When a customer calls a company that uses Cogito AI, the software’s algorithms can tell whether that customer is happy or not. If they’re not (and let’s be honest, people don’t call customer service because they’re happy), the Cogito platform surfaces real-time tips for representatives. Cogito’s clients like this system, because it increases call efficiency and customer satisfaction.
But after a sudden shift to remote set-ups during the coronavirus pandemic, Cogito CEO Josh Feast saw a bump in client feedback of a different sort. Cogito’s tools were helping representatives keep their calls short and satisfactory, per usual, but they were also helping supervisors know when to congratulate representatives for jobs well done, as AI models picked out snippets of particularly successful conversations.
“It’s stopping people from feeling so lonely,” Feast said. “It can be really hard to know if you’re doing a good job sometimes, because 70 people are calling in and they’re all distressed. Normally, you would get that from your colleagues and your managers who are wandering around the floor with you, but at home, you don’t get that.”
Employee affirmation grows in importance with teams scattered across home offices and kitchen tables nationwide. Kevin Yip, COO at employee reward platform Blueboard, said he’s seen a spike in companies changing their priorities from hiring to retention, and recognition is often a critical part of that effort.
“We always talk about this idea of organizational empathy. Right now, it’s incredibly important to meet your people where they are.”
“We hear our companies shifting focus to, ‘How do we engage, motivate and retain our people now?’” he said. “We always talk about this idea of organizational empathy. Right now, it’s incredibly important to meet your people where they are.”
High points — like promotions and work anniversaries — are opportunities for companies to demonstrate what they value and make a good impression on the people who work for them, Yip said. Low points — like a difficult or involuntary work-from-home experience — can be too.
You may not have advanced machine learning models highlighting your employees’ wins, but there are some ways companies can prioritize employee affirmation as teams work from home.
A game plan for recognition at work
- Re-evaluate your metrics for success. Sometimes, adapting successfully is a win in itself.
- Re-consider how you affirm and reward. Would your reward systems benefit from less — or more — structure?
- Find concrete ways to boost visibility across teams. Unmute those Zoom meetings, start that new Slack channel and schedule that meeting to define new processes.
- Define why affirmation matters to your organization. If you don’t understand the stakes, your commitment to employee affirmation will be inconsistent.
Re-Evaluate Your Metrics for Success
If your company’s goals or circumstances change, don’t cling to your old metrics for employee success.
For SquareFoot, a commercial real estate platform that does a majority of its business in New York City, the coronavirus meant a drop in inbound leads and a halt to office space tours, VP of people Eugenie Fanning said. Team leaders came up with an entirely new paradigm for employees to excel — and even gave it a new name.
“We’ve shifted to an outbound strategy, and we’ve been calling it ‘the human approach,’” she said. “We have a lot of talented brokers, and we’ve been offering free services to anybody who asks.”
With clear, revamped metrics for success, employees found ways to excel even with unfamiliar job responsibilities, Fanning said. One development representative wrote an outbound sales template that was so successful it got picked up by the rest of the company. A broker found a clause in a company’s lease that saved it a lot of money.
“There’s this whole new set of skills that are — I wouldn’t say they’re more important now — but it’s definitely more obvious why they’re important.”
Sometimes during difficult times, adaptability itself is worthy of recognition, Yip said. Employees with strong emotional skills will prove especially valuable when business dealings and team dynamics feel uncertain, and companies can shift their performance benchmarks to emphasize skills like adaptability and communication.
“Managers are going to be saying, ‘Wow, this employee is really good helping me see blind spots in this project or this messaging, or they’re letting me know that I should check in on somebody because that person might not be doing well,’” he said. “With the amount of change happening, the people who are really self-aware and emotionally intelligent start to shine.”
Take some time to set new goals for employees, and reward them when they reach them. When appropriate, include areas like written communication, flexibility and “managing up,” or maintaining open channels with team leaders.
“There’s this whole new set of skills that are — I wouldn’t say they’re more important now — but it’s definitely more obvious why they’re important,” Yip said.
