Boost retention and energy with 26 unique employee appreciation ideas

March 2, 2022 - 27 min read

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Types of employee recognition

Why is employee recognition important?

Virtual employee appreciation ideas

Employee gift ideas

Free employee appreciation ideas

Employee appreciation ideas for teams

Company culture and employee appreciation

Making your employees feel valued has many perks, from increased retention to better productivity. But showing your appreciation as a manager is easier said than done. Especially when so many teams are working remotely.

But how do you show your team that you value them in an authentic, meaningful way? 

Beyond a simple “great job,” what can you do to show your appreciation for your employees’ dedication and hard work?

Here’s a list of unique employee appreciation ideas to keep your team members from feeling like just another cog in the wheel.

Types of employee recognition

Because of different personality types, people are driven by different types of recognition. While some employees thrive off verbal recognition, others put more value on physical gift ideas. It’s important to use a combination of long-term and short-term recognition to effectively inspire your team into action.

Here are the three types of employee recognition you can use:

1. Formal recognition

Formal recognition is structured. There is a criterion set by management that aligns with the team goals. This recognition generally has a top-down approach. Leaders, managers, or HR offer gratitude to employees on behalf of the company.

Formal recognition programs are often predictable and ceremonial. With this type of employee recognition, employees know what they have to do to earn this praise.

For example, a manager may set the requirements for how to achieve the award for best customer service. The employee who wins the award receives formal recognition in the form of a gift card or certificate.

2. Informal recognition

Informal recognition is personalized and spontaneous. It is used to acknowledge employees’ contributions, often at a low cost or without material rewards.

An example of informal recognition is a manager throwing a pizza party for a team who did great work on a project. 

Because it isn’t structured, informal recognition is at the discretion of managers. It can be used to reinforce specific behaviors or actions through constructive feedback.

3. Everyday recognition

Everyday recognition is also known as micro-recognition. It includes the small gestures of appreciation that happen on a day-to-day basis. It can be as simple as saying thank you or giving a high five.

Everyday recognition is interpersonal. Employees recognize one another through social praise rather than material incentives.

Although it is often used by effective leaders, everyday recognition also happens between team members.

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No type of employee recognition is necessarily more important than the other. Each type plays a role in creating a positive employee experience

As a leader, it’s important to acknowledge all of them at some point. Effective leaders will use a combination of formal, informal, and everyday recognition to sustainably motivate their team.

We’ll break down these ideas and more in a later section. First, let’s answer an important question.

Why is employee recognition important?

How much impact does employee recognition really have? Let’s look at how a bit of appreciation can go a long way for your team.

  • Encourages a sense of purpose. When employees are recognized for their hard work, they feel like they are a part of something bigger than them. Recognition helps them understand how their work contributes to the broader company mission. In turn, this fosters a sense of purpose.
  • Boosts employee engagement and productivity. Showing appreciation for great work makes employees more engaged because they want to do their best. Recognizing employees with gifts of appreciation can increase motivation and boost productivity.
  • Greater employee satisfaction. Recognition helps employees feel appreciated, which in turn helps them feel good about themselves and the job they’re doing. Knowing that their work is making an impact makes employees more satisfied with their organization.

Virtual employee appreciation ideas

In the COVID-19 pandemic, working remotely has become the norm for many employees. Even though you aren’t physically with your employees, showing your appreciation is still important. It might be even more important to maintain a sense of belonging.

But how do you show your team you value their work when you’re not in the same room?

Here are some ways to show your virtual teams how much you appreciate them.

1. Online yoga class

Get your employees away from their desks with a virtual yoga class. Introducing your team to yoga isn’t just a way to bond over a new activity. It will also introduce them to a new physical activity that’s important for their mind, body, and soul.

This token of appreciation shows that you take employee wellness into account.

2. Shoutout on social media

If you know your employee enjoys getting some attention, why not make your appreciation public?

Put them in the spotlight with a shoutout on your company’s social media. Posting their professional headshot and tagging them is sure to make them proud.

This modern-day form of employee recognition is easy to do and cost-effective. But don’t underestimate its impact, especially considering people spend on average 145 minutes per day on social media.

3. Thank-you email

Some employees may appreciate a more low-key acknowledgment. In this case, a thank you email is a great way to show your appreciation from afar.

Ensure that your email is personalized and includes specifics on what part of their performance you appreciate. This could be thanking them for their enthusiasm, their hard work, or their great teamwork.

4. Virtual team activity

With so many employees working from home these days, there’s no shortage of activities for your team to do online.

Virtual team-building games will help your employees build those human connections that are so important for teamwork. Engaging in a fun group activity will also keep your remote employees motivated and collaborative.

Some ideas include a virtual escape room, a company-themed quiz, or even an online chocolate tasting. If you’re not sure which idea to go for, ask for some feedback from your team on what they’d prefer.

5. One-on-one meeting

Face-to-face communication matters. This is because seeing one another allows us to pick up on body language.

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Although you can’t be in the same room, a one-on-one virtual meeting lets you harness the power of nonverbal communication. Smiling ‌and making eye contact with your employees will add more value to your words of recognition.

