Program Best Practices

How to build a spot awards program that boosts employee engagement

As People leaders know all too well, supporting employees during this time of transition—from return to office to hybrid work—comes with many challenges. Things like logistical planning, adapting employee care, and navigating new unknowns. Not least among these is figuring out how to appreciate and recognize your people regardless of their environment. 

As we all adapt to new ways of working, your managers may be struggling to find ways to show their appreciation. But it’s more important now than ever to intentionally create recognition moments to keep your employees engaged and motivated. 

With 79% of employees experiencing work-related stress, one in five workers feeling like their employer doesn’t care about their work-life balance, and over 40% of Americans considering quitting their jobs—recognizing your people needs to be a top priority.

Related reading: Preventing employee burnout with meaningful recognition programs

Leaders need flexible, accessible ways to appreciate and reward their people. Fortunately, spot awards and recognition provide an ideal solution. In this post, we explore how to successfully launch (or evolve) a spot recognition program that employees will love.

Most employee recognition is falling short. 

Even before the pandemic hit, many companies were struggling to create a fair and engaging employee recognition program. A program that would leave employees feeling like their contributions were seen and valued. That would truly motivate employees to keep up their good work. That would nurture company culture and help retain top performers. Which brings us to a few common issues with traditional recognition programs...

Common issues with traditional recognition programs:

  1. Many only reward the top 1% to 5% of employees. But what about the rest of your workers? If you’re only recognizing top performers, you’re likely missing out on the impact of a workforce where 100% of employees feel recognized and motivated.
  2. Many reward workers infrequently. Companies often give rewards alongside big milestones like a work anniversary or annual performance review. But psychology tells us that the closer a reward is to a desired behavior, the more likely it is that the reward recipient will repeat the desired behavior.
  3. Many are focused on measurable metrics alone. Don’t get us wrong: the measurable metrics are important and they’re a great way to trigger rewards. But your employees are also adding to morale and workplace culture in intangible ways that are no less worthy of recognition.
  4. The actual rewards just aren’t that impactful. Most companies still reward employees with cash, gift cards, and stuff—but these can often feel impersonal and forgettable. We often see this play out on social media:
review of blueboard spot recognition program
Is picking a gift from a catalog really the best way to celebrate a 50-year workiversary? Nicolette isn't so sure.

At Blueboard, we recommend taking an intentional, holistic approach to your employee recognition strategy to build a true culture of recognition and boost employee engagement. Informal recognition, including spot awards, are a critical piece of your recognition puzzle.

Related reading: The 3 types of employee recognition and how to use ‘em

The benefits of a spot awards and recognition program

Spot awards and recognition, sometimes called “on-the-spot-awards”, allow you to recognize any employee for their contributions as they happen. You get to make the rules based on what’s best for your organization and your people.

You can align recognition to more intangible behaviors, for example. Maybe you want to reward employees who are living your core company values or who are helping to foster community and inclusive workspaces. Maybe you want to empower your managers to come up with criteria for rewarding their people when they go above and beyond.

Spot rewards can be a powerful tool for keeping your people engaged and motivated because they are so customizable. You can design your spot program to be a reflection of your unique company—something that feels homegrown rather than another adhoc tool or bandaid fix. 

But your spot rewards program will only be successful if you take the time to map out your spot recognition strategy.

See how Medidata built their thriving spot awards program.

Explore our platformGet their blueprint

4 questions to help you build an impactful spot awards and recognition program

In this section, we walk through four foundational questions that will help you shape a program that aligns with your organization’s needs and goals. 

1. Who should be able to send awards? 

When you’re building your spot recognition program, think about who should have the ability to send rewards. Who, at your company, has the most visibility into employee performance? Who do employees want to be recognized by (what would be a meaningful recipient experience for them)? 

The Blueboard recommendation:

At Blueboard, we believe all managers should be empowered to recognize their people. Manager-driven recognition programs are powerful for a variety of reasons: first, research from SHRM found that favorable treatment from a manager is synonymous with support from the organization. When employees feel that their company appreciates them, their motivation to continue receiving employee rewards and their level of job performance increase accordingly.

