Using Digital Signs to Recognize Employees

EPISODE 21 | Host: Derek DeWitt, communications specialist for Visix

Multiple studies have shown that employees who feel valued are happier, work harder and change jobs less frequently. There are psychological reasons for this, but also physiological ones as well. Ignoring the need for personalized, genuine and public recognition can cost a company far more than it would to implement some simple ways to recognize employees.

Adding employee recognition to the digital signage mix is a fairly straightforward and simple thing organizations can do that yields large-scale results. But putting kudos on screens isn’t everything.

  • Learn why recognition is important for mind and body
  • Understand how recognizing employees helps the bottom line
  • Get practical examples for individual and team recognition
  • Discover how digital signage can help build a kudos community
  • Explore ideas to add gamification to recognition efforts

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Learn more about this topic in our Masterclass Guide 2: Digital Signage Communications Planning


Derek DeWitt: Something that often gets overlooked when thinking about digital signage is that it’s communications, and that means people communicating with other people. Especially in a corporate context, it’s all too easy to forget this key factor. One of the most important things you can do is employee recognition on your digital signage. So we’re going to talk about that a little bit today. I am Derek Dewitt, communications specialist for Visix, and I’d like to thank all of you for listening.

Derek DeWitt: I mean, the need for recognition is so deeply ingrained in people, you almost can’t spend too much time thinking about it. Quite some years ago there was a book called The Carrot Principle which looked at a really in-depth 10-year management study. And what they found is managers who were considered good at recognizing their employees had better results and lower turnover, and were perceived by their employees to be more trustworthy and more honest. Maybe those things were true, maybe they weren’t, but that’s certainly what people thought. Simply because the managers were “good” at recognizing employees.

So, workers who are recognized are happy, and managers that show appreciation themselves are appreciated. And there are lots of studies out there that basically say the same thing. People will work harder for a company that they feel like they’re a valuable part of. It’s more important.

In fact, the Japanese National Institute for Psychological Sciences conducted experiments showing that the same part of the brain that responds to receiving a cash reward is the same part of the brain that is activated when you get a compliment. It’s the same part of the brain, which means the same chemicals and neurotransmitters are being triggered in the brain. So, a compliment is the same, in a brain, as cash except to compliment costs the organization nothing.

Those same scientists in Japan also found out that it’s good for health. Frequent positive interactions, especially in the form of either positive attention or praise and compliments from other people, actually activates the reward centers of the brain. Conversely, they found that a lack of social connection led to serious problems and is considered in some organizations (in Japan, in Europe, and in other places) to be a health risk, on a par with obesity and smoking.

Social media is all about this. Actually, studies have shown that it activates, I think serotonin, in the brain. The reward centers of the brain are activated the moment that you get a like on a post, or a share or something like this. This is one of the reasons why younger people are kind of constantly fixated on their phones, because they want that hit, that chemical hit, that reward. It’s a form of praise. A like (Facebook was very smart to call it a “like”) a like and a little thumbs up, is a reward and activates certain parts of the brain.

In the United States, a group of scientists found that praise and attention seemed to activate the hypothalamus. This is the same part of the brain that controls some body functions like eating and sleeping. And it also releases dopamine, which is sometimes called the “reward neurotransmitter”. This is why something as simple as paying positive attention to somebody, it activates that part of the brain, which releases dopamine into the brain, and this can actually reduce the chances of depression.

In Canada, Great West Life Center for Mental Health in the Workplace said, and I quote, “Depression will rank second only to heart disease as the leading cause of disability worldwide by the year 2020” (that’s next year) “which can impact the workplace in areas such as bottom-line production and teamwork.” In fact, in Canada they have labeled depression as a serious workplace risk. So not only does a little attention have a positive effect right now, but it also reduces problems in the future.

All very interesting. What’s this have to do with digital signage? Well, digital signage, honestly, is a great tool for giving recognition to teams or individuals. And it doesn’t just have to be when certain things are achieved. It can be kind of a constant thing that happens year-round.

