(Illustration by elenabs/iStock by Getty Images)

We hear a lot about employee engagement, but why is that important? Because in one sense, it’s the ultimate return on investment. Engaged employees bring more revenue, more profits, less turnover and, given their engagement with the company’s mission, often have a we-can-do-more-with-less attitude.

Yet how do we help employees work smarter, not necessarily harder?

Alexandra Powell, director of U.S. client culture and engagement for Reward Gateway, proposes an approach relying on recognition, rooted in morale and motivation. This is valid especially in the current climate. A lot of workers may feel tired, burned out, or overwhelmed as we enter the ninth month of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Enthusiasm may not carry the day right now. We need to be strategic and make good use of our resources,” Powell said in a presentation at From Day One’s recent virtual conference on the workforce of the future.

Good communication is what has the biggest impact on morale. “People want to know what is going on around [the company],” Powell said. “And we know there's some unique challenges right now with many of us working from home.”

Reward Gateway's Alexandra Powell, director of U.S. client culture and engagement  (Photo courtesy of Reward Gateway)

Similarly, appreciation can boost an employee’s motivation. “Seventy-five percent of people said that both morale and motivation would go up if leaders just said ‘thank you’ more,” Powell said. That gesture of gratitude is the cornerstone of recognition, which in a workplace situation takes many shapes. It can be a simple peer-to-peer gesture of appreciation all the way to employee-of-the-month or game-changer awards.

In everyday workplace life, peer-to-peer gestures count for a lot. The stakes are low and they’re easy to do. For peer-to-peer recognition, e-cards can be a good start. Powell praises a client who has implemented a system of e-cards that employees can exchange and that are available for everybody on a team to see. “What I want to point out about these e-cards is that they're tied to specific values,” she said. This means that when one is highlighted for doing something great at an organization, they are going to be called out for how they contribute to specific issues, say, the customer experience. “This is a really great way to make recognition a little more meaningful than a thank-you note,” Powell said.

For manager-led recognition, small tokens of appreciation can come in gift cards of as little as $5 or $10, which are meant to reward the employee for, say, covering a co-worker’s shift due to a scheduling conflict or having a perfect attendance during Zoom meetings. “Rewards can sometimes be an administrative nightmare for organization,” Powell said. “So one of the ways we help our clients with that is making sure it's all online, using technology to support us. People can acquire all of those rewards, and then they can spend them out in a catalogue on the things that are most meaningful to them.”

While recognition is important, it’s more than a simple reward system that harkens back to memories from our time in school. Beyond the item or gift awarded, one has to make sure people hear specific praise, especially when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

What drives moral and motivation: detail from the presentation by Powell (Graphic courtesy of Reward Gateway)

It’s important to convey such communication with real facts and data, since miscommunication can be costly. One solution can be something as simple as a company blog, with the CEO asking employees, “What do you want to hear from me?  What are the things you’re curious about?” A weekly theme can be implemented and employees are encouraged to contribute as well. This creates accountability on both ends. “You don't need to be perfect. Have fun and use personality,” said Powell. “It doesn't need to be as formal and professional as it might have felt like it needed to be ten years ago. And the more you can get people feeling that they're speaking directly to leadership, the better.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this session: Reward Gateway. Please visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.