Just make sure that when you schedule an impromptu meeting that your employee knows it’s for a good reason. If your employee is anxious before the meeting, it negates the intended effect.

6. Online social hour

A virtual happy hour is an online social event where everyone on the team gets together for some non-work-related fun. Use themes, games, icebreakers, snacks, and drinks to create a fun atmosphere.

This kind of organized social interaction is a great way for remote workers to bond and get to know each other better. Many employees are starved for what used to be common: social connection. It shows that you recognize them as individuals and not just as workers.

7. Gift box delivery

Who doesn’t love receiving some goodies delivered to their door? Boost employee morale with a gift box delivery that is sure to put a smile on your employee’s face. It could be a simple care package or a gourmet food gift basket.

If you want to go the extra mile, curate your gift box for each employee. For example, if you know they have a passion for cooking, send them a foodie gift box for them to whip up some amazing meals. Showing that you know their unique interests is a powerful form of employee recognition.

8. Add to their home office

While it can promote creativity, working from home is a sacrifice for some employees, especially those working from home with kids.

According to a study, 71% of remote workers are still “improvising” a workspace at home. Nearly 1 out of 3 use their bedroom as their office.

To make working from home a little easier, send your employees something to improve their home office setup. An ergonomic office chair, a wireless mouse, or even a plant could brighten their day.

9. "No meeting" periods

Zoom fatigue is real. Having to constantly communicate online can be socially and mentally exhausting, sometimes to the point of burnout

Show your appreciation for your employees’ time and energy by time blocking sessions for no meetings. These periods of uninterrupted time can increase productivity and reduce stress.

Employee gift ideas

Acknowledge your employees’ hard work in creative ways that matter to them. These employee gift ideas send a strong message that you value them as individuals.

10. Treats for the office

Walking into the office to be greeted by some delicious treats is sure to put a spring in your team’s step. Express your gratitude for the energy they burn at the office by refueling their minds and bodies.

Opt for healthy (but still delicious) snacks that will keep them fueled for longer. Certain foods like dark chocolate, nuts, and fresh fruit are also good for concentration.

11. Mentoring program

Establishing a mentorship program benefits everyone involved — the mentor, mentee, and company.

By assigning an employee a mentee, you’re giving the new mentor more authority and a sense of importance. This shows them that you trust them and value their experience. And by having a positive role model, mentoring helps new employees feel supported.

12. Workspace benefits

Creating a happy workspace is pivotal to a happy team. 

A comfortable working environment doesn’t just enable employees to focus and do their job well. Office environment has a great influence on employees’ attitude, satisfaction, and work performance.

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Acknowledge the time they spend in the office by offering healthy workspace benefits. Options include ergonomic seating, sit-stand desks, and mindfulness rooms.

13. Gift card

If you have no idea what employee appreciation ideas your team would like, a gift card is always a safe bet. It allows them to choose the reward they like the most. 

Make sure to accompany a personalized thank-you note with the gift card. You don’t want your gesture of appreciation to be too generic and inauthentic.

14. Invest in career development

Employee recognition doesn’t always take the form of extra time off and gifts. Show that you appreciate your employees by investing in their career paths. For example, you can pay for them to attend a training program that they are passionate about.

By helping them build the necessary skills for their career development, you’re showing that you take them seriously as a professional and as an asset to the company.

15. Extra day off

Reward employees by giving them some extra time off. Let them choose when they’d like to take an extra day of paid vacation. This way, they can use the day for something important to them, whether that’s time for self-care or for a long-standing family tradition.

Remember, PTO is PTO, a mental health day is a mental health day, and a sick day is a sick day. Make sure you’re encouraging your employees to take an “extra” day off and not just lumping it with time off they already have access to. 

Free employee appreciation ideas

An employee recognition program doesn’t have to be an expensive affair. Use these expense-free employee appreciation ideas to praise them without the heavy price tag.

16. Employee of the month

Every month, choose the best employee whose actions have made a positive impact on the company. You can also have a fun traveling trophy to celebrate the accomplishments of an individual employee. Fun employee award ideas include “Full of Enthusiasm Award” or “The Early Bird Award.”

There’s no need to splurge on a fancy gold-plated trophy. This appreciation is symbolic of their strengths and talents. This form of public recognition is something all employees can work toward, which encourages participation and productivity.

17. Celebrate work anniversaries

Loyalty to a company is the key ingredient to reducing employee turnover. Show how much you value an employee’s dedication by celebrating the milestone with the entire organization. Get the team together in the break room for donuts, balloons, and a speech from the boss.

18. Ask for employee appreciation ideas

Show your team that you appreciate them and their input by asking how they would prefer to be recognized. Just by asking for feedback, you’re showing them that you value them as individuals. 

You’ll also know what to get them the next time you’re looking for fresh appreciation ideas for employees.

19. Write a thank-you letter

Not all employee appreciation gift ideas have to be a big show. Sometimes, simplicity is key.

Show your gratitude for their good work with a handwritten thank-you note. In our technology-driven age, an old-fashioned, handwritten note can be extra meaningful.

