Bosses are finding new ways to boost employee satisfaction

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Gratitude doesn’t pay rent, but it can make late shifts easier to tolerate.

“When I started working back then, your paycheck was supposed to be your recognition,” said Chris Brennan, a performance specialist for human resources firm Insperity, who has spent nearly two decades in the HR. But employers now know the financial benefits of praise. “It’s the goose that lays the golden egg,” he said. “You have to treat people well so they want to do more for the organization.”

From this understanding came an economy of recognition, which takes many forms: “employee of the month” plaques (and associated free parking spaces), holiday chocolates, indoor food trucks. These benefits have become more difficult to distribute during the pandemic, with some people working from home, and many also trying to create greater emotional distance between themselves and their work. But high turnover rates and low unemployment have reminded managers that their efforts to motivate workers are badly needed, just when they are most difficult to execute.

Companies are therefore devising inventive methods to give long-distance recognition. (Especially this week: Friday is National Employee Appreciation Day.) They’re offering personalized candles, shopping sprees, company-wide shoutouts, and quarterly days off. McKinsey recently held a “thank you tuna.” OC Tanner, a software company, is inviting family members of workers to Zoom meetings to celebrate their accomplishments. Sunglass Hut employees sent 137,000 messages last year on its internal appreciation platform, Sunspired. Freebie company &Open is asking employees to send each other taco emojis via Slack, giving away a meal voucher to the five people with the most tacos at the end of the month.

The benefits of affirmation in the workplace have perhaps never been so widely affirmed and creatively interpreted. But being assertive generally benefits workers who talk more about their accomplishments or those who are able to let go of family or personal obligations to take on last-minute work tasks. And the challenges of recognition aren’t just about improving people’s moods, but about who gets opportunities for advancement and the higher pay that comes with them.

“Being affirmed and recognized can build trust,” said Mr. Brennan, who has advised his clients to reward their top performers by inviting them to be “CEOs for a Day,” which means giving presentations of whole company and even dress like the CEO. “I’ve seen it turn someone from a staff member into a leader.”

Executives who emphasize recognition have often learned from periods in their careers when they felt underappreciated. Take Evan Wilson, chief experience officer at Meritrust Credit Union in Wichita, Kansas, who spent his early years in the office wondering why no one seemed to notice the overtime he was putting in at a regional bank.

He swears by Dr. White and Dr. Chapman’s “5 Appreciation Languages ​​at Work,” adapted from the languages ​​of love. Mr. Wilson asks all of his direct reports to take the assessment. And he responds by leaving his office door open for the employee whose language is quality time, for example. It also asks company officials to rate themselves on their ability to give recognition, on a scale of one to ten, and suggests that those who struggle count on languages ​​for a boost.

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