Employee motivation is a leading concern for any business that wants to improve productivity, retention, and overall performance. There are countless possible approaches to improving productivity, including the use of better productivity apps and tools, but focusing on motivation does more than just crank up the raw output of your employees—it actively makes employees want to work harder for you.

Higher motivation means employees will get more done during the day, they’ll be inspired to work with your brand, and they’ll be happier overall. The question is, how are you going to keep your employees motivated?

One fantastic way to do so is through employee recognition programs. In this post, we’ll explore 21 employee recognition ideas you can use to motivate your employees and maximize productivity.

Why Use Employee Recognition Programs?

Employee motivation comes in two major flavors: extrinsic motivation, which uses measurable, external rewards to encourage employee behavior, and intrinsic motivation, which focuses on employees’ goals and internal desires to work.

Employee recognition programs can help you achieve both, to a degree. The physical reward you give employees serves as an extrinsic motivator, rewarding them for a specific behavior and incentivizing their teammates to follow suit. But you’re also reinforcing behaviors from employees who are intrinsically motivated, making that intrinsic motivation even stronger.

Employee Recognition Ideas

As you can imagine, there are many employee recognition examples to choose from, and many different approaches that are worth considering. Employee recognition ideas range from practically free to ridiculously expensive, and from low-key to practically obnoxious in scale. And there are individual employee rewards and group employee rewards.

There really isn’t a right or wrong way to approach employee recognition, other than to:

  • Reward positive behaviors. This should go without saying, but you’ll want to reward your employees for their most productive, helpful, or otherwise valuable actions and behaviors.
  • Reward publicly, when possible. Though some employee rewards and forms of employee recognition should be kept private (such as wage increases), most should usually be given publicly. This helps the rewarded employee feel more pride in their accomplishments and also sets a good example for other employees, motivating them to achieve the same recognition among peers.
  • Improve your approach over time. If you experiment with different types of rewards and rewarding under different circumstances, you’ll eventually learn that some employee rewards work better than others. Use this information to improve your results over time.

Beyond that, every employee reward you’ll consider will have strengths and weaknesses, and different appeals to different employees. Consider the following employee recognition ideas and examples when developing your employee recognition program:

1. Send a thank-you note.

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Never underestimate the power a simple thank-you note can have. Going out of your way to write a personal thank-you message to an employee can make their day, and make them feel like their efforts are being recognized. It’s free and only takes a few minutes, yet can have a profound impact on someone’s disposition. Obviously, you don’t want to send thank-you messages for every reasonable employee action; recognizing employees for everything they do is both excessively time-consuming and counterproductive, since it treats all actions and levels of performance as equal. Instead, wait for when an employee goes above and beyond the call of duty, or accomplishes something particularly challenging.

2. Give bonuses and raises.

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More than half of employees can expect a raise in any given year, to accommodate for cost-of-living increases if nothing else. And yes, giving out wage increases and monetary bonuses can get costly fast. However, strategic monetary incentives can be a powerful way to show employees how much you value their performance. At year end, consider giving raises to your most productive, most valuable, and most committed employees, and consider giving out bonuses—even if they’re small ones—for major achievements throughout the year.

3. Celebrate birthdays.

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While birthdays aren’t a business accomplishment, they do provide you with a good excuse to celebrate with the team and set aside time for specific employee recognition. You don’t have to do anything major; a birthday cake and a lunchtime staff gathering, along with a card signed by the team, can be highly valuable in boosting morale.

4. Celebrate or acknowledge anniversaries.

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Even more important, celebrate or acknowledge major work anniversaries among your most committed staff members. For example, when someone has been with the team for a full year, consider honoring them with a brief lunchtime celebration, a plaque, a thank-you email, or some other tangible reward. At the 5-year and 10-year mark, you may want to do something even more notable, like having a team dinner or granting them some special privilege. This rewards your best employees for their ongoing commitment and incentivizes your other employees to follow suit.

5. Distribute brand swag.

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Brand swag—in other words, practical branded promotional items like T-shirts and coffee mugs—is becoming more popular due to its multifaceted string of benefits. In bulk, these products are fairly cheap, yet they’re useful and reinforce the image of your brand. Keeping a cache of high-end and low-end brand swag available can allow you to welcome onboard your newest employees, and reward your other employees for jobs well done in other circumstances.

6. Enable and encourage peer appreciation.

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Peer appreciation can sometimes be even more valuable than managerial or supervisory appreciation. In addition to seeming more genuine or heartfelt, it encourages closer bonds between teammates and therefore, tighter collaboration. The trick is to enable and facilitate peer appreciation, though there are different ways to do this. For starters, you could make use of a project management platform or communication system that allows for the doling out of micro-rewards and issues of praise. You could also stress the importance of team-based support and collaboration, though it will take time to indirectly encourage your employees to praise each other more frequently.

7. Host an awards night.

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Hosting an awards night is a good way to combine several forms of motivation in one. You’ll get the chance to reward employees with recognition for various achievements (such as being the most punctual, or closing the most sales), and you’ll gather everyone together for an evening of celebration, possibly including dinner and mingling. Try to have some fun with this event to keep things light, and have one at least once a year.

8. Give public praise.

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Even brief comments of public praise can have a massive effect on team morale and motivation. For example, before the start of an important meeting, you might call out the extra efforts of one of your core participants, praising them for working long hours the night before or finishing some significant project.

9. Grant extra privileges.

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Employees often perform better when they’re happy with their professional situation. Accordingly, it’s in your best interest to pursue performance motivators that also improve employee satisfaction. You could, for example, reward your employees with extra privileges after they’ve hit a certain milestone or when they’ve exceeded expectations. Getting to take a half day, coming in late, or getting to work from home can be massively motivating for anyone.

10. Offer environmental control.

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You could also motivate employees by offering control-based rewards. The idea here is to lend temporary environmental control to the employees who work the hardest, make the most improvements, or otherwise exceed expectations. For example, you could allow the top salesperson to choose the music for the office on certain days of the week, or you could allow your most reliable employee to change out the public displays of your storefront.

11. Praise good ideas.

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Whenever an employee speaks up about a new idea, praise them for the effort—even if the idea is weak or if you don’t end up using it. This cultivates an environment where new ideas are welcome and employees are more comfortable voicing their opinions. It will motivate your employees to generate and express more new ideas, which in turn will give you more tools for innovation and development. It’s also a good way to learn more about how your employees think and work, which in turn can help you develop better employee rewards.

12. Have an “employee of the month” (or something similar).

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Designating an employee of the month may seem archaic or tacky, but it serves as a more powerful motivator than you may think. You could designate an employee for each department, like customer service or marketing, and create a list of criteria you’ll use to judge performance, such as attendance, task closure, responsiveness, or goal progress. Make this position formally and publicly recognized, like with a company-wide email or a “wall of fame.” Then, add some perks to make this distinction more desirable, such as convenient parking privileges or longer lunch breaks.

13. List employee bios on your website.

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Consider adding a team page to your website, where you list some of your most notable and highest-ranking employees and describe them in a brief bio. Not only will this make your brand seem more personal and relatable, it will also encourage your employees to work harder for an extra title, or a longer blurb on the page.

14. Host staff appreciation days.

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Staff appreciation days could take many different forms, but they all have the potential to motivate your team’s performance. This is especially true if your staff appreciation days are earned, rather than indiscriminately given; for example, you may hold staff appreciation days if you reach a certain revenue target, or if you collectively reach some major productivity improvement goal. This appreciation could be something small, like bringing in donuts and coffee for breakfast, or something bigger, like giving everyone an extra vacation day to take at their discretion.

15. Host team lunches.

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A team lunch as an employee reward serves a triple purpose; it gets employees out of the office, it rewards them with something tangible (food/drink), and it enables you all to spend time together so you can strengthen team bonds on a more personal level.

16. Host game days/nights.

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Similarly, you could host occasional game days or game nights, where you gather to engage over a round of board games, video games, or interactive social deduction games. These provide a more direct form of entertainment than a classic lunch, but may not be exciting for everyone equally. That said, these games provide a level of bonding and competition that’s hard to match with other types of employee rewards.

17. Provide education and development opportunities.

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Almost all employees want opportunities to learn and grow, since it keeps them engaged, exposes them to new materials, and increases their overall value. Providing more education and development opportunities to your employees serves as a way to motivate them, and as a way to make them more valuable to your organization at the same time. You could host a workshop, hire a speaker, subsidize classes, or if your team is large enough, foster mentorship and teaching opportunities between your employees.

18. Get creative in the break room.

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Breaks are essential for a healthy, motivated workforce. They break up the workday and provide moments of enjoyment in an otherwise stressful environment; plus, if employees feel like breaks are something to look forward to, they’ll work harder in between breaks. Accordingly, it pays to get creative in the breakroom, providing employees with healthy snacks, or recreational activities to keep their minds occupied and allow them to interact with each other. You can also offer new additions in the breakroom based on employee performance, incentivizing them to reach specific goals.

Obviously, these employee recognition ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s practically no limit to your creativity, so keep brainstorming new ways to keep your employees productive and engaged.

Improving Employee Rewards

You can improve the type, frequency, and scale of employee rewards you offer with the right strategies. Consider the following:

19. Ask your employees what motivates them.

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Don’t beat around the bush or guess what your employees might want from your employee recognition strategy. Instead, ask them directly. Determine whether they’d prefer a monetary or tangible reward, or something less physical, like more workplace flexibility. Use group averages to come up with team-based rewards and forms of recognition, and do your best to cater to individual preferences as well.

20. Make a suggestion box.

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No matter how hard you try to make them comfortable, some employees may be reluctant to share their preferences, desires, and needs. Use an old-fashioned suggestion box to encourage anonymous requests and ideas, and check it periodically to see if there’s anything new you can incorporate.

21. Monitor the effectiveness of your rewards.

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Finally, and most importantly, keep a close eye on your employees’ productivity as you roll out these employee rewards programs. Use a tool like EmailAnalytics to keep an eye on how engaged they are and how they’re spending their time, and see how that changes with different rewards and incentives on the table. With those data, you’ll be able to refine your employee recognition strategy and gravitate toward the motivational tools that work best.

Every employee appreciates being acknowledged, rewarded, and praised, so you’ll be hard-pressed to find any employee rewards program that doesn’t have at least some positive impact on your workforce. Put these employee recognition ideas to work and enjoy the benefits of a more motivated and productive team.

The trick is to understand how your employee rewards are affecting your employees’ performance, and monitoring productivity via email is a good place to start. Sign up for a free trial of EmailAnalytics today, and learn more about how you and your employees are communicating!

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