When our world went fully remote in 2020, we lost our sense of connection: connection to our teammates, to our managers, and in some cases, to our company values. Almost overnight, we were thrust into new and unexpected workplaces as our bedroom corner became the office, our dining tables the school classroom. All of these changing and isolated environments have made it a challenge for employees to feel connected to their companies—to feel seen and confident that their work is valued.

As we enter a new year and continue to navigate the global pandemic, your workplace craves human connection. And HR leaders are actively working to bridge the gaps between teams that have expanded and distributed over the last year. 

So, that’s why we’re excited to share four bold predictions and HR trends to guide the year ahead for HR leaders. These themes are inspired by the conversations we’ve been hosting with our growing Blueboard community and client base over the recent months.

4 bold predictions and trends for HR leaders in 2021.

  1. Employee morale is paramount to your success.
  2. The hybrid workplace will take center stage.
  3. DEI efforts are proactive and unrelenting.
  4. Employee benefits and rewards will provide flexibility and personalization.

As you read on, we’ll detail each theme and offer suggestions for how you can assess your current initiatives, and fresh ideas for adapting your people programs to successfully reforge those missing connections. 

1. Employee morale is paramount to your success.

The COVID-19 pandemic increased stress levels for 96% of the workforce. Employees were forced to adapt to a fully remote work environment, which led to fewer physical connections with their coworkers, distance from company mission and values, decreased visibility of their work by their manager, and therefore, diminished feelings of employee appreciation and value in their role.

Aside from the work front, there was additional stress added to our personal lives:

  • Increased parenting responsibilities as the dining room became the classroom
  • Disruptions to daily meals, fitness routines, and down time as we added more hours to our work week
  • Anxiety about job security and income potential 
  • Lack of stress relievers, like social engagements
  • Not enough time alone at home to decompress
  • Too much time alone at home or in isolation without others

Companies have placed a premium on boosting employee morale through recognition as a response. The Trade Desk (TTD), a Blueboard client who has always built meaningful employee recognition programs into their culture, rapidly adapted their recognition program during the pandemic to ensure their workforce felt appreciated for the above and beyond ways they built culture while working remotely.

They began recognizing different behaviors through a revamped spot recognition program, rewarding those who embodied their company core values. They also wanted to recognize and reward TTD employees who served as a culture champion (speaking on DEI panels, or building morale by offering virtual at-home haircut tips or other alternative “happy hour” activities). These employee-led recognition initiatives during the pandemic played a huge role in connecting employees through shared interests and passions while not working face-to-face.

Your key to success is to understand how your employee recognition programs can inspire and improve morale among your employees. To help, set intentional time with key stakeholders at your company to discuss these questions:

  • What are we doing to show our employees that we support them, beyond simply saying: “We support you.”? 
  • What are we doing to keep struggling employees engaged with our company?
  • How will we continue to provide stability while also providing moments of delight for our employees?
  • How are we offering benefits and people programs that support wellbeing and healthy work-life integration?
  • How can we form authentic connections across teammates beyond another Zoom happy hour? How can we make these team building initiatives more inclusive?

At Blueboard, we’ve come up with some creative ideas to recognize, appreciate, and reconnect with each other while working as a fully-remote team, across many states and countries. Use these to help get the creative wheels turning at your company:

Question of the day (QOTD).

Our Marketing team hosts a weekly standup where we answer fun or exciting questions of the day before diving into our quick project status reports. Teammates rotate ownership, so we bring different ideas and voices to the table. And beyond my immediate team, we love having Blueboarders post QOTDs to our #random Slack channel every Tuesday and Thursday. These moments remind us that we’re real people outside of work, and uncover some really cool and unique insights about each other. 

For example, we’ll ask what the worst style choice someone ever made was (frosted tips and bell bottoms), or how you like to take your dream breakfast bagel (would you put mayo on a bacon, egg, and cheese bagel?). Silly, yet practical questions like “How would you prepare for a zombie apocalypse?”, to more introspective questions like “What is something you see a little extra magic in?” 

Team mood boards.

Team mood boards have become a creative outlet for the marketing team and me to visually represent how we’re currently feeling. We create and review these bi-weekly. Each team member prepares their board in advance and takes a few minutes to explain their inspirations. 

It’s a fun way for us to ask each other “How are you feeling today?” without actually asking the question itself. Your team will love the highly creative outlet, and you might be shocked at the latent design ability thriving in non-design focused team members—I know we do.

Mood boards have become so loved on our Marketing team that they’re starting to spread across other Blueboard teams. I’m proud that our Designer brought this team activity forward, and has helped our wider group of Blueboarders form stronger team connections.

workplace team mood board
Recent mood boards across our Marketing team.

Wellbeing stipend.

Encourage employees to take time off to focus on their wellbeing and maintain a healthy work-life balance. Aside from our HR team’s implementation of a monthly wellbeing stipend to ensure these areas are prioritized, we also have weekly Wellness Windows where Blueboarders can volunteer to lead their peers through meditation sessions or other wellness-focused activities. 