I think most modern managers know that, “Hey, good job!”, provided it’s perceived as sincere, can really just make a huge, huge difference. A lot of business publications and a lot of think tanks have been spending quite a bit of time [on this] recently, mainly spurred by millennials. Millennials seem to have a very different approach to the workplace than previous generations. I’m including my own generation, Generation X. We thought we were the real strange ones, the real outliers, but it turns out we’re a lot more similar to the Boomers and the Veterans (or the Greatest Generation) than the millennials. Millennials have a whole different thing. I honestly, personally, think a lot of it is because they grew up with social media.

So, let me throw some stats your way. The APA, the American Psychological Association, says 91% of workers feel motivated to do their best when they know that they have the support of leadership. They also said that employees who feel valued by their employers are 60% more likely to say that they are motivated to do their very best.

According to the HR firm BambooHR, three quarters of employees, 75%, who get recognition at least once a month (and this could be just an informal, quick, “Hey, good job” in the break room) say that they’re satisfied with their jobs.

Clutch says 68% of employees who get, and this is key, “accurate and consistent feedback”, feel that their jobs are fulfilling.

Gallup says, 67% of employees are happier and more productive when managers focus on the positive aspects of their performance. And 27%, only 27%, of workers strongly agree that the feedback they currently receive actually helps them do their work better.

Employees who believe that their managers can actually name their strengths specifically, which means that they know them as an individual, are 71% more likely to be engaged and energized, according to the VIA Institute on Character.

And Staples found (there was a rather famous Staples millennial study some time ago) that over a quarter of millennials say recognition motivates them to do their best at work. So, the science is kind of in. And yeah, a lot of this is coming from interviews with employees, but this is, you know, straight from the horse’s mouth. This is what people are saying, they’re saying that recognition helps them do better, motivates them, makes them feel more fulfilled and satisfied.

However, are we doing it? Well, not really. Some more stats. 35% of employees think that their employers don’t care about them as a team member or as a person, according to Rapt Media. [Willis] Towers Watson found 30% of employees say that they have a lack of support from their supervisors.

Gallup found that engagement plummets to 2% among teams who have managers that ignore their employees, whereas managers who focus on the strengths of the teams have 61% engagement. That is a massive, massive difference. 2% if they’re ignored, 61% if their strengths are focused on. Gallup also found that teams led by managers who focus primarily on weaknesses are 26% less likely to be engaged. I don’t know how they came up with that number, but it’s less motivating.

To be fair, we should mention that this is in particular cultures. Some cultures do not react to immediate praise quite the same way. But certainly in the United States, this is true. VitalSmarts found that employees who believe that the only things that are valued are obedience, predictability, deference to authority and competition with peers are 32% less likely to be committed, motivated or engaged.

Basically, that’s just old school stuff. That’s a top-down hierarchy. The boss is God, and do what you’re told, and be thankful you have a job. Those days are gone. If you want your people to be engaged, and you do (listen to our podcast on engagement), then you have to incorporate employee recognition in some kind of a smart way.

Okay. That’s all well and good. That’s why. Quite clearly, this is something that has to happen now. This is one of the defining characteristics of the 21st century workplace, like it or not. However, it can’t feel like the manager’s just ticking boxes HR gave them. This is actually going to be even more damaging. If someone is praised in a way that doesn’t seem sincere, if it seems false or automatic of some sort, it actually does more damage. It feels more insulting. One of the ways to help with that is to make the praise specific. It helps make it seem more authentic.

The recognition should be visible. Don’t just take somebody aside (I mean, it certainly has a benefit to take somebody aside very quickly and say, “Hey man, I just want to tell you [that] you did a really great job”), but make it public. Let everybody see that individual or that team, they’ve been singled out for their efforts.

And it should be frequent. Meaning you need to create a culture of recognition so that, if you only point out one or two people a year, you run the risk of creating jealousy or making people wonder, “Oh, I wonder what they did to get that.” If it’s just a natural part, this is part of our organizational culture, then it doesn’t seem so strange and out of place.

And make it fair. That doesn’t mean always just take turns, “Oh, now we’re gonna recognize this guy, and now we’re gonna recognize this woman” and everybody gets a turn. But make sure that everybody has a chance to get recognized. Very often what happens is the sales team, because they’re directly involved with bringing in revenue, they get singled out over and over and over again. And then people in accounting are just kind of sitting there going, “Huh. You know I work hard, too.” And as I said before, specific. “Nice work, keep it up” — that’s just not good enough. Make it specific.

