Employee Recognition: A Guide for a Modern Workforce

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

If you're like most business leaders, empowering and motivating your employees is on your mind a lot. How do you help employees feel like they have the tools, the support, and the encouragement they need to succeed? How can you help your people feel truly valued and thus retain the good talent you have in your workforce? It's these kinds of questions that keep great people leaders up at night.

The good news is there's a simple solution to supercharge your efforts: employee recognition. In this guide you'll learn about the importance of recognition in the workplace: what it is, when to give it, and how to make it the most effective—and perhaps most importantly: what you can do now to put it into practice!

In the simplest terms, employee recognition recognize employees for all their good work. Everyone likes to be appreciated, but sometimes it gets overlooked in the workplace. A paycheck isn’t enough, because recognition is an opportunity to provide positive feedback that keeps your teams engaged. Just like we’re taught to say “thank you” growing up, it’s important to acknowledge what your team members and employees are doing. 

Increasing the amount of recognition at your company will have a positive impact on your company culture. An easy way to do this is with rewards and recognition programs. The structure helps organize and increase the amount of recognition at your company and as that goes up, overall motivation and engagement goes up too. And we love to see engagement go up! 

Perhaps more importantly, recognition in the workplace can help add value and purpose to a job and to a career. Having purpose at work is becoming increasingly important to employees, they want to feel good about the work they do and feel like they’re making a difference. 

If it’s so simple, why don’t more people do it? Well, because sometimes the simplest things are the hardest, but building a successful employee recognition program in will make it easier. Plus, it reduces turnover and increases productivity.

The bottom line is as people feel recognized, they’ll want to give their best effort to their work and they’ll feel more valued—and it’s been that way throughout time.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

History of employee recognition and rewards.

When did workplace recognition first begin? Although there is not one single event that pinpoints the birth of workplace recognition, some early forms of rewards can be found as far back as ancient Greece. If you’re a history nerd, this section is for you.

In the first Olympics, the winners were awarded with various prizes, including laurel (or olive leaf) crowns, horses, and bronze tripods. These athletes were also honored in the host cities with statues and stone inscriptions of their victories. 

Olympic medals became a part of the modern games, starting in 1896. Moreover, what was true in ancient Greece is still true today—athletes consider it a great honor to participate and be recognized for their Olympic achievements. It makes them feel good just to make it to the Olympics, because all their hard work is recognized. 

Is it possible that you could make your office a little more like the olympics? You don’t have to time who can send emails the fastest or who can lift the heaviest boxes, but you do need to make people feel like their contributions are award-worthy. 

And it’s not just the Olympics, throughout various cultures and generations there have been symbols of valor. 

Recognition and Revolutions

The badge of Military Merit (now known as the Purple Heart) was established on August 7, 1782. It was in the shape of a heart and given out during the American Revolution for bravery, valor, and dedication. It was awarded to only three people during the Revolutionary War. Since then many other awards and decorations have been added to recognize people in the military for valor, achievement, exceptional service, bravery, etc. 

Speaking of revolutions, with the Industrial Revolution came a new way to manage and divide workers for better productivity and efficiency. Enter Frederick W. Taylor and his Scientific Management theory. Taylor studied factory workers and what made them more or less productive and motivated on the job. What he found was that having the promise of employment the next day was not enough motivation for workers to work more efficiently. Behold the beginnings of rewards and recognition to help motivation and engagement! 

The actual workplace reward Taylor believed in was monetary, since he theorized that workers were mostly motivated by money. It made sense that those who were more productive were paid more. This scientific management practice was necessary in the advancement of leadership, employee motivation, and incentives.

Into the 20th Century

B.F. Skinner
B.F. Skinner.
CC Share-alike license

In the 1950s, B.F. Skinner came on the scene along with his study of positive reinforcement. B.F. Skinner was a groundbreaking behavioral psychologist whose theories still influence our lives today. He did an experiment with rats showing how they were motivated to repeat behaviors when rewarded with food. Similarly, this was applied to the workplace. It was thought that employees will repeat behavior when rewarded for it. As a result, pay incentive plans were popular during this time period.