I regularly teach yoga classes during our Wellness Window and it’s been an awesome outlet for connecting with our Newboarders who I haven't yet crossed paths with, which creates more opportunities for bonding through shared interests and passions.

Celebrate wins, big and small.

Big or small, take every opportunity you can to show your employees that their work is seen, their contributions are valued, and their unique personalities are appreciated. Every week during our “Fri-Yay” all-hands meeting, Blueboarders are invited to submit shoutouts and celebrate the work of their teammates in front of the entire company. We aim to tie shoutouts to our company values, big milestones, or achievement towards our company goals and OKRs. This is something you can implement at a company-wide level, or take it down to your smaller team for a more intimate recognition setting.

Sample shout outs from a recent Blueboard Fri-Yay meeting celebrating growth and onboarding wins.

2. The hybrid workplace will take center stage.

The pandemic forced us all into remote work environments that quickly went from temporary to semi-permanent solutions. That’s created distance between teams, diminished company culture, and disrupted collaboration and innovation.

But now with a vaccine that is slowly but surely spreading across the country, our conversations are shifting to how we’ll bring teams back together in a physical office, and the concept of a hybrid workplace environment is blooming. Here’s how enterprise companies like Microsoft are envisioning their hybrid workplace plan:

  • Microsoft employees can work from home for less than 50% of their week
  • Managers can approve permanent remote status if needed
  • Flexible working hours are available without approval
  • Remote workers can permanently relocate and still work for Microsoft

You’re probably already exploring what a hybrid workplace model can look like for your company. As you plan, it’s crucial that you consider the different levels of comfortability each employee has about either returning to the office or staying remote. 

The key to success is developing a hybrid workplace that fosters authentic connections regardless of if someone chooses to return or stays at home. For example, employees returning to in-office environments might have more opportunities to bond than distributed employees—you’ve got to connect the worlds and consider rules of engagement that promote inclusivity and collaboration.

Here’s how you can leverage Microsoft’s model to inspire your own tactics and strategies for building connection between hybrid teammates:

  • Ask employees for their thoughts and opinions as you develop this new model, together. Gather perspective through quantitative employee surveys, or more open forums like company all-hands (with an Ask Me Anything added to the agenda).
  • Establish optional team-building activities that bring your in-person employees together with remote employees, like weekly coffee or lunch meetups, or simply gathering for a hike or hangout at a public park or outdoor space. 
  • Safeguard focus across the workspace with dedicated no meeting times, do not disturb messages, or flexible work hours. Build trust in the idea that an away or offline status doesn’t necessarily translate to that employee not working. 
  • Empower managers with dedicated training and learning opportunities to build awareness and best practices for hosting inclusive communication spaces and healthy cross-team collaboration. 
  • Define your company-wide rules of engagement with regard to promoting inclusivity and communication when some teams are in the office together and others are on video. This might mean all teammates still dial in over Zoom (even if some are sitting in the same conference room), and increased investment in audio/video technology to ensure communication is undistracted and streamlined. 
  • Work with your manager to determine optimal days for being in the office to ensure you're connecting during high-value meetings, or when you can have the most collaboration and cross-over time with core teammates.  

3. DEI efforts are proactive and unrelenting.

The anti-racism and social justice movement over the summer of 2020 opened everyone’s eyes to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in our world and how we advocate for underrepresented or minority groups in our workforce. Many organizations, including our own, took a hard look at how their DEI efforts connected them, or failed to connect them, with diverse communities, people, and perspectives. 

One example that gained attention was from our client Salesforce, who launched a Racial Equality and Justice Task Force to drive systemic change within their workplace and in their community. Part of their plan includes a commitment to double U.S. representation of Black employees in leadership, and add 50% for general staff, by the end of 2023. 

Another influential tech company, Slack, decided to invest in future leaders through Rising Tides, a six-month sponsorship program for a talented and diverse group of high performers and emerging leaders at the company who historically lacked access to this support. They also created Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to support, promote, and celebrate different segments of their employees - creating spaces for connection around shared characteristics, beliefs, backgrounds or life experiences.

No matter what size your company is, it’s important to continue to invest in, and sustain, DEI programs that build meaningful connections among your employees - not just in 2021, but for all years to come. One area where you might find an opportunity to connect with new and different communities or employees is through your commitment to a permanently remote or hybrid workplace.

For example, now that your business can be run efficiently with a remote or distributed workforce, you have greater opportunity to tap new geographical markets for a more diverse range of potential new hires. On a more granular, personal level, a focus on equity and inclusion is especially important as you connect employees, no matter where they’re working. 

Your DEI efforts offer a golden opportunity to bring your company together and start conversations that build deep, lasting connections. Remember to elevate the voices of underrepresented communities as you think through, together as one unit, what it looks like to: 

  • Create new positions, like Senior DEI staff and diversified board roles.
  • Keep marginalized employees top-of-mind and expand their resources (like the Rising Tides example shared by Slack).
  • Design communication forums for your company to address hard conversations around social justice or to communally unpack emotionally trying news and current events. This can come to life through leadership-led conversation containers that are optional for employees to join, contribute to, or just to simply listen. Leaders aren’t necessarily just members of your executive team, but also employees who are comfortable leading through their own personal experience. 
  • If you haven’t already, build a DEI culture task force of diverse stakeholders to ensure opinions are gathered and heard.
  • Promote volunteer opportunities and corporate giving in support of minority-led groups, nonprofits, and local businesses.
  • Reimagine your hiring process to recruit more diverse employees and remove bias (from sourcing to interview questions to onboarding practices).