Reconsider How You Affirm and Reward
Sales gongs and employee-of-the-month photos don’t work well over Zoom. Luckily, there are other ways to recognize and reward team members remotely.
If your organization tends toward process-heavy, hierarchical reward systems, take some time to notice the benefits of casual, person-to-person affirmations. Sudden changes lead to frenetic re-orienting, which makes it easy for a single employee’s wins to slip through the cracks. If managers are only paying attention to high-level employee goals, they risk missing smaller opportunities to build rapport.
If your organization feels stuck with heavily structured feedback, start by encouraging peer-to-peer affirmation and small, one-off acknowledgments from direct managers, Fanning said. This will take some time out of managers’ days as they scan for strong moments from their teams, but the uptick in motivation will be worth it.
“When somebody gets recognized for something on the fly, I think it goes a long way,” she added. “I’ve seen even quick kudos on Slack transform the culture of an organization from one that is very structured in its recognition and feedback to one that sees peer-to-peer recognition every single day.”
On the other end of the spectrum, a recognition culture without any structure or predictability comes with its own problems. If the switch to remote work caused your company to abandon its reward structures entirely, build an updated system by returning to your company values — the real ones, Yip said.
“In times of change when things aren’t normal, values serve as a framework for making decisions in new situations,” he said. “And I’m not talking about marketing-type company values, but actual values that are intrinsic to how the company operates.”
When managers see employees exhibiting company values — especially in unfamiliar situations — that’s a good time to recognize and reward. When performance indicators are in flux, values can serve as benchmarks for employee success and the foundation of new reward systems.
Find Concrete Ways to Boost Visibility Across Teams
When visibility between leaders and teams is low, recognition and rewards can run out of gas.
“There’s not really a sexy solution,” Yip said. Improved visibility will likely require a combination of more meetings and more effective call-outs.
If team leaders are struggling to track employees’ wins and losses, set up meetings to better define reporting processes. Trust employees to do their work, but implement practices that promote voluntary reporting and visibility — like “weekly goals” huddles or a dedicated Slack channel for tracking small victories.
As for call-outs, standard Zoom practices — like hiding faces and pressing mute buttons — are your enemy, Fanning said. When leaders call out an employee’s good work and that announcement is met with a grid of silent faces, it’s a bummer.
“Make sure during these all-hands meetings, everyone unmutes and gives a round of applause or says congratulations or asks questions,” she said. “Just making it more verbal.”
Define Why Affirmation Matters to Your Organization
If affirmation doesn’t play a clear role in your company culture, your efforts will be spotty.
The first step to setting up an effective recognition culture, Yip said, is to understand why you’re doing it. “To motivate employees,” is the baseline. To level up, consider a mission more like “to let my employees know they are seen and appreciated as individuals.”
That mission is the foundation of Blueboard’s value proposition. Usually, the platform helps companies gift high-performing employees sky-diving excursions or music production classes. During the pandemic, it had to shift its offerings to at-home activities, but reception is positive, Yip said. Client companies are giving out science kits for employees to complete with their kids, or online language courses, or Zoom cooking classes. Ideally, companies tailor rewards to individual employees’ personalities and desires, which builds goodwill, Yip said.
“In those moments, companies have this opportunity to show what they stand for. You want to win in those moments.”
“There’s this movement around employees wanting to be more comfortable being who they are at work, this idea of bringing your whole self,” he said. “I think great companies connect with other parts of their employees’ whole selves and support them, when that makes sense, whether that’s maternity benefits, benefits around continuing education, this is all different parts of the whole self.”
When it comes to recognition and rewards, acknowledging an employee’s whole self could look like shifting from one year-end bonus to multiple, personalized awards based on career or performance objectives. Recognition, like anything else, works better when it’s not one size fits all, Yip said.
“We tend to give recognition only for the bigger milestones and achievements,” he said. “But if you think about the employee experience, when you’ve finished a project you’re really proud of or closed a big deal or hit your five-year anniversary, that’s a peak moment in your experience at that company. So in those moments, companies have this opportunity to show what they stand for. You want to win in those moments.”