As Americans live more of their lives online, perhaps it only makes sense that online recognition has taken off in the corporate context.

Of the 86% of U.S. organizations with recognition programs in place, 66% use the Internet or intranet to communicate recognition programs, and 62% use email, according to WorldatWork's 2011 "Trends in Employee Recognition Survey." Currently, 39% of companies use email announcements and notifications to present recognition awards and 33% utilize the intranet.

Morphing workplace demographics, the influence of Facebook and other online social communities, and a globalized workforce have changed how employers engage and acknowledge top talent.

"Recognition is now part of our daily conversation. Following natural technology evolution, the conversation is moving online, and so recognition is moving online with it," explains Rob Danna, vice president of performance and recognition solutions at TharpeRobbins.

Among the 2,500 TharpeRobbins client companies, 72% of all interactions and transactions with client-employees take place via an online experience. This percentage has increased rapidly over the last five years, and the recognition company expects it will continue to increase every year.

A successful online recognition program extends from a smooth online communication campaign and can include social networking tools, email outreach, e-cards and teleconferencing. As online communication becomes integral to a normal workday, so will online recognition. No matter how simple the tool, employers should recognize that it is simply one platform for rewarding employees who contribute positively to the company culture and propel a core mission.


You've got recognition

At Methodist Medical Center, a tertiary-care facility in Peoria, Ill., managers celebrate employees' work anniversaries, birthdays, Employee of the Month/Year awards and service recognition through a combination of online and in-person rewards programs.

According to Michelle Shambaugh, the center's retention specialist for human resource services, employees are excited to receive online awards, and managers consider the process easy and convenient, especially since the software can be accessed from a home computer when a manager is off shift.

The medical center has several award programs to engage employees about core company values. "For us it was a way of creating a strong culture balance within our organization," Shambaugh explains.

The "Someone Who Cares" award is a peer-to-peer recognition tool. Any employee can give the award to any colleague, regardless of position. It doesn't use incentives or give out points like other awards. "We're demonstrating 'Methodist Begins with Me' by living our core values," says Shambaugh.

"It's so easy to notice people, and often peers will see things that the managers won't," adds David Sturt, executive vice president of marketing and business development for O.C. Tanner. "Opening that up makes [recognition] very accessible, very easy."

Methodist Medical Center started its online recognition program with TharpeRobbins three years ago because "we wanted to implement something to be consistent with recognition," Shambaugh says. In the past, some leaders would recognize employees, while others did nothing. Shambaugh and her team also liked that the program was green - it uses no paper and enhanced its online technology.

These programs are more peer-oriented and usually deliver awards via e-cards, emails or e-certificates. Digitally administered online recognition is best for smaller accolades and more frequent contact between colleagues.

One large TharpeRobbins client with over 50,000 employees began using e-cards for recognition and caring in June 2010 and has seen 20% increase in usage every month. Over 30,000 e-cards have been sent between colleagues in the past 18 months.

However, Sturt warns against over-reliance on online recognition. "If someone has worked three weekends in a row to deliver something, and all they get is an e-card, then that's pretty demoralizing because it doesn't send the message that [their accomplishment] was really valued or rewarded," he says. "You need to suit the tool to what type of recognition you are doing."


Know your audience

E-recognition also fits certain environments better than others. In a highly distributed workforce, for example, with telecommuters, employees spread across agent offices and global workers, online appreciation is an easy mechanism to engage people.

On the other hand, it won't work well in retail settings or factory floors. If workers aren't in front of a computer, they'll need and want a more tangible form of recognition.

Only 9% of TharpeRobbins employer clients have chosen to go completely online; most companies, especially retail, medical and manufacturing companies, have large off-line populations.

For these demographics, Sturt recommends handwritten thank-you notes. In some workplaces, smartphones are becoming a workaround for employees without access to a desktop.

"We have to have offline components equal in convenience, sophistication and branding to online," insists Danna. "When launching a recognition program, it's like any other major initiative within your organization. It requires a multimedia approach."

The touch and feel of the website and emails should match the posters and flyers, Danna stresses. "Therefore you have a seamless blend of brands between the online and offline promotion of the recognition program."

According to Shambaugh, after the initial challenge of selling an online recognition program to senior leaders, her department had to convince employees.

In the beginning, the CEO would award employees that asked a question at quarterly company meetings. Those engaged employees received a "Communication by Celebration" card worth 100 points in the recognition and rewards program. This was one way leaders could show employees this initiative would cement itself in the company culture.


Virtual, but still visible

Program visibility is essential, Sturt says. "You need to make people aware of what's out there. Just because there's a link on some intranet site doesn't mean people know about it."

Another pitfall occurs when colleagues give too many e-rewards points without citing what they are for. A program will fall flat unless managers are able to tie accomplishments to company goals in online and formalized presentations.

HR/benefit pros also should measure the success of a recognition program, considering the percentage of employees participating actively and how frequently individuals use the software, says Sturt. He adds that employers should note the impact the program has on company culture and worker retention, as well as whether it helped drive business results.

"It does take time for [people to] buy into recognition and get excited about it," admits Shambaugh, but the results are worth the wait. Employees at the Methodist Medical Center received 257 awards in January 2009, the first month of implementation. In January 2011, they received 1,107 awards.

Ultimately, employers and recognition experts don't believe online accolades will replace all in-person appreciation.

"I can see software-based delivered recognition continuing to expand as people become more accustomed to doing other forms of work that way, but for bigger forms of recognition, I can't see it replacing the more meaningful recognition moments," says Sturt. "Imagine for a moment Olympic athletes standing on the podium and getting an email ... It's a moment you can't deliver with an e-card."

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