4. Employee benefits and rewards will provide flexibility and personalization.

Employee recognition was top of mind in our offices, with ringing sales gongs, team meeting shout outs and high fives (wait, high fives—isn’t it crazy how that now makes you kinda cringe?), and other celebrations guiding our week. In our remote world, employee recognition and rewards have become impersonal with Slack or Teams mentions, announcement emails, or virtual celebrations compounding our Zoom fatigue. 

Today’s world also requires managers to be more intentional about how and when they recognize their top performers, which has resulted in less frequent acts of recognition. And your employees are noticing. 

Nearly 82% of employees don’t feel that their managers recognize them enough for their contributions. However, 52% of your workforce would feel more motivated if someone simply recognized their work. 

And while most leaders understand that recognition is mission-critical, only about 1 in 10 companies are actively measuring the impact of their programs. As a result, there’s often a lack of understanding around what employee segments value the most. 

That can lead to generalized recognition programs, which won’t strengthen the connection between leadership and employees currently absent in our remote world. If you want to prove to employees that their work is both seen and valued, build employee reward and recognition programs that consider the personalized needs of your employees so that the recognition efforts actually feel authentic and human. And consider programs that are flexible to meet your employees’ unique and changing lifestyle and responsibilities outside of work. For an amazing overview of how to build a spot recognition program that offers flexibility and personalization, check out our Spot Recognition Planning Guide featuring best practices from our clients at Medidata. 

https://www.blueboard.com/resources/spot-recognition-planning-guide-medidata

For example, Blueboard client Brown & Brown, Inc. wanted to recognize several teammates for going above and beyond to support their external customers and fellow teammates through the pandemic. To thank them for working hard and staying agile during the challenges, they sent them personalized experiential Blueboard rewards.

To help you implement meaningful employee recognition programs that build these connections, use these questions below to evaluate your current efforts and to guide internal conversations with your team:

  • Are our programs easily accessible to managers, and do they know the guidelines for when, where and how to recognize teams?
  • Are our rewards easily socialized, and exciting to share across employee channels?
  • How are we promoting our recognition program to ensure we get high levels of participation?
  • Do we have programs that encourage employees to actively participate and give recognition to others, or is recognition only coming from the top down?
  • Do the rewards themselves offer the power of choice? 
  • Does the rewards menu offer relevant and unique offerings that will be exciting across our diverse group of employees?
  • Do the rewards match the value of the effort and energy exerted by the employees to earn them, or will they miss the mark, or worse - create disappointment?

This is also an opportunity for you to connect directly with your employees and show them they are, in fact, seen and valued as individuals. It’s also powerful to clearly state that you’re providing recognition and rewards purely for them, and not for any financial benefit of your company. 

Come right out and say it: “We want you to do something for yourself because you’re important and your work made a difference.” 

And don’t opt for a one-size-fits-all approach, give your employees the power to choose a reward that aligns with their whole self, which will bring them real fulfillment. At Blueboard, we offer a hand-curated menu of experiential rewards for celebrating all recognition occasions, from in-home explorations to out-in-the world adventures.

employee experiential rewards ideas
Just a few of our favorite Blueboard adventures for connecting with yourself, loved ones, and with your community.

Employees choose their favorite from our global experience menu, and from there, they work closely with their dedicated Concierge who handles all their logistics and planning.  Recognition programs that are optimized for the employee - what matters to them most, right now - versus the company, are primed to be successful for years to come.

If you’re exploring more meaningful ways to recognize your team, whether for work anniversaries, above and beyond contributions or crushing their sales goals, we’d love to connect. Simply request a demo online here and our team will look forward to meeting you.

The view will be worth the climb.

A lot of us thought that once 2020 was over, we would be home-free and everything would be back to normal. But if you think about 2020 as a metaphorical climb up Mount Everest, we’re only halfway to the summit. 

During the first half of our climb, we were pounded with turbulent weather, pieces of our equipment broke, and some had to walk back down to basecamp. Everything didn’t go back to normal when 2020 ended, but we’re still here climbing.

Let 2021 be the year you dig deep, chug some Gatorade, and adapt your approach halfway up the mountain. There might be feelings of uncertainty, vulnerability, and fear as you gaze up at the summit, which is why it’s so crucial to reconnect your company on every level and start climbing together, as one unit. 

As we’re fond of saying here at Blueboard: "The view will be worth the climb." Let’s stay connected, you can find me here on LinkedIn, or always reach out to learn more from our team.

Looking for the best way to reward, recognize and incentivize your top people?

Connect with our team for a personalized demo of our recognition and rewards platform and see our hand-curated experience menus.

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