gratitude.”

He said UKG plans to invest $35 million next year in enhanced benefits programs to acknowledge the extraordinary burdens on caregivers right now. For example, complimentary tutoring and virtual afterschool programs will be offered for the children of employees. 

Indeed, the pandemic has forced companies to extend gratitude to not just employees but their families as well. Luan Lam, the global vice president of people at Harness, said the software company rolled out a program called TGIF where all employees get an extra paid day off every month to spend time with family. 

At Thoughtspot, an analytics platform, CEO Sudheesh Nair said family was always welcome at the company’s annual holiday party and this year was no different—even though the parties took place in individuals’ living rooms. “We shipped personalized gifts to all employees’ kids and hosted a remote soiree, with an at-home scavenger hunt for the kids and other entertainment like an online hypnotist,” he said. 

As COVID has also forced reflection about leading a more purposeful life, companies are trying to connect exceptional work to their values. Ping Identity, a software company, recently implemented a “Say Thanks, Give Back” program where employees could nominate colleagues and gift them a donation to the charity of their choice. 

Being so intentional about workplace performance is called “purposeful recognition,” a management philosophy popularized by David Novak, past CEO of Yum Brands, which runs some of the most popular fast-food chains such as KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. 

He cited 60% of employees saying they are more motivated by recognition than money. 

“When you create a culture where your employees feel appreciated, valued and inspired, you get better results,” he said. “People start doing things because they want to, not because they have to.”

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