Recognition awards were also heavily influenced by tenure. Often rewards were (and still are) only given out for a work anniversary...and the reward options were (and still often are) limited. Employees could choose from a limited catalogue or were given something like a plaque or watch that might end up in a drawer or left behind. In fact, one of our clients said that half of the service awards they used to give out were left behind when the employee retired. They were looking for new solutions that would be longer lasting. Celebrating work anniversaries is important, but if it’s a generic celebration they may feel the award doesn’t actually reflect all the great work they do.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

In Summary

Employee recognition will continue to evolve with the new and incoming workforce, so it’s important to take the time to understand what current employees value and how they would like to be rewarded and recognized. It's also important to remember our history when it comes to recognition so we can avoid the pitfalls of the past!

Now that we have a common understanding on what recognition is and where it came from, we can explore concepts to increase engagement and performance in your entire workforce using recognition.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Employee Recognition Programs

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Recognition programs are, obviously, programs that help you recognize employees that perform well—but it’s so much more than that. Expand your recognition program or recognition strategy by building out specific recognition programs focusing on what matters most at your organization. This increases engagement and unites your workforce. In fact, one study found that 93% of employees felt their work had greater meaning and purpose when their recognition program was tied to company values. Value-driven recognition is one of the most powerful ways you can unite your organization.

A well-rounded recognition program can include many different smaller programs targeted at specific behaviors and people: sales incentives, wellness programs, work from home programs, referral programs, value spotlights, spot recognition, peer-to-peer recognition, work anniversaries, and much more. It's important to remember that recognition should also be as inclusive as possible. In other words, you should create a variety of programs and everyone (not just management) should participate.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

What Are the Benefits of Employee Recognition Programs? 

The biggest benefit of recognition is the positive value it creates and perpetuates. At Awardco, we call this perpetual positivity the Value Cycle. When an employee brings value to the organization in the form of positive behavior, it must be noticed and recognized. When it is recognized, a rewarding feeling must soon follow to reinforce the value to the individual exhibiting the positive behavior. When the cycle is completed with a reward that is truly felt, the behavior is more likely to be repeated.

As behavior reinforcing the values of the organization are repeated, others are encouraged to do the same and a snowball of positive company culture grows. This creates momentum and energy at an organization that is contagious.

The Value Cycle is essential in purposeful employee recognition.
The Value Cycle improves value adoption, drives behavior, and builds culture.

When your employees feel valued, they add more value as a result. It’s that simple.

The act of receiving recognition helps an employee feel like they are part of a team. It creates a sense of security and belonging. You can help top performing employees feel like their work is noticed and that you appreciate the great job they’re doing.

When there are so many things to invest in, recognition might not be at the top of your mind. However, it is one of the most beneficial things you can do to improve company metrics. Recognition improves engagement by 2X. And one study found that increased engagement means productivity rises by as much as 17%, employee turnover falls by 31%, sales go up by 20%. And much more. Recognition can even save your company money and improve your bottom line.

Help employees see the big picture. Particularly if their job is one that might be more in the weeds or behind the scenes. Maybe they don’t get a lot of recognition for their work or maybe they do a small, but important task that contributes to the overall purpose of your company. For example, make sure that people see the work that was done or tell them how customers appreciate the service provided.

Let's go into detail on those benefits of recognition programs:

Increased Engagement

Increased engagement is one of the primary benefits of employee recognition programs. Few things are more motivating than knowing your work is appreciated. Set up a recognition program that includes peer-to-peer recognition. This will encourage team members to be more aware of what the people around them are doing.

Reduced Turnover

63% of employees who are recognized are very unlikely to look for a new job. Retaining employees saves you time and money. Employees who stay with your company continue to add value the longer they’re there because they have invaluable knowledge and experience. Plus, the cost of hiring and training really adds up when you have a lot of turnover.

Cartoon of employee working on computer with thought bubble say "I don't want to be here"
Human beings need to feel a sense of belonging and be motivated to be their best.

Lower Absenteeism

Employee recognition can lower absenteeism as much as 81%. If people don’t feel valued, they aren’t going to want to come into work. People are already hesitant to come back into the office after months of working from home, so recognition programs are more important now than ever.

In short, set up recognition programs and you get happier, more productive employees.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Challenges of Employee Recognition Programs

So again we ask, why doesn't every organization run flawless recognition programs wherein all employees are engaged and contributing value at a high-level? Well, it's not that simple. Employee recognition programs come with their fair share of challenges.

The challenges of recognition programs we hear most often in speaking with new clients are:

Too Manual

Doing recognition right can be a lot of work, especially if you don't have any way to scale the work for larger organizations. Processes that involve several people (possibly in different locations) and require following up on manual tasks to ensure their completion are rarely successful.

