How celebrating workplace milestones improves employee engagement
Engagement 8 minute read

How celebrating workplace milestones improves employee engagement

Rise | August 1, 2019

Cake, a card, or karaoke, celebrating workplace milestones is a great way to keep employees engaged and happy.

It can be easy to get caught up in the day-to-day noise of deadlines, meetings, and endless emails. However, no matter how busy you are, it’s always important to take the time to celebrate employee milestones in the workplace. Whether you reward an entire department or give a shout-out to an individual employee, appreciating even the smallest details can do wonders for company morale and employee engagement.

Appreciation and engagement

A study from O.C. Tanner Company notes that nearly 80% of people who quit their jobs do so because of a lack of appreciation at work. And, a study from Price Waterhouse and Cooper’s Saratoga Institute found that many people who have key roles in organizations prefer appreciation, purpose, and autonomy, rather than promotions and raises, to feel engaged.

When team members view their work as exciting and challenging and are recognized for their hard work, they’re more likely to become inspired to do great work. Failing to provide a workplace environment of appreciation and recognition can have negative consequences on employee engagement.

“When people aren’t having fun, when they’re not recognized for outstanding performance...when no one says ‘thanks,’ they do become disengaged and feel unimportant,” said Wells Fargo Chairman Richard Kovacevich in O.C. Tanner's white paper.

One of the most effective ways to cultivate loyalty and engage employees in their work is by building a culture of appreciation. This, in turn, will have an effect on productivity.

The big picture

When team members see that their work is having a direct impact on the success of a company, it motivates them to contribute their best work. Celebrating workplace milestones shows employees that, not only are they a valued and honoured member of the team, but they are also contributing meaningful work to their organization and its purpose.

For those not being recognized, sharing in the success of their teammates and seeing that hard work does not go unnoticed can help further your culture of appreciation and motivate the entirety of the team.

Plus, if you tie that individual’s achievements to the values and purpose of your organization, it can be a great opportunity for you to further embed your core values and make sure your mission is clear to the rest of the team. This helps create a unified team that will stand firmly in their resolve to move the company forward.

As Liz Jazwiec, author of Eat That Cookie!: Make Workplace Positivity Pay Off…For Individuals, Teams, and Organizations, explains, “The bottom line is that workplace celebrations foster relationship building, improve morale, enhance retention, and encourage employees to achieve results.” We couldn’t agree more. 

5 best practices for celebrating workplace milestones

When it comes to celebrating workplace milestones, there are no real “best practices.” The way you reward and celebrate your team members should depend on the team members themselves and on your company.

Not everyone likes rewards in the form of public accolades or gifts, and not everyone is motivated by the same things. With that said, you can still create a culture of appreciation, even as you appreciate each person in their own unique way. Here are a few guidelines for how to make sure your hard-working team gets the recognition they deserve in their preferred way:

1. Set expectations and get systematic

When you have fewer than 10 or 15 employees, it may be relatively easy to recognize people on a case-by-case basis. But as your team grows, it helps to have a system in place so that your culture of appreciation can scale with your company. Team leaders need to keep track of upcoming milestones, projects that deserve recognition, team members’ personal goals, and each person’s preferential form of appreciation. Setting expectations around what deserves reward and recognition and communicating those expectations to team members can help keep your company’s values and mission top of mind.

In addition to setting up systems to celebrate individuals, it’s also important to celebrate as a company. Coming together to celebrate everyone's contributions and the value of your collective work can effectively inspire your team as you move towards the next quarter with renewed vigor.

2. Give gratitude often

Building a culture of appreciation is not a one-step process: it’s something that takes time and effort from every member of your team. Making sure “Great job!” and “Thank you!” are regular parts of your teams’ vernacular is vital to building an appreciative work culture.

Too often, leaders assume gratitude is implied, or they save positive feedback for when they need to soften the blow of constructive criticism. However, studies show that the neurological effects of gratitude not only benefit the person on the receiving end, but they also help the gratitude-giver feel more engaged and satisfied, too.

“Gratitude rewards generosity and maintains the cycle of healthy social behaviour,” says Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, in Psychology Today.

As for the recipient of gratitude? Glenn R. Fox, PhD, of the USC's Brain and Creativity Institute, says, “When the brain feels gratitude, it activates areas responsible for feelings of reward, moral cognition, subjective value judgments, fairness, economic decision-making, and self-reference.” In other words, feeling gratitude for our work makes us more morally and economically competent thinkers with a better sense of self. So don’t save all those good, rewarding feelings for performance reviews. When it comes to giving and receiving gratitude, the brain says: “The more the merrier!”

“We celebrate all kinds of things–big and small–in our personal and social lives,” said Jazwiec in News Blaze. “Why not incorporate those sentiments into the workplace more often?”

3. Let’s get personal

Many articles on workplace celebrations and milestones say you should do away with the generic birthday cake—and for good reason. Celebrating milestones and achievements doesn’t always mean organizing a big event. A celebration, be it for a workplace anniversary or an outstanding achievement, should be personalized towards that team member or group.

Getting personal goes both ways. It’s fun to think of traditions and routines that speak to your unique identity as a company, too. For example, Caribou Coffee rewards hard-working team members by giving them actual watermelons, which they call “Melonheads.” “It’s pretty intuitive,” CEO Mike Tattersfield explains in Fast Company. “You get it for using your melon, be it for hitting a personal goal or one for the company.”

4. Give something tangible

While cash rewards might seem like a good idea, money might not be the strong motivator you think it is. Tying payment to the appreciation for good work rather than work for work’s sake can actually hinder team members' desire to be productive, so offering cash awards often misses the mark when it comes to awards for workplace milestones. Not to mention, bonuses and perks can still be taxable to team members.

However, some people are incredibly motivated by the promise of tangible rewards. Some creative examples include spa days, donations to a team member’s chosen charity, or awards that tie into employee health and wellness programs.

At Groupon, work anniversaries never go unnoticed. At a certain work anniversary milestone, every employee gets a bright green Adidas tracksuit jacket to wear with pride around the office. Each employee may also customize the jacket with their name or nickname to make each one as personal as possible. It's a gesture that makes the milestone fun for employees that reach it.

5. Make the connection

Appreciation is wonderful, but acknowledging the positive impact a team member’s work has had on the company can instill a sense of pride and gratitude within them and help them feel like a more valued member of the team.

When you position and celebrate these workplace milestones as success stories, you encourage the entire team to reflect on their own contributions. In turn, this can have a positive impact on overall workplace productivity. Given the opportunity, they might just surprise you with how great they are.

At Zappos, teams are given an extra $50 to award to the team member who went beyond the call of duty that month. Doing so puts power in the hands of the employees to recognize whoever they believe deserves it the most. Most importantly, it's a decision made by the group to bring everyone closer together.

Everyone needs a little appreciation once in awhile. Celebrating workplace milestones helps your team feel appreciated for their contributions and can give them a stronger sense of purpose, driving team member engagement and helping each person reach their full potential.

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