Remote employee receiving reward and recognition

Ask Madison: How have employee rewards and recognition programs changed now 7 months after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic?

October 20, 2020
| ByJudd Weisgal

In March 2020, the United States saw the start of official programs to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus across the country. While timelines and strategies varied from locale to locale, the beginning of the most wide-spread recommendations to implement safety measures began taking shape during early Spring and affected virtually all aspects of our everyday lives. Many school districts across the country broke for Spring Break, never to return the remainder of the year. In-person work settings that were able to transition to remote work environments began doing so at break-neck speed to keep operations flowing while adhering to strict regulations. Healthcare and essential workers carried the load of keeping our country moving on the front-line and faced the surges of illness at medical facilities. The economic landscape thrust into a state of uncertain volatility with each passing day. And people of all ages altered virtually every daily routine they had become accustomed to in a span of a few short weeks.

Now seven months later, we are experiencing a different world, both socially and economically. Our learning environments run the gamut with hybrids of distance learning and in-person instruction; Full remote workforces have remained in play when it made sense to do so; How we choose to spend our free time recreationally has limits and safety protocols.

We had and continue to have guidelines in place for many businesses specific to their industries: Office layouts are configured to maximize safety; retail establishments introduced special shopping times for vulnerable populations, directional signs on floors and mask-wearing mandates; educational institutions implemented classroom PPE, daily temperature checks and comprehensive contract-tracing procedures. Everything has been altered and we seem to be in a perpetual state of adjustment, ringing true the mantra that “the only constant is change.”

But where is the roadmap for operating an employee rewards and recognition program?

As we’ve talked with our customers and guided them on how to adjust their programs during the pandemic, the resounding consensus was that their employees desperately needed to feel a part of something, reassured, and yes, appreciated. While many individuals grappled with fear of pending unemployment, illness or a life change, the comfort of knowing their employer had their best interests at heart and was appreciative of the work they were doing despite the stressful times they were working in, helped make the unknown bearable, all of which will translate into renewed engagement with the company.

What did companies do to adjust their Employee Rewards and Recognition (R&R) Programs?

First and foremost, they focused on health, wellness and personal needs. In the past rewards were often based on what might be nice-to-have as opposed to what someone would need. During the height of the pandemic and continuing in post-COVID recovery, gestures like tickets to an event changed to gift cards for food delivery services or subscriptions to health and wellness programs like online fitness training. Rewards were not necessarily whimsical as much as they were practical and based on what was needed at the right time.

The focus on employee wellness not only resulted in tangible items, but also in a new mindset. By following guidelines that focused on recognizing employee hardship and caring about the general health of employees and their families, R&R programs once again displayed the humanness and connectivity they were designed for. Senior leadership engaged more, managers began meetings with well checks and small moments were celebrated because it was the right thing to do and so needed at the moment.

Recognition also translated to time, or more importantly, flexibility, for employees. With illnesses and new work adjustments, employees needed understanding and support that allowed them to do their jobs within unusual circumstances. While not usually part of a traditional R&R system, the reward of time was an important aspect for adjusting to the new normal of work. Not to be confused with PTO and general benefits, some companies opted to offer incentives for flexibility, breaks, and schedule adjustments that all fall under the umbrella of recognizing and valuing employees and trying to help them stay well.

A major shift to virtual recognition

As many organizations flipped the switch to remote or virtual work to adhere to regulations, we now see that some are opting to keep it that way for the time-being. And with that change, comes an adjustment to how workers are recognized when they are not in front of you.

Organizations had already been challenged in the past to make sure remote workers felt as included in their culture as those physically in the office; with the quick model change we experienced during the pandemic, many individuals were now “remote” workers, significantly changing any R&R programs that had been put in place. Social recognition elements continue to ramp up since they can be attributed from anywhere to anyone. Investments in technology continue to be explored to enable more sophisticated online recognition tools through video use, networking platforms and real-time congratulatory moments.

In-person events also gave way to elaborate online venues. Aside from video conferencing that became daily communication, awards programs, celebrations and large-scale company gatherings designed to recognize teams for their good work are now being supported by high-level production tools to create memorable experiences. Virtual “parties” and celebrations can be grand-scale – and while production can be costly, it likely a fraction of what would have been spent for an in-person event.