Organizational Inconsistency

No two human beings are exactly the same, so it makes sense for management styles to vary greatly from leader to leader. When it comes to recognition, that means some people are celebrated, while others can be forgotten.


For many organizations, the act of recognizing employees is more important than how they're being recognized. Dedicating 15 years of your career to one organization only to receive a pointy glass object with your name on it doesn't seem very sincere, does it?

No Direction or Purpose

If employee recognition programs are not value or purpose-driven, employees can see right through it. Programs can quickly become just another checkbox on leaders' to-do lists or devolve into simple popularity contests.

Not Rewarding

Human beings are complex creatures, but incredibly simple at the same time. If we do not see the merit, benefit, or value in doing something, we just don't do it. Recognition programs that don't reward employees will not last long.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Benefits of Using Employee Recognition Software

Luckily, modern software has provided solutions to many of the challenges of running recognition programs. Frankly, Awardco exists to solve those problems specifically. The benefits of employee recognition software are many:


Automation simply makes the life of an HR admin easier. Automate annual awards like work anniversaries and birthdays. Automate onboarding, holidays, Employee Appreciation Day, and more. You don’t have to worry about remembering important dates because emails will be sent out automatically.


Awardco doesn’t have markups on rewards, so you get more bang for your buck. Other rewards programs have markups that almost double the cost, but we want the reward to be valuable to the person receiving it.


Empower your people to own their own incentives and claim their own rewards. Awardco's Earn programs encourage exactly that through sales competitions, safety trainings, I.T. trainings, competitions, wellness programs, and more.


Awardco makes it easy to create programs that give structure to your employee recognition programs. If you’re not sure where to start we are here to walk you through it.

All-in-One Platform

Manage all your programs and analyze data all in one place. Organize your budgeting, taxes, automation, reporting, and more in the same platform.

Easy to Use

The best software is easy to use for both admins and regular users. Recognize in just a few clicks. Redeem rewards easily and have them shipped right to your door. Our platform is intuitive and easy to learn.

Reward Options

Thanks to our partnership with Amazon Business and other great companies we have millions of reward options, including access to items on Amazon, gift cards, charity donations, and travel.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Developing a Modern Employee Recognition Program

Recognizing and rewarding your employees should be, well, rewarding. However, it can seem daunting at first. We’re here to help.

To start, you just need to know a couple things:

  1. The types of behavior you want to encourage.
  2. How you want to reward employees.

We’re big believers in value-driven recognition, so a good first step is knowing what your company values are. Are you in a stage where growth is most important? What are you doing to improve company culture? You want to set up recognition programs that recognize employees for the things that actually matter to your overall organization. Otherwise, it won’t be as effective.

Creating Recognition Programs with Awardco

Awardco’s innovative and intuitive software helps you automate and simplify the process.

Our goal is to make it easier for you to recognize your employees for great work. With Awardco you can control multiple programs, each with unique settings, features, and requirements all from the same place. Your Client Success Manager will walk you through it and make sure you set up programs that are unique, and beneficial, to your organization.

Next, you'll want to customize your programs to what you want and need, including some of the overall look of the platform. You can choose design elements such as banner images and email templates as well as logistical details like privacy settings and approvals.

The biggest benefit we hear from new clients is how easy Awardco is to use. We’ve combined the most desired and useful features into one platform to give you an all-in-one solution. You can recognize, nominate, approve, allocate budget, run reports, and manage multiple programs all in one place. We’ve also consolidated recognitions into a single social feed, so recognitions from separate programs can be seen in one place.

Remember, you’re in control. Set eligibility limits for nominators and recipients to be sure the right people see the right programs including limits on nomination amount and frequency, restrict or allow access to a budget of your choice for each program, and much more. You can even link to any recognition programs you may have outside of Awardco to further consolidate your efforts.

Some programs need extra information to qualify a recognition, so decide what questions you’d like to ask for each program. Do you need to know why someone is being nominated for an employee of the month program? Maybe you’d like to know exactly how many steps the person completed for the wellness program? You can set that and more with each individual program.

Set up incentive programs with the Earn feature. Earn programs are slightly different because employees can claim their own points for completing tasks or meeting goals. For example, give points for completing internal surveys or finishing training. You still set the terms and the budget, but employees can take initiative for their own rewards.

The capabilities of Awardco’s software allow you to do just about anything you’d ever want to do with a employee recognition program, and we’re adding new features all the time. We're serious about reimagining recognition.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

In Summary

Do employee recognition programs work? Yes, employee recognition has been proven to deliver on promises like reduced turnover and increased engagement. The key to unlocking the door to the positive results mentioned is using technology to build strategic, scalable and rewarding recognition programs.

