(Photo by Fizkes/iStock by Getty Images)

Corporate habit is to recognize outcomes: sales closed, projects completed, milestones reached, or quotas filled. But employees are burning out and struggling for work-life balance, and they need recognition for more than completed projects, said Renee Konzelman, the SVP of people partnering and talent at home health care provider Elara Caring. Recognition that motivates employees comes well before outcomes are achieved.

“There is a time and a place to recognize the behaviors that we want to build as a culture. Sometimes that results in teamwork and collaboration and great communication that fails catastrophically, but you still need to recognize some of those behaviors if you want to allow people to still be excited about trying it all over again,” Konzelman said.

Konzelman and three other veterans of talent and people operations gathered in July for a From Day One webinar, moderated by Fast Company senior editor Lydia Dishman, titled “How Employers Can Build a Culture of Meaningful Recognition.”

Their consensus was this: Employee recognition needn’t be complicated. It’s not necessary to invest a lot of money or build formal programs to give employees the recognition they need and deserve, said Sanjay Dutt, who leads capability development and digital human resources at EXL, a company that builds data analytics tools for large industries.

“Recognize the moment. Get into the habit of calling of people. Just leave a message,” he said. “We encourage people to just leave behind a note or, let’s say, a social [message]. We call it Cheer for Peers. Leave out a cheer for them, and then they can wake in the morning and see that. That actually is working better for us than those large, formal, pre-decided recognition sessions.”

Michael Yohannes, head of HR for the New York City branch of Australia-based Commonwealth Bank, talked about how hard it can be to recognize employees in a globally distributed workforce. Though he works in the U.S., many of his colleagues work a day-long flight and 16-hour time difference away.

“It’s important that we are conscious about operating not just here in New York, but if somebody on your team is doing a great job, make it visible to people that are not in close proximity,” Yohannes said.

The speakers, clockwise from top left: Michael Yohannes of Commonwealth Bank, Jennifer Chiang of MilliporeSigma, Renee Konzelman of Elara Caring, moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, and Sanjay Dutt of EXL (Image by From Day One)

Biotech company MilliporeSigma’s head of people strategy, Jennifer Chiang, said cultural differences inform what forms of recognition will be effective and welcome. “Growing up in an Asian household, it was keep your head down, stay quiet about your accomplishments. Even when people praise me today, it’s like nails on a chalkboard for me,” she said. That awareness has made Chiang sensitive to global cultural differences. “We have employees in Asia-Pacific, we have them in Germany, and they all have different ways and wants and needs for that type of recognition. I encourage people managers to be cognizant of that and to speak to trusted co-workers across the globe about how their teams want to be recognized,” she said.

Managers know their teams best, so let them drive the forms of recognition, Konzelman said. “Talk to your leadership about what they want to recognize beyond results.” MilliporeSigma recognized one employee’s decades-long tenure by naming one of the labs for her. “I thought that was just such a great, permanent way to capture her legacy,” said Chiang. If you don’t have a lab, name a conference room or lay engraved walkway bricks to honor long-term employees.

Konzelman said she sometimes hears about exceptional work and accomplishments before a leader or high-level manager does. To encourage them to recognize those employees, she sends the manager a draft they can use to email that worker. “All they then have to do is copy and paste it. They always add a little personal touch, which is wonderful.” She also noted the value of smaller forms of recognition, like email signature badges, to recognize milestones and awards for remote workers. And if you’re ever unsure about how to recognize employees, simply ask them, said Konzelman.

Managers should be free to dispense the simplest forms of recognition. A sophisticated recognition platform could be just one part of a recognition program. “We all should be aware that the platform is one step. The technology behind it is great, but it should never replace direct interaction between human beings,” Yohannes said.

EXL’s Dutt pointed out that the company realized that though it was pushing corporate recognition programs, the company neglected to tell employees to simply recognize each other. “People start genuinely taking interest in what other people are doing, and then they genuinely start feeling, at a very core level, happy about other people’s successes,” he said.

Don’t overthink it. “We tend to overcomplicate or we try to use the most fancy systems, the most fancy tools, but I think it’s simple,” Yohannes said. “Thank-you notes are so powerful, and it’s so helpful, whether it’s from the manager to a direct report, or even among peers. It shows that, ‘I see what you’re doing. I hear you, I see you, I see what effort you put in.’”

“My sense is most people feel like, well, ‘If I could just put this platform in place, I’ll have a recognition program,’” Konzelman said. “There’s so much opportunity to make an impact on recognition, before you even invest one dollar.”

From Dutt’s point of view, employers have to remember that employees are people first, workers second. “We believe they want to be recognized, not with material rewards all the time, but just to recognize the needs and make people feel more valued and supported holistically as human beings, and not just as workers.”

Editor’s note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this webinar, the employee engagement and recognition platform Achievers.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va. She writes about the workplace, DEI, hiring, and issues faced by women. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others.