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Good recognition for hybrid employees is essential for workplace success

09 May, 2022 Employee recognition

Hybrid work looks like continuing to evolve as the way of the future. The concept of a hybrid workplace is very appealing, but employees in hybrid work modes can be difficult to manage because their varied locations make team management, communication and relationships more difficult. What’s really important in managing hybrid workers is the culture created along the way. Among the important cultural conclusions is that good recognition for hybrid employees is essential for workplace success.

Proof of the importance of hybrid work

What is hybrid work?

Hybrid work is a flexible work mode in which employees work partly in the physical workplace, and partly remotely – at home or from another workspace. The extent of the hybrid mode being used varies according with each the organization using it. Workers may come to the office on most days, a couple of days per week or may only attend a monthly staff meeting in person periodically, eg once a month. Some organizations may use a combination of all of those, tailored to the requirements of each business unit and the individuals employed there.

Hybrid working started around five decades ago, with flexible working and teleworking gaining popularity with the emergence of personal computers in the 1970s and then with the internet in the 1990s. However, at the beginning of 2020, still only 5% of work hours in America were spent at home. Then COVID forced a dramatic change. By spring 2020 this had risen to 60%. And by October 2021, that figure was still at 40%.

This has been a worldwide trend. Millions of people who had never had the opportunity or interest in working away from an office were now experiencing a different mode of work, and many found they could work as effectively in a hybrid or remote mode.

However, a hybrid workforce is more diversified than organizations expected. For example, Canadian company, BI WORLDWIDE (BIW) reports that they employ a multi-generational workforce, with baby boomers leaving the workforce in a few years and Gen Z entering the workforce. This generational shift has changed the landscape and how they engage employees.

BIW employs flexitime workers, gig workers, part-time, and contractors. The company has people who work in an office vs. a factory or a retail store or a warehouse. They have a vast range of employees with different personalities. How they handle the new work environment, their personal situations at home and in life, and, of course, the growing diversity of the workforce, is something they have to contend with.

Image, opposite: BIW WORLDWIDE.

Experts predict the hybrid workplace will continue in the foreseeable future. Some employers will see great advantages in it, but others may decide innovation, creativity and collaboration work better when everyone is together. It will depend on what top management consider are the net benefits and costs.

The hybrid model provides important benefits for workers and businesses alike. Another May 2021 WEF article, “Hybrid working is here to stay. But what does that mean in your office?” mentions a study in which employees reported better work-life balance, greater schedule control and less stress as key benefits. And the C-suite highlighted that the hybrid approach increases productivity and engagement, lowers real estate costs, and helps attract and retain talent.

However, respondents agreed that while working from home has its advantages, being able to access to an office space is critical – not only for building relationships, but also for people to have a space to go to when they need to focus on their work.

The WEF article says that effective workforce management is also critical when it comes to getting the hybrid approach right. Businesses need to set clear guidelines for what tasks need to be done in the office versus at home. And it’s important that managers approach their hybrid plans with empathy and fairness in mind. This means understanding what works best for each employee, but also ensuring that remote work adjustments aren’t being provided to some workers more than others (eg parents versus those without children).

Now that workers have had a taste of hybrid and remote work mode, they want to continue it – and employers need to be across this. An article published by the US Institute for Public Relations in May 2022 reports that a survey of knowledge workers in 6 countries has found “Inflexible return-to-office policies are harming the employee experience.” A note of warning to employers about the problems that will invariably follow!

Connection risks in a hybrid work environment

The hybrid workplace has relationship risks that need to be managed carefully. The biggest risk is the difference in power between managers and their WFH/hybrid staff compared with the stronger connection that other staff gain from working at headquarters or a regional management building.

Pitfalls of hybrid work for managers and employees

For employees

A significant power differential can happen simply through access in the physical workplace, according to an observation by Wharton management professor Martine Haas in a 2021 Knowledge at Wharton newsletter. On-site employees get the benefit of immediate access to all the people and product resources available there. Employees can more easily network and collaborate in the office. By contrast, remote/hybrid workers may struggle with personal and technical connections, which make it difficult for them to demonstrate their competence.

“If you have more access to resources and more visibility, that makes you potentially a more powerful, influential person in your team or in your work group,” Prof. Haas said.

For managers

Managers are also confronted by new issues in the hybrid workplace. Some workers may need help in accessing resources, while others may want to feel more connected to their colleagues.

Managers also have to be vigilant about worker visibility. They shouldn’t rely on — or reward — only the employees who are with them in the office.

Remote managers should be aware of their own visibility issues. They must ensure they are available to both remote and co-located employees. Managers who work away from their teams for some or all of the time always run the risk of not knowing exactly what’s going on, according to Prof. Haas.