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If possible, hand them the letter in person, with a verbal, “Thank you for your work.” Your employees will appreciate that you took the time to reach out. 

20. Host peer-to-peer recognition sessions

Recognition shouldn’t just be coming from the boss. Survey results show that companies that use peer-to-peer recognition have seen a 57% increase in engagement.

Make it easy for your team to show appreciation for each other with dedicated peer-to-peer recognition sessions. Knowing that their team members appreciate and respect their work will make each employee feel motivated.

Employee appreciation ideas for teams

Recognizing great teamwork encourages even more collaboration and innovative thinking. Keep everyone’s spirits up with these team-inspired employee recognition ideas.

21. Team lunch

Escape the office for an hour or two by taking your team out for lunch. Because consistency is key with employee recognition, schedule a team lunch on a regular basis. This will give your employees something to look forward to.

Sharing a meal with your team gives them the opportunity to speak to you as a person, not as a boss. Encourage them to speak up and share their thoughts, whether they’re work-related or not. It’s also a great way to have the team socialize in a non-work setting. 

22. Company swag

Make your employees feel proud to be a part of your company with some branded company swag. T-shirts, tech accessories, coffee mugs, and water bottles are all practical birthday presents they’ll love to unbox. These tokens of appreciation are also a great way to build team culture and a sense of community.

23. Team volunteering

It pays to pay it forward. Studies show that volunteering creates a “helper’s high”, which are positive emotions following selfless service to others. Helping others also enhances a team’s overall sense of purpose and identity. 

Organize a corporate volunteer program so your team can experience the positive impact of giving back. Ask them if there is a specific cause they’d like to donate their time to, such as fighting climate change and promoting environmental health.

24. Holiday party

For many people, the holidays are a time of added pressure. To beat this holiday stress, arrange a festive party for your employees. A well-organized party shows your team that you appreciate their work, but you also want them to have some fun.

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While December is often when office parties happen, your parties don’t have to be a Christmas affair. Encourage diversity and inclusion by having celebrations related to different cultures, from Diwali and Hanukkah to Chinese New Year and Ramadan.

If you go this route, make sure to get representatives from that culture involved beforehand to determine if such a celebration is appropriate. This helps avoid potentially tone-deaf or offensive missteps.

Don’t forget about Employee Appreciation Day, which takes place on the first Friday in March.

25. Start an employee wellness challenge

Exercise is a crucial part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Show appreciation for your employees and help them reach their fitness goals with a workplace wellness challenge.

A wellness challenge encourages employees to be the best version of themselves. It also creates opportunities for some healthy competition. 

For example, you can set up a set challenge for your team to see which department can collectively walk the most steps each week. Be sure to include modifications of the challenge that make it fun and accessible for people of all abilities. This kind of internal gamification is what keeps employees engaged and motivated.

26. Team fitness trackers

The best way to work on your physical well-being is to be aware of how much activity you get throughout the day. Because well-being goes beyond physical fitness, it’s also important for your team to manage their stress and sleeping habits.

To get them inspired for a wellness challenge, gift each team member with their own fitness tracker, stress tracker, or sleep tracker.

Around 1 in 5 Americans say they regularly use a smartwatch or fitness tracker, and their demand is set to increase. Rest assured that your employees are going to love these popular gadgets as a token of your appreciation.

Company culture and employee appreciation

These appreciation ideas for your employees are so much more than gifts and activities. They are a way to reinforce your core company values

When employee appreciation gifts are a nod to your company culture, they're a reminder of what makes your particular organization unique. Being part of something special gives employees a sense of pride and encourages a sense of belonging.

A culture of appreciation is created when employees are valued as individuals. By recognizing their unique contributions to the team and overall impact on the business, employees feel empowered. They strive to do better and achieve their full potential, both professionally and personally.

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Appreciation culture also helps develop emotional connections. When employees feel recognized, they are motivated to stay loyal and dedicated to the company and its culture. Committed employees stay because they believe in their company and the work they do.

According to a survey, 82% of Americans do not feel their supervisors recognize them enough for the work they do. But nearly 50% would have a better sense of well-being and feel more pride in themselves if they were recognized more often. 

Recognizing your employees’ dedication and hard work can boost motivation and increase engagement. In turn, this helps you retain talent and decrease employee attrition rates. 

In the midst of the Great Resignation, it’s more important than ever to ensure your employees feel valued.

What employee appreciation ideas will you choose?

Employees don’t want to be recognized for just showing up. They want acknowledgment of their contributions to the company, whether that’s their great teamwork or loyalty.

As we’ve shown from these employee appreciation ideas, it doesn’t have to cost your company a lot of money to effectively express your gratitude. Recognition comes in all forms. Great leaders will use a combination of informal and formal recognition to ensure their employees feel supported and appreciated.

Whether ‌verbal praise or a great gift, employee appreciation can go a long way in keeping your team happy. And when your employees are happy, your company can thrive.

For more ideas on motivating your team and driving performance, get in touch with one of BetterUp’s expert coaches.

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Published March 2, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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