So, what do strategic, scalable and rewarding recognition programs look like? Let's take a look...

Employee Recognition Ideas & Examples

Recognizing your employees

Let’s get into the nitty gritty of employee recognition. How do you do it? What kind of programs should you set up? Well, we have seen our clients use various programs over the years. From annual work anniversaries to day-to-day recognitions you can do a little or a lot, but we recommend a lot because that’s our thing. But don’t worry, creating employee recognition programs with Awardco helps you easily automate and simplify recognition at your organization. You get the benefit of lots of recognition without too much added effort.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.
We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

If you want to create a company culture where people feel genuinely appreciated, you have to build upon a strong foundation and get a little creative. You’re likely already recognizing top performers in some way: maybe you give out bonuses, or send people cards on milestones. This is a great start, but to touch everyone in your organization, you'll need to have a holistic program with several targeted programs.

Employee Recognition Programs (Safety Program Card - Manager to Employee Card - Wellness Program Card - Sales Incentive Card - Peer to Peer Card)

Here is a list of the most popular employee recognition programs (and how to best pull them off):

Service Awards

In a study we conducted with HR.com we found that 71% of organizations have a service award program. Traditionally, service awards have taken the form of a certificate or pin handed off unceremoniously without a lot of thought. This kind of generic reward may be useless to an employee or even worse, something that reminds them of how little their company cares. A token gesture can give off a sentiment of “thanks for not leaving” rather than “we really appreciate all you’ve contributed to the company in the last year!” And check this out: one new Awardco's client said that 50% of retiring employees left their service awards behind with their previous vendor. That’s a lot of certificates, pins, and plaques left on dusty desks!

To ensure your employee feels like an individual whose work matters, make sure you attach real meaning or purpose. Acknowledge all that has been achieved during their time at the company, specific accomplishments or goals they’ve completed, and give them a reward that is meaningful.

Work anniversaries should be celebrated every year. Service awards are commonly only given out for “significant years” like the fifth and tenth year, but every year an employee spends with you is significant. Think of it this way: if the median tenure at a company is about 4.1 years (2.8 for millenials!) then a 5, 10, and 15-year program won’t be very useful at all. We recommend rethinking the way you’re celebrating service awards. The more recognition, the happier the employee.

Value-Driven Spot Recognition

Recognize your team members whenever they do something great or noteworthy. You really can’t over-recognize, so do it as often as possible. Send a note, give a high five, leave a comment on something they’ve done, etc. And remember: 91% of employees feel any kind of recognition is meaningful, so you really can’t go wrong here.

Timing matters. Recognizing someone soon after they do excellent work will better reinforce the behavior. The Awardco platform lets employees send and receive recognitions in real time, both for celebrating big goals or appreciating small actions.

Be specific. The more specific the better. Hearing “great work” can be nice, but if you want specific behaviors to continue, you need to acknowledge and show appreciation for those specific behaviors. In the Awardco platform, administrators can create “tags” or values which can be highlighted with each recognition.

Simplify processes. Use your standard communication channels for spot recognition. The average worker uses seven pieces of software in a regular workday. Microsoft Teams and Slack are perfect tools for this. Using the tools your employees are already familiar with means adoption increases and social recognition kicks in through likes and comments.

Sales Incentives

This one is pretty self explanatory. Did your sales team hit their goal? Recognize and reward that. However, you can go beyond just the amount of money brought in. You can set up programs to incentivize things like number of calls made, deals started, projects completed, etc. And it’s not just about numbers, incentivize them for learning new skills or completing other tasks. There are lots of things that make your sales team successful, so set up recognition programs that reflect that. Also, sales go up when employees can choose their own reward. We’ve seen it in our own organization.

Peer-to-Peer Recognitions

As a manager it’s your job to increase employee engagement in your recognition and reward programs and encourage peer-to-peer recognitions. You won’t change your company culture if the only recognitions are coming from managers or leadership. It needs to be happening up and down and side-to-side so that everyone in the organization appreciates the work of all their team members.

High Performer Nominations

Allow team members to nominate someone they think has gone above and beyond each month. You can give this group your own name like, “Super Squad,” “A Team,” “Groovy Gang,” etc. Get creative to add a higher level of value for the winner. At Awardco, we announce the winner with a video of their favorite celebrity congratulating them (you can get one from cameo.com).

