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When to Start or Scale Your Employee Rewards and Recognition Program

Expert insight: When and how to scale up your employee recognition with a dedicated software tool...

Benjamin Travis
Digital strategist with 10+ years expertise in elevating customer and employee experience
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15+ Best Employee Rewards Programs (2024)

When was the last time you felt appreciated at work?

Recognition and rewards can have an outsized impact on employee engagement. However, it’s not always clear where to start, or when the recognition and rewards program you have in place is not scaling effectively with your team. Luckily growing your employee recognition and rewards program is surprisingly straightforward with a little guidance.

In This Article

Any successful modern organization requires a strong culture of recognition and rewards. Employee recognition has been proven to boost morale — something most workplaces desperately need recently. Recognition also improves employee performance, boosts engagement, and reduces turnover.

The 5 types of employee recognition

Organizations that don't connect recognition with rewards risk lower employee engagement. In fact, 84% of employees found to be highly engaged were also recognized the last time they went above and beyond at work. Compare this to actively disengaged employees of whom a meager 25% received recognition. So there’s no denying the importance of recognition. But what about how you reward employees for good work or years of service?

As humans, rewards help us “tangibilize” recognition, solidifying and amplifying the effect of recognition. All too often, rewards are given for service and nothing else, but according to Deloitte, employees respond better to programs where they receive regular small rewards. Eight times better! By connecting recognition to rewards, organizations can create even more value.

Put simply, recognition and rewards are key differentiators for employers.

How Recognition and Rewards Evolve at Organizations

If you ask any HR pro worth their salt if they want to have a company culture that values recognition and rewards, they’ll say yes. So why do so many organizations struggle with this topic?

Take a step back and consider that there’s a pretty common progression of recognition and rewards in any company.

The First Stages of Recognition and Rewards

It usually starts out when the team is small. Some people give shout-outs, and make an effort towards employee appreciation for set occasions. One person usually runs out to buy gift cards, notes, or even treats. Depending on how archaic an organization is, there might even be some form of informal employee recognition program such as an “employee of the month.” Unless you’ve got some superheroes on the team, this approach isn’t feasible or scalable.

As organizations grow, most realize that their home-grown employee recognition program and related perks are struggling with inconsistency, becoming a time-consuming burden to those who manage it. Almost all of these initiatives end up fizzling out as their sustainability falters, and the responsibility falls on HR and PeopleOps teams to come up with something better — a successful employee recognition program.

Employee recognition keeps track of employee milestones and birthdays

Knowing When to Level-up Recognition and Rewards

When teams get to a certain point, it’s time to upgrade to one of the best employee rewards platforms. That point is different for every organization, but here are a few tell-tale signs that an upgrade is warranted:

Managing Rewards is Distracting

When a team hasn’t been able to incorporate a form of employee reward system into their day-to-day, it falls on one person’s (or a team’s) plate. Keeping up this kind of program company-wide takes time away from the employees’ work and other priorities, and organic recognition starts to wane.

You're Adopting an HRIS

Your company is getting bigger, and you’re graduating to a human resources information system (HRIS) – congrats! With an HRIS, you’ll have key employee data in one spot, and you’re on the way to automating parts of your job. Employee recognition and rewards tools are made to plug and play via full integration capability with HRISs.

Make use of this functionality as soon as possible to ensure you can incorporate an effective employee recognition program that is native to the platforms your employees work with daily. This is a sustainable and scalable way to recognize top performers for great work no matter how large the number of employees using your HRIS becomes.

You Need More Visibility Across the Organization 

Silos stink. You want collaboration and positive interdepartmental relationships as your company grows, but it’s hard to establish this company culture organically. A culture of recognition breaks down silos. Moving to a recognition and reward tool can inspire ideas across an organization and foster company-wide collaboration.

Your Team Says So

You’re already monitoring engagement, right? When your team indicates that recognition is low, your employee retention is under threat. It’s your chance to fix things before they leave. Satisfaction with the level of public recognition and private recognition and the types of rewards you offer are great questions to bring up in engagement surveys, stay interviews, and manager 1:1s.

Other potential markers for faltering recognition and rewards include low employee engagement, high turnover amongst top talent, and limited employee feedback.

Scaling Your Recognition and Rewards with a Dedicated Tool

Effective rewards tools and employee recognition platforms can significantly impact the bandwidth of teams by saving time and removing the mental load from HR workers. A recognition platform remembers milestones, prompts peer-to-peer recognition, creates positive feedback loops, and automates rewards. All this bakes recognition into the organization’s core values.