So digital signage really comes into this, especially with the visibility and frequency thing (and also the specific part, I think, to a certain extent). You have a communication system out there, that’s for all to see, that is highly visible and frequently has messages up there: that’s your digital signage. So, stick some recognition messages into those playlists. You’re going to get a rather large audience, and you can make them appear as frequently as you like.

So, what should you recognize? If it has to be specific, then what? Traditional things might be things like work anniversaries, birthdays, maybe meeting or exceeding targets, things like that. Okay. Some organizations have employee appreciation days or team appreciation days. These actually help get more people involved.

Sometimes recognition is enough, but sometimes another reward of some sort is also not a bad idea. And often people are thinking, “Oh you mean money.” Hey, yeah, who doesn’t like money? But, strangely enough, studies (and studies, this is many, many studies) have shown recognition is more important than money. In fact, sometimes if you throw cash at it, if you want to reward somebody for something by giving them money, it kind of has a strange effect of making the praise seem cheap, or people then have the thought of, “Oh, I guess I’m only worth $100” let’s say, for example, or $20.

However, spot bonuses and micro bonuses are things that people have been trying lately that have been successful. They’re given immediately, right then. The moment you give the recognition, you give this micro bonus. Usually it can come from management, but you can also do it from peers. Maybe you’ve got a small collection or a pool of small prizes (or I don’t know, gift cards of some sort) and let’s say everybody in the creative services department has five that they can give out. They can’t use them themselves, but they have to give them out by the end of the year.

Somebody does something extraordinary, somebody goes above and beyond, somebody does a great job under a tight deadline, or they really helped me out of a bind, boom! I can immediately give one of my cards to that person, and a thank you, and then let the digital signage person know that that happened, and it goes up on the screens. It also is a good way to remind people, “Hey, don’t forget, you have these cards, these gift cards, to hand out to whomever you like.” Think of it, if you watch “The Amazing Race”, it’s like the Express Pass. Very often they have to give the Express Pass to somebody else by a certain leg of the game.

Now I know what some people are thinking. Some people are saying, “Oh my God, this is this modern age in which everybody gets a participation certificate, and everybody gets a gold star.” Well, what’s wrong with gold stars? Gold stars are fun. They’re shiny. No, but seriously, not gold stars, but what about points?

We’ve talked in other podcasts about gamification. A very important part of gamification is this employee recognition aspect and little rewards. So instead of handing out, “Oh, you get five stars, you get two stars”, why not “You get five points, you get three points.” And what you do is you have, I don’t know, maybe it’s on the intranet or something, or it’s a dedicated but not-indexed-by-Google webpage, where you’ve created a little sort of online store. And certain prizes — whatever, they could be gift cards, they could be tickets to an event of some sort in the area, they could be extra 30-minute segments or hour segments of paid time off. They could be actual items. It could be whatever the heck you want them to. People can collect them and then cash them in. So, this thing costs 20 points, I have to do things in order to get 20 recognition points from my bosses, from my peers, from whomever (however you’ve decided to work it out) and then they can go ahead and cash them in.

And yeah, it could be something tangible. I mean, don’t make it something stupid, but it could be like a really, really, really nice t-shirt. And yeah, sure, why not brand it with your company name and logo on it? But make sure it’s high quality, really comfortable; a shirt that they go, “Oh man, that’s a great shirt!” Or what about a coffee mug? Everybody loves coffee mugs. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be something that costs money.

Sometimes, depending again on your organization and what kind of an environment you have and what you do and what your audience likes, it could even be things like special, unique, one-of-a-kind avatars, maybe, that they can incorporate into your chat feature that you use to communicate with each other. Or special one-of-a-kind desktop wallpapers that only certain people get when they get a certain amount of praise or recognition.

You can also just make them experiences. This is a great thing. I mean, why not donuts in the morning? Or instead of the usual coffee in the drip coffee maker, we’re going to go ahead and spring (because your department’s been doing such an amazing job) we’re going to spring for some truly gourmet coffee? Or free lunch? Bring in a food truck, have a pizza delivered. You can make it bigger. Maybe you can partner with a local business. There’s a local deli that you know that all of the guys in IT go to for lunch; how about a month of free sandwiches?