Health and Wellness Programs

Create a wellness program to encourage your employees to be their best selves. This can (and should) include mental health and overall wellness. You can incentivize goals by offering rewards for working out three times a week, learning more about mental health, drinking water every day, etc.

Tip: You could give your employees company swag in the form of workout gear with your company logo on it to kick off a health and fitness program...or as a reward.

Employee Appreciation Day

Did you know Employee Appreciation Day is the first Friday in March? Put it on your calendar so you can do something to make your employees feel, you guessed it, appreciated. Make it meaningful with specific recognitions for each employee that highlights the value they bring to the company.

Some employee appreciation ideas:

  • Have managers recognize the individual talents of their team members
  • Buy lunch for the whole team
  • Hand out company swag
  • Award points in the Awardco platform

Team Accomplishments

While individual recognition is important so many things are a team effort. Plus, it can be more fun to celebrate together. Some people might even prefer to share the spotlight rather than have it all on them. We’re better together!

Recognition personas
Recognition should match the personality of your employee

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.
We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

What Kind of Recognition Do Employee Want?

No two employees are the same, but there are some common themes when it comes to what kind of recognition employees want. The right kind of recognition will improve employee engagement and productivity. We’re kind of experts in this, so here are some employee recognition ideas.

Recognize Often

First and foremost. Employees want recognition. Period. Surveys have shown that 82% of employed Americans want more recognition. So get recognizing!

Don’t be afraid to recognize too much. It may seem redundant to recognize an employee for the same tasks they do day to day, but it’s important to help your team members feel appreciated. Just because something becomes commonplace doesn’t mean your employees aren’t giving their all every day.

You can also find new angles. Be as specific as possible. If you simply tell someone they’re doing a “great job” every time, that might sound repetitive. Instead try something like, “I noticed your attention to detail on [enter specific project name here].”

Public or private?

Not everyone wants their photo on a bulletin board or a “wall of fame.” They may not want to be recognized in front of everyone or on social media. If someone on your team doesn’t seem to like recognition, it could just be that they don’t like lots of attention. You can make recognitions private in the Awardco platform.

Anything is better than nothing

Don’t stress about having the perfect recognition plan, especially at first. As Nike says, just do it. Like anything else, practice makes perfect, so just start somewhere. 40% of employed Americans said they would put more energy into their work if they were recognized more, it’s an easy way to improve engagement at your workplace.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Rewarding Employees When You Recognize

Recognition is great, but it can be further solidified with a reward. Recognition-based rewards are so much more than giving someone a bonus check or gold watch. They are rewards that show you recognize all the work your employee has done and who they are and what they value as a person.

Make it Personal

Does your team member like to travel or have they been wanting new running shoes? Are they minimalists who don’t like a lot of things or do they need a new sound system? When you give someone something they don’t want it either gets tossed aside and forgotten, or worse, is even an annoyance.

Give Them What They Want
(What They Really, Really Want)

When you get your employee something they really want it means so much more. It goes beyond rewarding them, it shows that you see them as a person with likes and dislikes and not just a drone who works for them. It's a great way to show how much you value your employee.

Give Employees a Choice

The best way to get them exactly what they want is to let them choose from a large rewards catalog. Providing a rewards catalogue is great, but only if there are enough options. Awardco’s partnership with Amazon Business means our rewards options include millions of products. Items can be a great reward because they’re a tangible reminder of their relationship with the company.

Consider a Gift Card

Everyone loves a gift card, right? Right...however, there is a catch. Gift cards may seem like a foolproof plan, but they don’t work for everyone. For example, don’t get someone who is lactose tolerant a gift card to an ice cream place.

Make sure you know your team members well enough to get them a gift card to somewhere they like. This is what takes it beyond a generic reward to something meaningful. If you get them a gift card to somewhere you know they like, it shows you pay attention to their likes and dislikes.

Have we made it clear enough? Know your employees enough to know what they value so they can feel valued as much as they feel they've contributed value.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

In Conclusion

Awardco gives you unprecedented power to celebrate successes as they happen within your organization. With simple, yet flexible, capabilities like peer-to-peer, manager-to-peer, social recognition (with social feed posts), health and wellness programs, and all manner of monetary and non-monetary recognition features, no achievement or milestone goes unrewarded with Awardco’s spot recognition programs.

Use Awardco to set up and automate recognition programs for just about any type of recognition. Awardco helps you reimagine recognition by building a positive culture, and driving real value for your company and for your employees.

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