Humanity Wins the Day – Every Day

October 16, 2020 Eileen Nolan

6-minute read

tree at sunset

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about how change is the new normal, not knowing what we would face just a few months later. This global pandemic has rocked “normal” out of existence. Millions of people are unemployed and millions more are working in a whole new environment – their kitchen tables, garages, and walk-in closets. Just this week, I witnessed a colleague’s teenager low-crawl behind her attempting to avoid the camera. Things are weird. 

In my role, I get to work with some of the world’s most innovative companies. While 2020 has challenged and rewarded each of them in incredible ways, the ones thriving beyond even their own measure stayed true to their long-term strategy of an employee-centric culture. They’ve seen the very best of humanity, teamwork, and resolve and will continue to deliver incredible business results.

This pandemic has also caused many companies to make incredibly difficult business, budgetary, and resource decisions, further straining an already stressed population. A recent Workhuman® survey of more than 16,000 full-time workers across the globe found workers worried about their jobs, stressed most workdays, and feeling lonely at least once a week.

In this environment where individual and cultural resilience are key, what can we do as leaders and executives to help those employees – those we are counting on to keep the lights on – thrive through the uncertainty and the pressure?

Lean into connection

There is the powerful notion that frequent (and often unexpected) recognition and appreciation carries emotional weight. It not only keeps people connected. It connects people. And as it turns out, connection is everything.

recent Workhuman survey found the majority of employees agree that giving and/or receiving a “thank you” during the pandemic: 

  • Made them feel more connected to colleagues.
  • Motivated them to work harder.
  • Helped ease the stress of working remotely.

If you want a glimpse of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a recognition moment, check out my colleague Liz Swenson’s heartfelt piece on celebrating a recent work anniversary. When this kind of appreciation is done at scale – with increased frequency and amplified through social networks – here’s what companies say about its effects:

“Appreciation is a contagious thing – it’s engrained in our culture, and it’s something that’s really powerful for us,” says Kevin Dalton, associate director of human resources at Procter & Gamble (P&G). “Recognition is a key pillar of our strategy.”

“We've been on this journey for a number of years now, about five years, to really take our values and put them into action around recognition and celebration of our team members,” says Kristen Morales-Lemieux, SVP, chief HR officer, Baystate Health. “It's never been more important than it is now.”

Keep teamwork alive

If connection is why people stay, what is your strategy for creating and keeping those connections strong? When Amazon is hiring 100,000 people, and some tech companies are swimming in cash to lure in new employees, what’s keeping your humans on the team?

I don’t think it’s the video calls. (Can I get an “amen”?!)

There’s a trend in the Bay area, which caught my attention a few years ago. Very smart companies began recruiting entire teams away. They realized you can’t buy a team’s performance without investing in the team’s chemistry. And that chemistry is the product of strong social bonds based on trust and a collective alignment with the employer’s mission, vision, and values. 

Research shows great teams focus on appreciation and gratitude. Adam Grant and Francesca Gino found that when people are thanked for their efforts, they experience stronger feelings of self-efficacy and social worth, which motivates them to engage in prosocial behavior.

Teams don’t just celebrate the big and small wins; they know each other personally – they celebrate, console, trust, and work hard together. These bonds transcend any project or initiative.

“During crisis, if anything, what matters is how strong your culture is and how strong the trust is working with each other. And that's been a great testament of the resiliency of the company and the people we work with.” – Tina Kao Mylon, SVP talent and diversity, Schneider Electric

This practice of reinforcing emotional connections not only creates enviable team dynamics, but it also creates a culture that feels like a great place to work for your humans.  

Smart investing

In this new world, we’re not having office parties, eating from the sushi bar, or hitting up the corporate gym for the foreseeable future. Retention bonuses might not be feasible in a do-more-with-less environment. (And there’s also little evidence they really ever worked.) 

Right now, I bet you are discussing 2021 merit increases. Can we agree that this very BIG decision and investment – typically 2-3% of payroll – only delivers about 3-4 weeks of goodwill? What has become an expectation for employees – an unconscious compensation process for organizations – lifts morale and engagement for about 3-4 weeks.

So where does the smart money go? Is there a better way?

How about an always-on strategy that empowers all of your humans and delivers connection, higher engagement, and the kind of cohesion we could all use right now – positivity – for literally a fraction of merit? That goodwill and connected feeling can be delivered in small, frequent recognition moments given by peers, teammates, managers, and leaders – with each carrying that goodwill for 3-4 weeks.

Speaking of teams, we’ve seen a real doubling down of team awards in this new world. Senior leaders are recognizing entire organizations at once for their endurance, commitment, innovation, and perseverance in the eye of the storm. It’s been inspiring to see organizations who’ve had recognition cultures for years surprise and delight employees with Team awards from their CEOs thanking them for their work and recognizing their sacrifices. These heartfelt communications create goodwill that I have just not witnessed before – employees in tears, overcome with emotion, flooding CEOs with “thank you” emails about the personal impact and pride they felt in receiving such recognition. 

Merit, I think we can agree, does not elicit the same emotions.

What’s next

Leaning into Social Recognition® is your best chance to be more strategic and investment-savvy heading into 2021; it’s also the smartest compensation lever you can pull to sustain connection and morale throughout the year. A Social Recognition program invested at 1% of payroll – just a penny on the dollar – not only has demonstrable ROI when it comes to turnover, productivity, performance, and engagement – all things your CFO will love – it also has the ability to create powerful lasting moments. 

My continued advice is to count on your humans. Trust them to highlight excellent work, amplify outstanding people in extraordinary times, build great teams, and celebrate the incredible humanity that is leading your company through a rollercoaster of a year.

Stay safe, remain optimistic, and keep your eyes on the horizon!

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About the Author

Eileen Nolan

Eileen is vice president of strategic accounts at Workhuman where she leads a talented senior team of strategic client directors who partner with some of the highest performing companies around the globe. She has more than 25 years of experience leading and managing change in sales, operations, and human resource management roles. She is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point.

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