Strong workplace relationships are vital for recognition of hybrid employees

Half of remote employees and 55% of hybrid staff say they feel lonelier at work than before changing their work patterns. “Relationship building is the biggest challenge for leaders in this new normal,” according to the Microsoft 2022 Work Trend Index study.

“It’s one worth prioritizing,” Microsoft says, because strong team relationships are linked to higher wellbeing and productivity. “Employees are ready to stop emailing and start connecting,” the survey finds. Leaders need to recognize this by prioritizing time for relationship building.

Peer-to-peer recognition is even more effective

Interestingly, researchers from the Complutense University of Madrid in a 2015 surveyed a representative sample of 1,831 Spanish workers, and found the effect of recognition by peers is “two times greater” than recognition from supervisors on the “positive psychological functioning” of the workers. The researchers point out the influence of recognition given by co-workers as a sign of membership, integration and acceptance.”

Research has also found that when supervisors felt their organization valued their contributions and cared about their well-being, supervisors in turn provided support to their employees. So supervisors responded reciprocally, building a positive environment that influenced performance.

Image opposite: Microsoft Work Trend Index 2022.

Also noted is that “different studies demonstrate the relationship between employee recognition and some positive variables: employee performance and retention, employee morale, motivation, job satisfaction, happiness and positive mood, organizational and professional commitment, engagement, and perceived organizational support.” [Sources for all these factors are referenced in the article.]

Make the small connections count

Some companies are experiencing higher productivity during the pandemic. According to the survey featured in the above 2021 WEF article, “9 out of 10 organizations are switching to hybrid working, according to a McKinsey survey,” they’re the ones supporting small connections between colleagues—opportunities to discuss projects, share ideas, network, mentor, and coach, for example. Two-thirds of productivity-leading organizations report that these kinds of “micro-transactions” have increased, compared with just 9% of those who haven’t had increased productivity. As executives look to sustain pandemic-style productivity gains with a hybrid model, they will need to design and develop the right spaces for these small interactions to take place.

Therefore, a recognition framework needs to be tailored to work in today’s hybrid world. So, how do we best recognize employees for their good work in diversified workplaces?

Why recognition of hybrid employees matters

A significant risk to effective recognition activities in a hybrid workplace is that you can tend to overlook team members’ less obvious contributions if they’re remote, causing resentment, and the non-monetary rewards that make sense for office workers just don’t translate.

Here are some guiding principles to enable effective recognition for hybrid employees:

  1. Ask people what they want, and really listen.
  2. Remember that remote working isn’t a reward in itself.
  3. Be aware of bias, and find ways to tackle it. Presence bias, or presence disparity, can leave in-office employees seeming like the model for your organization – and the hard work of hybrid workers overlooked. Read the tips in this article to help you tackle that, so no-one feels unrecognized.
  4. Create a culture of ‘kudos,’ communicated online. Do you communicate most in emails, messaging tools, or video calls when you’re out-of-office? Whatever it is, use that channel to regularly communicate ‘thank you’ and ‘well done’ – both one-to-one, and to your team as a whole. Fundamentally, people want to be appreciated.
  5. Give options and alternatives for team rewards and recognition for hybrid employees.

My article, “Employee recognition is important: Here’s how to do it well,” details how to give recognition to deserving individuals.

Transitioning to digital recognition for hybrid employees

More organizations are encouraging more employee recognition activities to compensate for the lack of face-to-face engagement. They are also exploring digital options for many recognition programs such as nomination-based award programs and service award programs. They are pursuing anything that has a mix of offline and online recognition, which has now become mainly an online experience.

Organizations are also communicating more about recognition for hybrid employees, and are equipping leaders and managers with digital tools for individual and team recognition.

Barriers have also broken down. The manager-employee relationship has now become more emotional. Managers see team members at home due to Zoom, often meeting their families, their children and their pets. This has taken their relationships to another level. This has created more empathy and stronger bonds between managers and the peers of workers.

Needs vary with each organization. Typically, the foundation of a recognition framework should reinforce your core values.

It’s important to capture personal moments and milestones. Your employees are more than just employees: They’re now more of a family, a friend, a volunteer, and they have a lot of achievements and milestones outside of work. Managing all of those aspects of life can often be challenging.

Encouraging team members to celebrate their co-workers’ personal milestones lets them know they are perceived as real people; that they are appreciated for who they are and the other events they have in their lives. Birthdays, anniversaries, new babies, earning a degree, many personal milestones deserve recognition. Get team members to have a little fun writing a congratulatory note or finding an appropriate image to personalize such messages.

Recognition in hybrid meetings

You should consistently communicate and apply your expectations for new guidelines covering hybrid meetings, a 2020 Harvard Business Review article recommends. The guidelines will build the foundation for successful employee recognition for people in hybrid working mode.

