For the past twenty plus years, organizations have been trying to unlock the mystery of how to engage, reward, recognize and retain employees. And through all those years, HR professionals, analysts, consultants, researchers, trainers, and coaches have speculated on the ways to create the perfect mix of magic to achieve all those things. 

At the same time, employees have been asking for more flexibility, more creative recognition and understanding from their leaders. They too have not experienced the state of perfection they desire in the workplace. The organizations that are experiencing the most success know that a culture of gratitude, along with flexible work arrangements yield success when it comes to providing a successful employee experience.

Why gratitude is so important right now

Now, as we approach two years with the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders are working diligently to assess and reassess their approach to all the same challenges, but with a high percentage of remote workers. And while many of us hoped a vaccine would help us bring our workforce back to in-person work, the variants are causing us to rethink our approaches to hybrid work, full return to the workplace, and retention of our top talent. 

With all the challenges of hybrid and remote work, leaders like you are thinking about ways to engage and connect with their employees. From designing wellbeing programs to address each employees’ physical, mental, social and financial needs to reducing employee burnout in order to retain them, the level of creativity is at an all time high.

What are top companies doing to give back?

There is no shortage of companies already being creative in ways to give back to employees during this pandemic. Companies like Truist Bank are giving $1,200 pretax bonuses to employees earning less than $100,000. They are also offering several types of childcare incentives including paid time off and reimbursement of child care costs. PepsiCo is also aiding employees by paying full salaries for 14 days to those who need to quarantine. They are also paying front line employees more and offering special pay scenarios to other employees who need to care for children or other family members who are fighting the virus. 

In addition, leading companies are also exploring ways to navigate the new normal of work by sharing how they are safely bringing workers back into the workplace. For those employers who are not yet ready for that step, there are hybrid models that are successfully being used. And since this is a time of rapidly changing medical guidance on a global scale, leaders are learning to have agile plans that can flux from in-person to hybrid and back again. It’s a unique learning process and in the end, leaders will likely be more connected and in tune to their employees than ever before.

What do employees want in the “new norm”?

Organizations are struggling right now. Since many leaders were not raised up in an organizational culture where gratitude was valued, it’s a challenge to have those same leaders promote that culture today. Being grateful is a habit that becomes a way of life. It’s something you must be intentional about, something to plan for and something to measure. Gratitude is also highly personal, which is why it can have such an impact on the employee’s experience. If done right, with intent and personalization, it can also be the reason that an employee feels a connection to not only the supervisor, but the team and the organization.

Employees want it all as they consider re-entry into their workplaces. They are thinking about their safety, their opportunities, and their perks that make life easier. In terms of safety, employees want to know that their organizations are ensuring a clean environment where the risk of COVID infection is greatly reduced. They are also keen on seeing opportunities like better projects, increased recognition, promotion, and advancement. Lastly, they want perks to make life easier. An example of a popular perk is food delivery and rewards. In a September 2020 survey by DoorDash, 3 out of 4 employees resoundingly said they want food delivery and free food as part of their benefits. Additionally, 82% of those surveyed said they’d feel more satisfied at work if their company offered free food delivery cards

A Tailored Approach: Things, Experiences, Actions, Motivations



Things are the ways that organizations typically show employee appreciation. There are a variety of things you can do to show someone you are grateful for them or their actions. Things work because they are typically something tangible that an employee can touch, feel, or keep. 

Thank you notes or cards 

In a high digitized world, a hand-written note or card goes a long way. It shows the employee that they are worth the time it takes to think about them or their performance. Thank you notes are also something tangible that employees can keep and look back to as a reminder that they are appreciated. 

Care kits

Now, more than ever, employees need to feel that they are cared for. Creating personalized care kits is one way to demonstrate to the employee that you not only know they need some extra care, but that you’re listening and understanding what would ease their mind. By surveying employees to find out what types of things they like to eat, wear, use or even what hobbies they enjoy, you’ll have all the information you need to create a care kit that meets their individual needs. You can also consider creating less personalized kits that follow themes. For example, relaxation kits that include things like eye masks, bath salts, a gift card for a book, a meditation CD, etc. Another option is a movie night care kit with popcorn, candy, etc. The list of possible kits is endless. 