From HR-Departments-of-One to large People teams, HR pros know just how much falls on the plates of those leading employee engagement initiatives, and that the right types of recognition tools can make all the difference.

How Recognition and Rewards Tools Benefit Teams

The best recognition and rewards tools are self-sustaining. In other words, they don’t require a lot of ongoing maintenance from the team to stay effective. This allows the team to spend time on other initiatives and do what they do best, focus on people.

Employee recognition software dashboard

Key Features of Recognition and Rewards Platforms

Recognition and rewards solutions come with plenty of bells and whistles, but it’s up to you to hone in on the most useful features for your organization. If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few suggestions:

1. Integrations

Integrations are important because your team already uses plenty of tools. You'll especially want to find a solution that integrates with the chat tools and HRIS systems your team already relies on daily.

Other integrations to consider for recognition and rewards tools include SSO (single sign-on), rewards vendors, company swag, and general API capabilities.

2. Milestone Celebrations

The best recognition and rewards platforms automate the celebration of birthdays and work anniversaries. These milestones are some of the most significant in any employee’s workplace experience and tenure.

Both work anniversaries and birthdays have proven to be natural catalysts for employees to reevaluate their roles and, if they feel unrecognized or unfulfilled, to move on. As a matter of fact, the likelihood of an employee job hunting increases by 12% just before their birthday.

Making employees feel appreciated during these key moments is a no-brainer, an extra touch that can also encourage the rest of the team to pile on the praise.

3. Mobile Usability

Most solutions are accessible via a desktop browser, but not every worker has a laptop in front of them. Having a mobile app allows employees to give and receive recognition at home, in transit, and in events. Some tools even offer kiosk modes for workplaces that don’t allow personal devices.

4. Analytics Dashboards

People analytics informs modern HR teams. Recognition data can be interesting, but using that data to learn more about team engagement, performance, and communication takes it to a whole other level. Look for recognition and rewards solutions that can give your team actionable information to improve the employee experience.

5. Language Support

Depending on where your team operates, this can be a big one. Think about what languages your team uses, and also consider what language any admins should use when communicating with the vendor.

6. Custom Rewards

Modern rewards catalogs are impressive, but every team has its own special flair. Whether it’s a virtual gift, custom dessert, forcing the CEO to give a meeting as a puppet, or tickets to your hometown minor league team, offering custom rewards can really make a rewards program stand out and bolster culture.

7. Security Compliance

Cybersecurity becomes more important each year, and you should ask vendors of recognition and rewards solutions you speak to about security compliance.

Your employee data and company project information should be placed in responsible hands. When evaluating tools, inquire about certifications like SOC 2 and ISO 27001 to understand how these tools protect your sensitive data.

Public praise in meeting as a form of employee recognition

More Criteria For Buying a Recognition and Rewards Solution

In the past few years, recognition and rewards tools have improved immensely, but it's not always clear where to start your buyer's journey. As your team evaluates tools, consider the following key aspects and features:

1. Does The Tool Fit Your Organizational Culture?

As a people leader, you should understand your team and what they’re ready for. Choose a recognition solution that fits your team's culture and values. Leverage tools that best reinforce what drives your team and how they work.

For example, if transparency is a top value, look for solutions that promote recognition visibility across the organization. Some solutions might seem more light-hearted with a focus on UX while others could be a little more rigid but offer the features your team needs.

2. Do Your Employees Respond Well to a Demo or Free Trial

Your team's feedback is critical in choosing the right recognition and rewards solution.

Before you choose a tool, ask employees how they want to be recognized and what kinds of rewards would be most meaningful. Then, look for a solution that offers the right mix and test it out. Most vendors would be happy to walk teams through functionality in a demo or sign you up for a trial. If your employees enjoy using the recognition tool, it’s a good start.

Rewards should also be personal and in line with what your team wants. When it comes to creative employee reward catalogs, options can include gift cards, company swag, fun experiences, or even custom gifts from their peers.

Bonusly recognition dashboard

3. Does the Platform Make Peer Recognition Easy?

Peer recognition is more effective than solely top-down recognition. In fact, HR pros are more likely to rate their recognition programs as effective when peers can recognize each other instead of only managers recognizing employees.