Managers are also the most in-tune with individual employee performance. They’re closer to the day-to-day of practitioners and are more likely to reward positive behaviors promptly. This, in turn, creates a feedback loop that gives employees a clear sense of which behaviors, actions, and milestones lead to recognition.

2. Do we want to require an approval workflow? 

It’s exciting to empower all of your managers to send spot awards. But you’ll also need to keep an eye on budget, usage, and overall program health. To reduce headaches, you may want to consider an approval workflow for your spot recognition program

Essentially, you’ll want to make sure there are enough approval steps to serve as guardrails and prevent people from abusing the system. But you also want to make sure the process moves quickly and leaders can recognize their people in real time.

The Blueboard recommendation:

With our clients, we’ve found that having the HR business partner (HRBP) or the sending manager’s manager serve as additional approvers offers the most seamless experience. But companies have the flexibility to choose whichever options work best for them.

When considering approval workflows, think about why you’re looking to introduce guardrails. If rewards need to be approved for compliance reasons (such as employee performance), we often recommend the recipient’s manager or HRBP as approver. If rewards need to be approved for budgetary reasons, we often recommend the sending manager’s manager or the sending manager’s HRBP as approver.

3. Do we want to create reward levels? 

Spot recognition should be flexible. Impact comes from being able to recognize any employee, any time (according to the criteria you determine). Creating different reward levels allows you to reward “small” behaviors as well as more noticeable behaviors. You’ll want to think through the value of each reward level and the criteria you’ll use to determine which employees should be recognized. 

The Blueboard recommendation: 

We recommend creating at three to four custom reward levels. We’ve found that three to four is the sweet spot, allowing for flexibility without overwhelming managers with too many choices. We’ve found that most of our clients use factors like the level of impact and performance duration. Take a look at the example below for inspiration:

Graphic showing four spot award levels and the logic options guiding them: Size of impact, Scope of impact, Duration of impact, Reward level
Connect with our team to learn more about Blueboard reward values.

It’s important to have a clear framework to help you map an employee’s contribution to an impactful reward. 

Imagine one of your team members, Susie, worked late to help another team with data migration. The work was within the scope of her role but was unpaid overtime. Her impact was small in the grand scheme, but you want to recognize her dedication and teamwork. So you choose a lower-level reward (the Townhome, if we’re using the criteria above). 

Now imagine another scenario: Chin is another member of your team. Their direct manager decided to take a three-month sabbatical. In her absence, Chin stepped up to lead the team through the third quarter of the year and they met all of their objectives. Chin exceeded expectations of their role in both action and performance and you decide to reward them at the highest-level reward (the High-rise).

The framework allows you to recognize both employees—to show them that you see and value their contributions—in ways that make sense.

4. How do we want to train managers to send spot awards? 

Managers are key to a successful spot recognition program. They’ll likely be the folks giving out on the spot awards. They’ll likely be a resource for employees who have questions about the spot recognition program. 

But giving recognition in an equitable way is a skill—and your managers need to be trained on this skill. You should think about the training and resources you’ll put in place for your managers as you roll out spot recognition. 

The Blueboard benefit:

We partner with our clients to help train their managers on our platform, as well as best practices for spot recognition. We also arm HR teams with a variety of resources to support everything from program launch to socialization efforts, including:

  • Custom landing pages with program information for your employees
  • Templates for program-specific emails
  • A monthly newsletter filled with recognition tips and strategies for managers
  • Powerpoint slides and videos for launching your program
  • Social media strategy recommendations
An example landing page used to promote a spot awards program.
Here's an example landing page one Blueboard client uses to promote their spot awards and other recognition programs internally.

Spot awards and recognition programs are a great way to appreciate your employees in an inclusive and meaningful way. If you’re curious to learn how Blueboard can help you take your spot recognition program to the next level, request a personalized demo online here

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