Employee highlight pieces

Telling someone you value them is one thing. It can be even more impactful if you tell other people about their value. Consider sharing these write ups in your company newsletter, via your HR platform feed, in a company-wide email or on your company website. Include a picture of the employee along with a few paragraphs about why that person is valuable.


A tried-and-true method of gratitude is presenting an employee with a gift card to a restaurant or store they like. A great example is the DoorDash gift card. These can be given in a variety of amounts, and you can include a personal note explaining why the employee is receiving the card. This gives the employee freedom to choose their own favorite restaurant and the flexibility of when to use the gift. 

Gratitude journals

Journaling has been a way for people to reflect and relax. Making it a gratitude journal places intent on the writing. For many, it’s an easy way to take a few moments each day and jot down a few things they are grateful for. Gifting gratitude journals to your employees is a way to show that you care that they take time out of their workday to consider what makes them grateful. Why is this beneficial? It can help reduce aggression, improve psychological health, increase self-esteem, and help with better sleep, to name a few. 

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Experiences are not only a way to show an individual employee appreciation, but they also work effectively for groups of employees too. It can be an excellent way to build teamwork and camaraderie as people come back to the workplace. These often leave lasting memories and good will for anyone who participates. These shared experiences help team members remember the norms and habits. According to a 2016 Yale study, “shared experiences are amplified.” The study showed that when an employee experiences something with a manager or another colleague, the resulting feelings and reactions are amplified. The idea is for organizational leaders to create positive shared experiences to amplify the good feelings of the team members.

Wellbeing and fitness class

Whether it’s spinning, yoga or meditation, offering an in-person or virtual class where employees can focus on their own wellbeing is key. Classes that promote introspection, breathing, calming fears and general happiness are more popular than ever. Providers like Peloton have seen the uptick since the pandemic began. There is no sign of a slowdown either. As uncertainty remains about variants of the virus, your employees continue their workout progress at home. 

Art/wine class

It’s been more than a decade since the first classes emerged, and they continue to grow in popularity. Think of this as the ultimate team building experience. Each class is designed for a team to attend. The instructor provides general instructions for a specific painting and each attendee can be creative and make it their own. While wine consumption is often part of the class, it’s not a requirement and there are certainly opportunities to have the class without it.

Mobile massage

This is a fun way to promote relaxation and boost productivity. Hire one, or a few, massage therapists to come to your work location and give on-site chair massage. These are fully clothed massages that typically last 10- 15 minutes each. It’s a nice way for employees to take a break and get energized for the work ahead.

Cooking class

Whether you go to an external class or bring a chef on-site, cooking and sharing a meal is an excellent way to reward employees. It may teach a new skill or two while promoting relaxation and positive interactions with team members. 

Lunch in the office

Whether your incentive is for an employee to have lunch with an executive or with their entire team, services like DoorDash Group Orders can help. Giving employees the confidence to have a safe, securely prepared meal could be the tipping point to make them more comfortable as they come back to the workplace.



Actions are those behaviors we can demonstrate to show someone we care about them. A personal act of kindness and recognition is something we don’t always consider as a “go to” since in most cases there are no costs involved. It’s a wonderful way to build connection and inclusion when you don’t want to break the bank.

Personal call

Getting a personal call from an executive, or even a supervisor, can make an employee’s day. Getting that personal thank you from someone at a senior level will make the employee feel included and appreciated. The call should include how their work directly impacts the profitability or success of the company.

COVID-19 help for the family

If an employee, or their family member, contracts COVID-19, calling to ask what assistance they need is a good way to show care, concern, and thanks. They may need short term child care assistance, elder care assistance, food, medicine delivery or other help. 

Free delivery benefits

DashPass for Work is a great way to show employees you care and take some of the burden off families by offering free delivery of groceries, diapers, food and more. This is a way to promote a culture of care. The recent DoorDash State of Employee Benefits Report shows that 78% of employees we surveyed believe food benefits would have a positive impact on the overall culture at their companies. 