Recommendations

  • People working from home tend to be overlooked too often. You could develop a ground rule that all-team meetings will be held as video meetings, even though some team members may be together in the office. Team members will feel more equal if they are all on the video call. Hybrid meetings are more difficult for those who aren’t gathered together in the room. Listening is a bit harder, and there is inevitably side chatter in the room and people shuffling papers, which reduce the quality of listening.
  • Communication. Agree on which channels to use for communication, and in which circumstances – email, Slack, phone, etc.Decide how and where you are going to communicate, who has access to what information, who needs to be in which meetings, and who needs to be involved in which decisions. The team should agree on how to communicate. Should they always include the entire team? Should they acknowledge every message?
  • You need to arrange how your team plans to structure their working hours. Obviously, people in WFH mode will want more flexibility than those still in the office. Some compromises may be needed.
  • Ensure staff in the office don’t talk about work in a way that may accidentally exclude remote colleagues. Make certain that all team members are nudged to contribute to discussions. Encourage your group to bring in remote team members to discuss a topic by simply calling them on the phone. You could also record all video meetings so people who unavoidably can’t attend, can catch up with the gist of the conversation later.
  • Advisers suggest starting each regular (eg weekly or monthly) all-team meeting with recognition gestures to deserving individuals and even the whole team for good work. And give the team members the opportunity to praise each other when deserved.

Work anywhere. Recognize from everywhere

Here are some helpful recognition strategies. BI Worldwide say the first 8 strategies have worked well for their own staff as well as their clients:

  1. Make every interaction count – Interactions that employees have in a hybrid working environment mean more to them now than they did in an office environment at the start of the pandemic.
  2. Make it personal – More than ever, successful leadership involves a strong appreciation of each employee’s abilities, aspirations and how they work best. Success with this rule is critical to achieving all the others.
  3. Make it real, genuine, and authentic – Empower your team members to own the recognition that they received. Your employees have an opportunity in every interaction to engage their peers, their managers, and even their clients.
  4. Check in – While regularly taking time to say hello to employees and check in with them might seem like an unnecessary drain on manager productivity, these interactions are valuable points of connection for your team and for you.
  5. Send employee appreciation gifts – Show your staff how grateful you are with employee appreciation gifts – even standard gifts like flowers, cards, chocolates, etc.
  6. Conversations – Conversations are a very effective way of strengthening relationships. With Zoom and digital fatigue becoming more common, making a Zoom call with your employees to just “have a chat” can help support individuals.
  7. Virtual celebrations – Celebrating a birthday or service anniversary? Make a video call together for lunch or a drink. Decorate your backdrop, play games, wear hats. Being virtual is a great opportunity to get creative. And remember to treat your hybrid colleagues equally.
  8. Instant recognition – In a hybrid environment where you can’t walk over to a person’s desk to thank them, it’s important to make the recognition instant over video to make it meaningful and maximize impact. Understand from the person you are praising whether they are comfortable to be praised in front of a group (during all-team video meetings), or directly person-to-person on a video call..
Other constructive suggestions
  1. Share the praise your team has earned from customers – internal and/or external.
  2. Provide some home-workout equipment for best workers.
  3. Suggest your team start a virtual book club.
  4. Plan virtual happy hours and game nights if your group members are receptive.
  5. Plan a virtual wellness plan for those interested.
  6. Offer a gift to your team members’ pets, after making sure they are suitable and welcomed by the individuals concerned.
  7. Offer online and development courses.
  8. Handwrite a simple ‘thank you’ note and post to arrive as a surprise at their home.
  9. Recognize good work attitude and results everywhere – People used to base their recognition efforts on an office environment. But not now. Learn what works for you and your team in a hybrid environment. There’s no set formula. And remember- when peer recognition is given, also arrange a gift for the giver.
And some suggestions from Gallup

These suggestions from Gallup take into account hybrid and remote workers:

  • Start your next team meeting by recognizing someone on the call who did exceptional work in the past week while working remotely.
  • Every Friday, think of three people who really helped you this week. Recognize them privately or publicly, based on your knowledge of what they prefer. (If you don’t know how they like to be recognized, ask.)
  • Find creative ways to make recognition special.
  • If your team is fully remote, establish regular, non-required virtual hangouts for employees to connect socially. Use these times to encourage, support and praise your team.

Adapt!

A vast number of recognition activities can be used for face-to-face recognition. You can easily adapt many of them to suit remote and hybrid workers as well as in-office recognition. You can read about all these in my ebook, Employee Recognition – the secret to great team performance, which contains more than a hundred recognition ideas for individuals and teams, many of which outline recognition suitable for hybrid employees.

In addition, a big array of digital tools for recognition programs is on the internet. This article from SnackNation is helpful for understanding the range of software that provides recognition for hybrid employees. Just remember that face-to-face recognition is the most effective, and tools are a substitute for that.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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