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Want to Keep Your Design Team? It’s Time to Recognize Their Work.


Given the challenges of this extraordinary year, you can be certain that your creative team wants to be recognized for their extraordinary efforts. While they may not be expecting huge raises and promotions in the midst of a continuing pandemic, they most certainly are watching to see if their hard work was valued.

Our InsideOut Design Leader Community gathered over the past few weeks to share how they are getting creative to make sure their teams feel recognized, despite the challenges of screen fatigue, incredible economic uncertainty, and a heck of a lot to get done. Since budgets and team culture vary widely, senior leaders agree that there’s no one-size-fits-all way to go. But whether you’ve got a plan in place, or you’re scrambling to create one, these ideas are sure to spark new ways to celebrate and reward your team–just in time!

Crowdsource Recognition

Don’t go it alone when it comes to identifying and sharing wins with your staff. Design leaders in our community found clever methods to capture accomplishments that really resonate beyond a manager’s pat on the back.

One VP requested “One Nice Thing” from everyone on his team about each person on the team. He then compiled all the answers to distribute to individuals, collecting many data points quickly, with a small ask from his team. Other leaders have used online tools like 15Five or dedicated Slack or Microsoft Teams channels (#kudos, #high_five, etc) to constantly be collecting wins and build a culture of celebration. If those sound daunting, create an easy, low-cost Kudoboard real-time or simply work with what you’ve got.

Carve out part of existing meetings for recognition. One senior leader in NY uses their standing monthly all-hands meeting to acknowledge hard work, soliciting successes from the entire team, and sharing them in a simple presentation. Another leader uses the last 10 minutes of their departmental meeting for “Shout Outs”. As you’re planning for next year, consider external awards like the IHAF Awards, Webby Awards or others to get industry-wide recognition from outside the company and, as a bonus, help with recruiting for your “Award-winning team.”

Elevate Their Profile

Another simple way to recognize a job well done is to look up for help. Many of our InsideOut design leaders are leveraging the clout of executives and companywide forums to be sure their staff end up in the spotlight.

One NYC VP shared that her CEO announces a “Win of the Week” every Friday, based on nominations from their leaders, bringing to life stories that make an impact on the business. In fact, many executives are taking time for frequent updates to their employees during this time of tremendous change. One CEO hosts a bi-weekly call to share updates and includes recognition for a staff member in every single one.

A design leader in LA is sending a survey to uncover who her team thinks has contributed the most this year, with the intent of having their top stories shared in the well-attended global update call in January. Even simply asking an executive from a partnering department (marketing, product, engineering, more) to take the time to recognize great work can mean the world to a staff member–and takes little time to do.

Give the Gift of Time

Speaking of time, don’t discount the fact that most everyone on your staff could use more of it. Whether for personal endeavors or for deep, focused work, time is a resource that many employees are afraid to take, given the frightening unemployment numbers this year.

One Seattle senior leader found a creative way to give time off. She’s soliciting peer recognition then selecting a winner. The prize? A “Disconnect Day.” She also encourages every team member to block time and set an Out of Office message to honor the focus time they need to deliver on their work. Supporting staff in setting boundaries goes a long way in showing that you understand and value what they do.

Another leader shared that her department head gave each staff member a $5 Starbucks gift card and 3 hours of time to take a much-needed break after a particularly trying period. Small investment, huge reward. Equally meaningful is to provide learning opportunities to your team. There’s an abundance of free online training and events out there right now, but suggesting a course isn’t as important as helping an employee make the time to take it.

Review Your Reviews

Most of our roundtables on the topic of “Celebrating and Rewarding Your Team” ended up with a discussion about performance reviews. While tackling a virtual review process is a post unto itself, design leaders shared many ways they’re pivoting to make this year count.

One brilliant leader is utilizing a free Figma template originally created to evaluate candidates in their hiring process to craft a compelling visual performance review! Using key competencies for each role, this tool enables healthy discussions of how staff are progressing toward goals, helps identify emerging leaders, and enables a self review that puts everyone quickly on the same page.

Not surprisingly, many design leaders have created visual review documents that show instead of just tell–and all agreed that this year more than ever, the self-review is critical. Uncovering what staff value and see as important accomplishments in a truly challenging year gives leaders an opportunity to recognize effort and recalibrate on performance.

Make it Fun (duh)

This point may seem obvious, but many leaders shared that defining what’s “fun” right now for an entire virtual team is no easy task. A NY VP pointed to an article from Katie Dill that illustrates the importance of learning your employee’s recognition language before trying to acknowledge your team.

That said, most leaders had creative ideas for celebrating their teams. Here are a few:

  • Host a mini-design challenge or hack-a-thon to give teams a chance to stretch their creative muscles without the looming deadlines.
  • With small or larger budgets, creating team-branded swag or even well-designed stickers as gifts can appeal to creatives without breaking the bank.
  • For the holidays, some senior leaders are sending out small kits of ingredients for teams to decorate gingerbread houses, cupcakes, and cookies. Low budget, high creativity. Added bonus? Get your marketing/product/engineering team to judge a winner!
  • Gift future winnings (or at least a chance!) by giving lottery scratchers to your team.
  • Help teams support causes they care about by giving charity gift cards or donations.
  • Books that help elevate their craft are a simple, cost-effective way to show your team you’re invested in their development.
  • Send handwritten cards! Take the time to write a personal, thoughtful message to recognize accomplishments and say, “Thanks.”

The best news? There’s still time to recognize the exceptional effort your team has put in this year to make the most of difficult circumstances. One Seattle leader shared a sentiment that her company has adopted for recognition: Assume everyone in the company has had to perform some type of heroics this year, regardless of their situation. By starting from a place of care and empathy and seeking ways to make your team feel special, you’ll be well-positioned to start next year off on a positive note.

And let’s face it. When the job market rebounds, your team will remember how you handled these rough spots–and whether or not they felt valued along the way. So take the time right now to be sure you’re the leader they’ll stick with as we come out of this pandemic and beyond. The effort it takes to make recognition a priority will be well worth it.

If you’re a senior design, experience, or operations leader of an in-house team and want to connect to others who share your unique challenges, let’s talk. Our InsideOut community hosts virtual roundtables to support the learning, growth, and sanity of our members, and I’m honored to get to facilitate those discussions.

We’d also love to hear how YOU are celebrating and rewarding your team this year, so please share in the comments. Stay safe out there. Let’s keep learning together!

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