Employees reward each other

Another option is to give each employee an allowance to use to reward someone else. Tell the employees to be as creative as possible. Not only does a peer-to-peer reward make an impact, you may also receive recognition ideas the HR team has not considered. 

Verbalize appreciation when someone gives a different opinion

Often when we are confronted with teammates or other employees with a strong difference of opinion, our inclination is to shut down. Instead, show gratitude to that person for sharing their perspective. Not only do you give them thanks, but you open a door to more dialogue that can get you to a more neutral approach. It is gracious and team building at the same time.


Patience is often lacking in times of stress. Now that people are juggling remote work, hybrid work, and the return to the workplace, it’s even more imperative that we show patience. Give employees more time to work, fewer meetings to distract them and lots of patience as they navigate these new ways of working is key.

Evolving the Employee Experience in 2021


Motivators are when you hire or give access to people who can give your employees kudos or tips. We all have days when we feel less motivated and living through a pandemic has amplified the lack of motivation, which is why hiring a motivator can help:

Guest speakers

As employees come back to the workplace, or work hybrid schedules, giving them access to guest speakers who can guide them through greater connection, communication or happiness can go a long way in overall employee experience. Whether you choose a speaker you saw at a conference, on the internet or in a webinar, there is no shortage of speakers who can motivate and inspire your workforce. One place to start is Speaker’s Hub where they share their list of the top 50 motivational speakers. If you don’t want to book a speaker, or don’t have the budget, you can use this list for ideas of motivational videos that can be found on YouTube, Vimeo or similar sites. Another fantastic option is to invite your executive leadership to speak to employees one-on-one or in a group during lunch. Not only is this a way to reward and encourage the employee, it gives the CEO or other executive leader a venue to hear different perspectives. It also fosters mutual respect, communication and collaboration. 


Dealing with COVID while working has created a greater need for therapy. We’re seeing that across all generations, the ability to ask for help with mental issues or mental stress is becoming less taboo. Providing confidential therapy services to your employees is an excellent way to show your care and concern for their wellbeing. It will also show that you’re grateful for their contribution and your commitment to doing what it takes to build up their ability to cope with the uncertainty we are all facing.

Cameo video celebration

In the past year, the use of the Cameo app has increased monumentally. According to Zoe Strozewski of SportTechie, “Cameo, an app for celebrities to send personalized videos to fans, has raised $100 million in Series C funding. The company now values itself at more than $1 billion and has secured more than $165 million in overall funding.” Consider hiring an employee’s favorite celebrity to record a short message saying why you are grateful for them. Pricing ranges from $2 per video to $1,500. Or, if buying in bulk, check out Cameo for Business. In addition to the Cameo, order a cake or other goodies using DoorDash Expensed Meals so the employee can celebrate while watching their special message. 

Next Steps for Leaders

The past 18 months have changed people’s lives forever. A global pandemic meant complete shut-down for most of the countries around the globe. Families at home became the center of the way we lived and worked. New norms emerged as parents became caregivers for elderly relatives, at-home teachers for their children, and remote workers in many jobs where that had never been an option. And with this change, it became clear that all workers were not impacted in the same way. In October 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 865,000 women left the workforce and were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, quitting at a rate of 4 to 1 compared to men. 

While some companies are seeing resistance to returning to the workplace, a vast majority are drafting and executing on plans to safely bring workers back. DoorDash created a helpful guide to etiquette and tips for the new normal in the workplace. For more in depth options, be sure to check out their DoorDash for Work Product Suite. Just remember, be flexible and do all you can to communicate and listen to your employees. Their feedback will help guide you to the benefits they need most that will ensure your company culture is one of caring and gratitude. 

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Trish McFarlane
Trish McFarlane
CEO and Principal Analyst, H3 HR Advisors

Trish McFarlane is the CEO and Principal Analyst for H3 HR Advisors.  As a former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience in Big 4 public accounting, PR, healthcare, manufacturing, and IT, Trish brings that knowledge to her clients as an analyst and advisor.  She has been the author of the Trish McFarlane blog (formerly known as the HRRingleader blog) since 2009.  In addition, she began the HRevolution un-conference in 2009 and was a founding member of the Women of HR blog.