What if you’ve got several people who all did well in the same week? Well, put their names in a bowl and draw at random. So, the praise gets reinforced by entering into the raffle. And so therefore, even the people who didn’t win the prize (it’s random, it’s completely random, there’s no favoritism here) but the people who didn’t win the prize still feel valued. Or you could draw two names out and they get to go have lunch together. This also kind of not only rewards them but helps with team building.

I said something earlier about extra PTO. Who doesn’t want more time off, my gosh? Let people come in late. You get to come in late two times next month, or you get to accumulate, instead of points, it could be 10-minute increments of PTO. So over the course of a year, if I’m doing really quite well at my job, I might get myself an extra day off or a longer lunch. You could also offer, I don’t know, free professional training or certification of some sort. That way they’re improving their job skills, and they’re helping the company out at the same time. It doesn’t really cost you much and it’s a benefit for everybody. Plus, it’s worthwhile.

Frankly, the best thing you can do, if you’re going to reward people, is find out what they like. If this person really loves books, well then some kind of a bookstore card or an Amazon gift card is going to be perfect for her. Somebody loves cooking. How about a gourmet cooking lesson or some really pretty high-end kitchen equipment? Maybe you’ve got a lot of people who have families. Well then, what about free tickets to the zoo or to a water slide park or something like that?

I think management-down, top-down, stuff is great, but peer recognition is also kind of awesome. Yes, you do run the risk that people are just going to reward their friends. That’s pretty easy to monitor, and then you can just have a quiet word with the people who are doing that and say, “Hey, hey, hey don’t do that. It actually screws the whole thing.” This also frees up management a bit; let these people do it. And by the way, speaking of managers, don’t leave managers out of the recognition process. They also deserve some recognition rewards. These studies were not just, I mean, yes, oftentimes they were talking to people below managerial level about how their managers deal with them, but these are human things; the human brain is what’s being activated by recognition and praise. Same thing goes for your managers.

Some companies have these sort of weekly recognition shout-outs. At Visix, they actually have a very cool thing, which is they have just a little tiny, easy form on the intranet where you can do a shout-out that immediately goes up on their digital signage (called VisixTV) and it’s who it’s to, who it’s from and why, in a sentence. But you could pool resources and have a weekly shout-out to other teams and departments. Everybody gets involved, right? Everybody knows. They all talk to each other; everybody knows who went above and beyond this week. And then everybody can kind of get together, decide who the winners should be, this week or this month, and then decide what that suitable reward should be. They probably know that person fairly well. “Man, she loves dogs, let’s get her this really awesome dog toy or dog leash or pet grooming certificate.” So, this doesn’t just recognize, but it also again helps create a sense of team building and create a sense of knitting everybody together into something like a community. And yeah, if the rewards are special, people appreciate them more. This is for sure.

Use those digital signs to promote these rewards if you’re going to do this sort of thing. Make sure your pictures are super high quality. Very few things in the world have such an immediate effect as high-quality pictures of food. If food is going to be a reward, then show a really tantalizing picture of food. “Oh my God!” and people start to salivate, and they want that prize and they’re gonna do their best to get that prize.

Again, this sounds a lot like gamification stuff, but the two kind of do go hand in hand. Even if it’s something intangible, like extra vacation days. A person is sitting on a beach, you know the shot that you see now on Instagram all the time, of just the first person POV: feet, tropical drink, beach, ocean? Just that alone can make people think, “Oh man, that sounds really nice.”

And it doesn’t just have to stop with the reward. You can get people to give you testimonials on how they use their reward. Was the reward lunch at a fairly nice restaurant and a little bit longer to have that nice lunch? Ask them to take pictures. Stick that up on the digital signs. You could share it on social media.

Basically, what you’re doing is, as I said earlier, you want to create this positive culture of recognition, not rote, not lip service; something that’s legitimate, something that really does feel valued. I think you would be very, very surprised at how loyal people become in that environment.

It really doesn’t take much time. It really doesn’t take much money, because you have digital signage to promote it, to remind people that this is the culture, to show that praise, to show rewards; always encouraging everyone to always be at their best. That is a great use of digital signage and very much worth the investment.

So thank you, again, everybody for listening. I’m Derek Dewitt, communications specialist for Visix.