Look for a solution that makes it easy for every team member to give and receive recognition. Take it a step further, and make sure that recognition is public to truly make it a part of your company culture.

4. Does The Tool Fulfill Your Implementation, Integration, and Reporting Needs?

Before you commit to any solution and implement it organization-wide, be sure to try it with your colleagues first. Some tools might look good on paper, but taking a couple of weeks to test run it with a small group will give you a far better idea of what tool is right for your team.

During this initial test, be sure to note how the setup process went and what kind of actionable people analytics you can extract from its reporting dashboard.

How to Successfully Start a Recognition and Rewards Program

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably already on board with introducing a recognition and rewards tool to your organization, but that leaves plenty of others who still need to get on board.

Before you officially launch any new recognition and rewards program, you’ll want to put in the prep work.

Make the Case for a Program

Investing in any tool or program requires a business case, and a recognition and rewards tool is no different. Besides getting executive approval, you’ll need buy-in from your workforce. Guide your team in understanding the importance and impact a recognition software will have.

Share how it supports the company mission, and remember to prove the ROI of employee rewards and recognition program. Some key concerns to raise are the cost of disengagement and turnover. Note that disengaged employees generally cost the organization 12% of their salary. And consider estimating team savings when it comes to turnover, since companies with strong recognition see 31% lower turnover rates.

If leadership isn’t on board with investing in recognition and reward, you’ll just be spinning your wheels. Work on getting support from the top, and bolster your proposal with business metrics and well-thought-out ROI projections.

Create a Coalition of Champions from Different Teams

Don't try to go it alone. It might take a bit longer, but bringing others on board will make it much easier to implement and get buy-in from the rest of the company. You'll also want to make sure you have folks from different teams to help manage, give input, and champion the program.

The SBI Feedback model adapted for employee recognition

Train Your Team on Effective Recognition

It might feel strange at first, but if you want it to be a part of your culture, train your team on how to express appreciation at work. Suggest a framework to use.

For example, you can leverage CCL’s SBI framework for recognition: Start by describing the commendable behavior, and then tie that behavior to the positive impact it made. Bonus points for bringing it back to your company values.

Make Recognition Training Part of Onboarding

The recognition program you instill is an important part of your organizational culture, and should be appropriately prioritized in orientation. Ensure you have a plan for onboarding new employees so they understand the company’s approach to recognition and rewards from the start.

Model Recognition by Leadership

It's easy to deploy a new tool, but getting employees to use it is a different story.

Leaders need to set the tone for the entire organization by modeling the kind of behavior you want to see. This starts from the top. Make sure executive leadership is generous and authentic with recognition from the beginning. Guide them in crafting initial recognition to make sure it’s effective and inclusive.

Make the Most of Your Launch

You only launch once. Before you kick off any new recognition and reward program, you’ll want to plan your launch strategy, including a realistic timeline and key milestones to check in along the way. It’s also important to decide who will be responsible for any associated projects.

According to Nadjia Yousif, any tech you introduce into your organization should be treated the same way you would treat a new hire. Build hype around the program’s launch day. That could mean having an introductory party, blocking off time for everyone to give their first recognition, and even walking the team through rewards redemption!

This might seem like a no-brainer, but it's important to make sure everyone is on the same page about what the program is and how it works. This means creating clear and consistent communications about the program, what it entails, and how employees can get involved.

Evaluate Your Program’s Effectiveness Regularly

Recognition and rewards programs can have a big impact on your organization, but only if they’re done right. By following the steps above, you’ll be well on your way to effective recognition and rewards. But it doesn’t end there!

Continue to evaluate the program after launch. Collect feedback from teams to understand the best way to evolve your team’s recognition and rewards program.

Recognition and Rewards Empower Successful Teams

Appreciation is a fundamental need in the workplace that many teams struggle with, but it doesn’t have to be an uphill battle.

Successful modern organizations leverage recognition and rewards tools to foster a healthy recognition and reward culture as they grow. These types of tools aren't cure-alls for toxic cultures or poor business practices, but they can certainly enhance the employee experience and produce an outsized return.

Benjamin Travis
Digital strategist with 10+ years expertise in elevating customer and employee experience
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Ben is the founder of HR Chief, a community dedicated to improving the Human Resources and People Operations space. With a passion for employee experience and a background in digital strategy, he enjoys solving impactful problems with technology. Ben holds a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Virginia and has significant career experience in the employee recognition software landscape.

Featured in: HR Chief

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