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Workplace rewards: What’s resonating during COVID-19?

May 1, 2021
By Jack Burton

Some low- or no-cost avenues of recognition during COVID-19 include home-office supply stipends, professional development programs, or extra time off. (vectornation/Adobe Stock)

“I’d like to talk about a neurochemical called dopamine.” 

It’s Friday afternoon, and while many across the country may be preparing their home offices for another Zoom happy hour, Dr. Michael Mousseau, national well-being and engagement consultant for Gallagher Canada in Calgary, is busy showcasing his background in neuroscience with a lesson in what makes employees tick. 

For all the perks that home offices have provided employees with, ranging from more flexibility to a far briefer commute, the shift to the remote workplace has also introduced a number of obstacles in making outstanding talent feel recognized. 

Current circumstances mean that the ability for organizations to engage in traditional forms of talent recognition — such as awards galas — currently ranges anywhere from limited to impossible. 


Even the process of observing and keeping track of exemplary performances becomes notably more difficult without the line of sight or physical presence that office environments once provided. 

Creating the right environment

Considering the many obstacles, it’s not hard for employers to feel unmotivated in prioritizing organizational recognition efforts. 

However, a closer look at the impact that proper recognition can have on employee engagement and work culture — especially when it’s more difficult than ever for employers to cultivate those elements — may have companies reconsidering. 

This is where that dopamine, which Mousseau describes as a key motivational neurochemical, comes back into play.

“When I think about employee recognition,” he said, “I think about managers and leaders creating what I call ‘dopamine highways’ in their employees.” 

In simpler terms, “if we look at what the heart of recognition is, it’s really motivation.”

“As humans, (we) move towards something that’s satisfying, or move away from threats, right?” Mousseau explained. 

“So, if we start thinking about this in the context of business — as managers, we probably should continually be creating environments that are rewarding and motivating for employees.”

Pandemic or not, how employers use recognition to build cultures of positivity and motivation is changing, he said. 

While honouring employees through company emails or social media posts certainly extends the reach of recognition, it’s not about the actions so much as it is about making a regular habit of performing them. 

“We’re shifting away from the culture of recognition being an ‘Employee of the Year’ celebration” towards a paradigm where recognition becomes “a daily part of the culture, embedded in the fabric of an organization,” said Mousseau.

Central to this shift is the responsibility for employers to refocus efforts toward recognizing and fulfilling the specific needs of the individual worker, rather than looking at targets or remuneration alone. 

“Managers need to really find ways to think ‘What motivated this person?’ and less about ‘OK, how much money do I need to give them?’” he said.

Protecting a unique company culture in a fractured world

COVID effect on culture

Company culture in particular is one area significantly affected by the shift to the remote workplace, with the sense of community that shared office environments offer mostly lost when working from home. 

Yet, recognition offers a solution to this inherent disconnection that remote work has brought to company cultures, according to Robert Half Canada district president Koula Vasilopoulos in Calgary.

“Recognition programs really foster a deep connection with the company, and working really becomes more that just doing a job and receiving a paycheque,” she said. 

Using recognition to foster this employer-employee connection “definitely creates a positive company culture.”

The positive culture that proper recognition has the potential to forge not only makes employees feel accomplished, but has the cascading effect of motivating others to put in the work to also share that feeling. 

“When somebody is shining and they’re rewarded,” said Vasilopoulos, “others want to follow that example in hopes of being rewarded and recognized as well.”

‘Bench strength’ key to succession planning

Towards employee engagement

Emerging from this combination between an optimized company culture and a workforce that feels recognized is, at the individual level, an engaged employee.

“One of the best ways to engage employees is to make them feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves,” said Brian Kreissl, publishing manager for HR, occupational health and safety, and payroll publications at Thomson Reuters in Toronto. 

He stressed how important it is “to make them feel like they’re more than just a cog in the wheel and give them an understanding that their role, and what it does, matters.” 

Kreissl is quick to distinguish that despite popular misconceptions, “engagement” as a concept amounts to a lot more than simply productivity. 

Engaged team members are not just productive, he said, but also willing to go the extra mile, with this increased effort often stemming from a deep satisfaction with their jobs and employers.  

Another area that recognition-driven engagement fosters is loyalty. 

Now more than ever, employers should be making a habit of giving employees their due if they want to cultivate the loyalty necessary to retain their talent into the future, according to Kreissl.

“It’s going to be very important to ensure that companies continue to do this sort of thing,” he said. 

“Once the economy starts to really improve, people will remember how they were treated throughout the pandemic.” 

Current recognition programs — or lack thereof — will go a long way in determining whether organizations emerge from the pandemic with a more engaged and loyal workforce, or if they experience a mass exodus of dissatisfied talent. 

Remote work requires us to reconsider how to evaluate and pay employees

Various options available

While the uncertain conditions of COVID-19 should be treated as an incentive to increase recognition programs, the financial toll that the pandemic could be taking across many organizations may have them worried about how exactly to approach this.

“When it comes to raises, many companies had to put cost-saving measures into place, and some of them even had to do salary freezes,” said Vasilopoulos.

“Individuals may be OK to stay in their current role if that organization isn’t able to provide a financial raise or increase this year,” she said, noting it’s still on employers to ensure that their team feels taken care of. 

“If you’re not able to do any kind of financial increases, I think there are other ways that you can provide to reward, that may be low or even no cost.”

Some low- or no-cost avenues of recognition include home-office supply stipends, professional development programs, extra time off, or even things as simple as recognition-centric virtual events or sending gifts of thanks to employees’ homes, said Vasilopoulos. 

The question remains, however. Are these initiatives toward employee satisfaction and positive acknowledgement really suitable replacements when money may not be as viable an option at the moment? 

They might just be, she said.

“At the end of the day, employees want to do meaningful work and feel valued. When companies do a good job of ensuring that their employees feel like that — that in itself, to me, is a recognition program.”

Jack Burton is a freelance writer in Toronto.

This feature story was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of Talent Canada.

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