Guest Column - July/August 2015

3 Tips for Revamping a Service Award Program

By Cord Himelstein

We celebrate milestones in our personal lives to remember how far we've come and the effort it took to get there. Recognizing a birthday or anniversary is one of the most natural ways to show thanks, and that's why celebrating work milestones with service awards is a cornerstone of employee recognition programs. They are not only the easiest way to create a closer bond between employees and employers—they are also key drivers of employee engagement, company growth and overall success.

While employee engagement initiatives are increasing, Gallup research shows that 70 percent of American employees are either "not engaged" or "actively disengaged," which of course leads to lowered productivity, less creativity and a lagging corporate culture. So, if service awards are so great for engagement and can be found practically everywhere, what gives?

Service awards commonly suffer when running a program built from legacy practices, not properly engaging remote or overseas workers, or not adjusting program specifics to take into account a multigenerational workforce. The good news is many service award programs only need slight retooling or fine-tuning to bring them up to a culture-changing weight. By following a few best practices, organizations can give their service award programs a shot in the arm when they're not pulling weight.

1. Revitalize a Legacy Program

Without adequate updates to reflect an organization's evolving goals or structure and even its employees, service award programs can become ineffective. First-time program owners often find themselves inheriting outdated programs, or long-time program owners find their programs losing relevance. The best place to start when revamping a legacy program is with the three service award fundamentals:

  • Awareness drives employee participation. A solid communication strategy including consistent recognition program branding across e-mail, print signage and the company website helps employees learn more about program initiatives and how they can participate. Communication, active involvement and promotion from senior management help create even further awareness and encourage company-wide participation.
  • Awards should be closely examined when rebuilding a service award program. We've all heard the horror stories of generic service awards made out to "Valued Employee." Nine times out of 10, this happens when award options aren't kept up to date or given proper consideration. Awards and related collateral should be personalized for the individual employees and connected to the company culture.
  • Employee experience is the most important part of celebrating a career milestone. Having a memorable experience on the big day is unique to the individual and can last a lifetime. A process should be in place for presenting awards in a meaningful way during a formal presentation when possible. It is also critical that managers get involved, as the supervisor-employee relationship is a top driver of engagement.

2. Include Remote and Overseas Employees

Given the physical barrier, remote and overseas employees may not be receiving the same recognition experience as their office-bound peers, preventing the program from growing into part of the culture. According to Global Workplace Analytics' State of Telework study, telework has grown by 80 percent since 2005. As the demand for remote workers increases, managers will need to find more ways of involving them in the company culture from afar. This can be made simple with the right technology and a couple of quick tips.

Consistency is the key to remote recognition. Ensure your virtual employees receive service awards, communications and recognition opportunities that are consistent with employees in the office. If you are unable to celebrate in person, do something extra on the anniversary day to make up for it. This includes congratulatory messages from colleagues, recognition during group conference calls/web meetings, and thoughtful gestures such as a gift delivered to their office.

Also, ensuring awards are appropriate is important. Different awards might appeal to remote workers depending on what region of the world they are located. Be sure messages are translated and in the appropriate tone for the area, and that the awards and gifts reflect cultural preferences. This applies to teleworkers across the United States, too: If your headquarters are in New York, for instance, your San Francisco team might enjoy regionally themed options. The little details make all the difference with engagement.

3. Offer Rewards Appealing to All Generations

There are four generations of employees in the current workforce: traditionalists, baby boomers, gen X and gen Y. Employers should be aware of the top motivators for each generation so their recognition program connects with workers accordingly. For example, baby boomers crave a sense of achievement and financial freedom, while generation Y seeks personal relationship and parallel careers with added work/life balance.

Entire groups of employees in a certain age group may find the program does not speak to them, or does not present them with desirable award and recognition options based on their generational preferences. Recognition experiences should be tailored to their preferences and a variety of awards should be offered to match various age groups and lifestyles.

The Right Mix

Your service award program is like a Bonsai tree. It doesn't become a thing of beauty on its own. It takes a dedicated gardener constantly pruning and winnowing it down to that perfect size and fit for your organization. So be a good gardener and don't let it grow stagnant. The right mix of outreach awareness, relevant awards and memorable experiences is all you need to positively affect engagement.

Cord Himelstein is Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Michael C. Fina, a leading provider of global employee recognition and incentive programs that not only align with core values and business goals, but also inspire people to do great things. For more information, visit