Even with online meeting platforms gaining traction, however, as restrictions began to lift, in-person events that offered the connection and interpersonal relationships employees craved, called for planning teams to pull out all the stops for creativity. “Pods” were designed for social distancing measures, event locations would be configured and designed for safety; giveaways gave way to PPE swag and technology continued to be a heavy influencer to keep attendees connected but with less contact, even when on-site. 

Expanding R&R programs to non-traditional workers and third-party recipients

Organizations have also noticed an uptick in hiring independent professionals as well, a trend that will be on the rise. In response, rewards and recognition program leaders are finding that it’s time to catch up to this change in the workforce and expand their offerings to these non-traditional workers.

At Madison, we have explored new opportunities with our clients to increase goodwill, improve morale and cultivate an engaging culture for all those who contribute to the success of the organization. From a business sense, extending R&R programs is worthwhile to an organization’s reputation as well as their ability to recruit and retain top talent, as independent contractors react favorably to being included and recognized for their hard work. Who wouldn’t?

In addition to IC inclusivity, R&R programs also began expanding rewards to third-party recipients, encompassing not just work-related accolades but personal ones. Many organizations used R&R resources to help their employees pay-it-forward to recognize their efforts in the community, not just during the 9-5 workday. While we were keeping apart for safety, we also recognized the needs to help one another through difficult times. Employees were choosing to accept their well-deserved rewards as a benefit to others, organizing community drives, charity-matching donations and more. It’s a double-win for an organization as well because not only does this type of reward expansion show value to employees and improve relationships, it also supports corporate social responsibility (CSR) opportunities when efforts are aligned.

Budget concerns: doing more with less and reallocating priorities

While many organizations understood the need to embrace their employees during the pandemic, the reality was that many balance sheets were feeling heavy strain, leaving leaders to evaluate resources.

While a hiatus on heavy spending may have been necessary, programs that were already established were able to pivot to non-monetary methods to celebrate and recognize their employees. Through social recognition programs, peer mentoring and simply expanding upon human empathy, managers and team members strengthened bonds that will prove to be invaluable in the long run. Organizing donation drives, providing wellness guidance and using the power of thank you, are all creative ways to maintain a culture of recognition.

Also, in many instances, social distancing and gathering regulations resulted in canceled events and programs, events that had been budget line items. These plan changes opened up avenues to shift gears in finances as it related to supporting and celebrating employees during hardship.

For companies that were still able to maintain a pre-pandemic budget, partners like Madison were able to work with them on understanding and managing the financial models that are available to support a comprehensive rewards and recognition program in a variety of ways.

And yet, even though economic stability was top of mind, we learned that even if changes needed to be made for financial responsibility, employee rewards and recognition was still a large part of the conversation as a valuable component for organizations. Employees needed to feel valued more than ever during the pandemic and now in its aftermath; employers took note and kept on course with their programs, even if they had to take a new path here and there.

The Roadmap to Recovery in rewards and recognition is winding!

As a leader in the space, it is our responsibility to stay ahead of the curve and anticipate the needs of our customers as they seek to support their employees. As elements of rewards and recognition change, our key is keeping the mission top of mind: to create ways to give workforces the power to engage and inspire anytime, anywhere. We will continue to communicate strategic and practical advice on how and where to adjust programs so that they are best suited to meet that mission. To continue learning what’s on the horizon, Madison invites you to tune into season 3 of the White Swan podcast series which focuses on how R&R emerges during post-COVID recovery time. Join our own Judd Weisgal as he speaks with HRO Today’s Elliott Clark about where our industry is going, the challenges we will face in a post-COVID world, and what we all can do to keep recognizing and celebrating our workforces.

At Madison, it’s not business as usual, but instead, we are focused on support. Supporting our invaluable customers by maintaining business continuity, sharing advice about new working models and providing an opportunity to connect with others. 

While you adjust to your new working routine – whether it be at home or part of an essential service - please join the conversation. Ask Madison is an opportunity to share ideas, ask questions and help create our ‘new normal’, together. We believe that employee recognition is an essential business function and that, now more than ever, it is our responsibility to celebrate each other, recognize every milestone and collaborate together—even though we may be sitting apart.

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