By Bob Nelson

Recognition has undergone significant changes in just a few generations. By far the most significant current trend in employee recognition is the impact technology is making on the topic. Following are ten other major ways recognition has evolved in today’s work environments.

It’s decentralized and informal

In the past, corporate headquarters or the human resources department was responsible for designing and implementing incentive programs. Typically, they’d oversee a few formal programs that provided infrequent recognition (often just at year-end). Today, the task of motivating employees falls to each manager in his or her sphere of influence, and recognition has become much more informal.

Informal, spontaneous recognition — specifically tied to what matters most on a day-to-day basis — is even more important today due largely to the increased speed and constant change that occurs in business. Managers need to be more “in the moment” in managing their employees. In addition, employees these days expect more frequent recognition. Managers can’t rely solely on formal programs run by HR to motivate their employees; instead, they must take a more hands-on ownership of that task and the connections they build with each of their employees.

Formal recognition touches considerably fewer employees than informal recognition. When you limit your recognition programs to just those very rigid (typically timeline-based) awards, you’re missing a lot of opportunities.

It includes more reward options

In the past, rewards tended to be formal merchandise that executives used in formal recognition programs like employee-of-the-month or retirement celebrations. Now options for employee recognition are much greater, and more times than not, managers give employees a choice. Greater choice equals enhanced motivation, because what’s motivating to one employee may have no meaning to another. Consider these examples:

  • Lifestyle rewards

  • Time off

  • Experiential rewards

  • Training and development

As companies ask employees what they value and then provide those things as they perform, the potential list of recognition possibilities will continue to expand.

It’s more frequent and comes from more sources

The days of expecting annual awards or great performance reviews to motivate an employee for the next twelve months of their work are over; you must recognize deserving employees on an ongoing basis. This means that organizations need to have an expanded variety of recognition tools, and managers need to be creative, flexible, and frequent with their recognition. Fortunately, because recognition can come from any direction, the burden on the manager of having to provide 100 percent of the recognition for his or her employees has declined. Others within (and even outside) organizations are expanding the number of recognition opportunities that can occur. Recognition can come from peers and from customers, as well.

You can also recognize your customers and vendors as a strategy for improving relationships, encouraging business, and promoting quality.

It’s more customized and personal

Today, especially with the advent of software that can track employee preferences, you can customize and personalize rewards to fit the needs and preferences of each employee. Employees’ award selections get customized based on their past point redemption or order history. You can also track how popular different reward items are by tapping into the comment and rating systems to see what items were “liked” by your employees. At the simplest level, you can use this feature to give your employees a greater range of choice in their reward options or to personalize a gift or achievement certificate you select for them yourself.

In addition, website and system design improvements are enabling a higher degree of individual program personalization as well. As technology provides increasingly more options for employee recognition, you must remain vigilant that the personal touch still exists. You still need to add your own personal thanks to employees who have had significant achievements; don’t rely solely on technology to provide all the recognition.

All deserving employees are recognized

Executives used to reserve major incentives such as travel for the organization’s top sales employees. Now, managers recognize employees at all levels and in all functions for meeting or exceeding their objectives. You can give top performers recognition tools and resources so that they can thank the employees who supported them. Alternatively, you can host a team or company party to celebrate a new client account or achievement of the quarter’s financial goals.

It recognizes nonwork behaviors and achievements

Increasingly, managers are using incentives to acknowledge achievements other than work tasks. People tend to repeat behavior for which they get recognized, so if employers are interested in saving on their escalating healthcare costs, for example, they can recognize healthy habits (exercising, eating healthy, and not smoking, for example) and preventive healthcare (such as getting physicals and vaccinations) and for personal achievements in learning and development:

  • Recognition for health and wellness

    There’s a fine line between encouraging and recognizing employees for being healthy and violating employee privacy concerns. Some organizations are starting to charge employees more for their healthcare insurance if they are at greater health risk due to being overweight or having high-blood pressure, for example. And a company my wife worked for actually set an employment policy that they would not hire smokers. Both examples are treading on thin ice.

  • Recognition for training and development

It recognizes new types of workers

Traditional (regular, full-time) employees have become a minority in the workforce today. In a recent year, 65 percent of all employees were independent contractors, working on either a part-time or project basis, paid by the hour, and typically without benefits, vacation time, or sick leave. The number of virtual workers, those who work offsite, often online, has increased over 300 percent in just the last decade.

As contract employees become the norm in the workforce (estimated to increase to over 50 percent of all workers by 2020), managers need to become more aware and skilled in how to motivate workers they may never personally meet face to face.

It emphasizes a performance-based culture

Organizations — especially larger and older organizations — are moving away from a mindset of “taking care of people” to one of “helping employees help themselves.” In other words, companies provide opportunities for employees to learn, grow, perform, and produce in ways that benefit both the organization and the employees themselves.

This change is a function of both business demands (companies increasingly can no longer afford to pay employees’ long-term retirement pensions, for example) and changing employee expectations. Instead of working for just a paycheck, employees want and expect more thanks, appreciation, meaning, and value in the work they do on a daily basis. Therefore, effective recognition is increasingly being based on performance rather than on just showing up for work.

As a manager, you need to constantly check your attitude to make sure you aren’t managing employees from outdated assumptions such as recognizing just for showing up, and recognition not being based on actual achievements. Old school assumptions about human behavior can indicate a manager is out of touch and ineffective in today’s organizations.

Socially responsible rewards are valued

Companies and employees are becoming more socially responsible and environmentally aware in their incentives. As social causes are increasingly important to employees, they are becoming a more significant part of recognition programs everywhere. Managers need to be sensitive and supportive of causes and values that are important to their employees.

It has shifted from getting to giving

Charity incentives and employees’ desire to contribute money or time for community service are at an all-time high. Many employees donate the financial value of rewards they receive to make a difference in the world. You can incorporate this desire for giving into your recognition efforts as well.

  • Cash donations: One of the easiest ways for employees to support a cause they believe in is by donating money. Companies are finding more ways every day to make it easier to partner with their employees in this effort:

  • Volunteer time: Sometimes, companies and employees go beyond cash donations and give of their time. It’s a great way to promote goodwill among employees and a company’s image. Here are some examples: