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How the Pandemic has Changed Employee Recognition and Rewards

In 2021, employee recognition and rewards have seen new challenges and trends, as employees and organisations pivot to thrive in a time of financial, social and health stressors.

Reassessing how you currently recognise employees and how you can address newly evolved needs while keeping your rewards program budget-conscious and flexible has never been more crucial.

How the pandemic changed employee recognition
1 Challenges to employee recognition & rewards during the pandemic included losing traditional recognition experiences as work moved remote, irrelevancy as employee needs changed, and cash or travel incentives become uneconomical.
Pandemic trends in employee recognition & rewards
2 Pandemic trends in employee recognition and rewards included a surge in care packages, digital & remote recognition and a reassessment & redesign of recognition programs.
What you can do for your recognition program
3 In response to global challenges, you can reassess the relevance of what recognitions and rewards are on offer to employees, use novel ways to recognise employees and choose recognition methods that maximise your recognition budget.

Challenges to Employee Recognition and Rewards from the Pandemic

1. Losing traditional social recognition experiences

With the majority of employees moving to remote work, and the importance of social distancing, being able to celebrate employee milestones over lamingtons in the office sadly isn’t an option[1] any more! Instant, spontaneous and social in-person recognition can’t happen the way it used to.

2. Irrelevancy as employee needs change

If you’re a parent, working from home also entails the complexity of caring for dependents, whether kids or seniors. Some have been forced to make a choice between their dependents or their jobs[2], depending on their access to and the integrity of the support systems in place. Among a host of employee benefits and rewards, on-site childcare and commute subsidies are examples of benefits that are now potentially irrelevant.

3. Cash and Travel Incentives as uneconomical or unavailable recognition options

Economic ramifications and global shutdowns from the pandemic has meant businesses have cut down on rewards to preserve their bottom line[3], reducing the possibility of cash bonuses[1]. At H.W. Holdsworth Recognition and Rewards, we supported some of our clients with the flexibility of pausing their rewards programs as they faced the financial uncertainty of the pandemic, restarting when it worked for them.

Travel and event incentives became unavailable as border restrictions were enforced to reduce the spread of COVID[4].

Trends in Employee Recognition and Rewards in a Time of Pandemic

1. Surge in once-off employee recognition efforts

Perhaps most immediately obvious in the pandemic was the spike in once-off care packages and other gestures of recognition to employees under the strain of working through the pandemic. At H.W. Holdsworth, clients discussed once-off recognition gifts, with one client investing over $260,000 in showing their appreciation to their employees in the time-sensitive manner that is so crucial to effective recognition.

2. Increased reliance on digital and remote recognition

While we can no longer collaborate spontaneously over our coffee breaks, peer-to-peer social recognition platforms have helped fill the gap to provide that in-the-moment peer recognition that motivates so powerfully[1]. Coupling remote recognition with a tangible in-hand gift is a way H.W. Holdsworth helps clients make that emotional connection with their employees as they recognise milestones, conveniently getting recognition gifts delivered to employees at home instead of at the office.

3. Reassessment and redesign of current recognition and rewards

The pandemic highlighted the lack of recognition in some sectors. Research showed up to 48% of staff in retail felt they didn’t receive enough recognition for their work during COVID-19[5]. In response, some organisations made room in their budgets for the once-off recognition gestures that showed their support to employees at crises points.

Moving from the office to remote work spotlighted problems in workplace culture and values and evidenced the importance of offering flexibility as an employee engagement strategy. This move was an important prompt for organisations to reassess company culture and the recognition programs in place to support that culture.

Working from home also made some employee benefits irrelevant, leading to reprioritisation of certain employee benefits. The burden of mental health and care of dependents meant other organisations broadened their employee benefits to include these facets[2].

How You Can Offer Recognition and Rewards during the Pandemic

Some practical takeaways from looking at the challenges and trends to employee recognition from the pandemic include a cue to reassess the relevancy of what’s on offer in your organisation's recognition and rewards program.

Consider new ways you can recognise employees in specific and immediate ways, like having a once-off token of appreciation gift catalogue ready to offer to your employees.

Sticking to in-hand gifts rather than cash rewards that are quickly spent and forgotten can be a way to stretch your recognition budget while improving its effectiveness.

The right Recognition and Rewards program can be a powerful management tool in a time when staying connected and showing appreciation to each other has never been more paramount.

[1] How you should offer rewards and recognition during a pandemic, Susan Muldowney, 16 June 2020, HRM Online
[2] The Pandemic is Changing Employee Benefits, Tim Allen, Harvard Business Review, 07 April 2021,
[3] Plus Factor; A Rewarding COVID Story, Mark Ferguson, Engage Issue #2 2021, 212F
[4] Industry insight: The return of travel and events, Engage Issue #2 2021, 212F
[5] A Shocking Number of Employees Feel Unrecognized for Their Work During COVID-19, Caitlin Nobes, 15 September 2020,