How to Motivate Essential Workers

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown why it is so important to motivate these vital workers.

Amid the seemingly endless stream of bad news related to the global pandemic, one of the few bright spots has been the inspiring stories of frontline workers. The medical professionals, first responders, postal  and delivery workers and grocery store employees have shown enormous courage by continuing to work to help the country function and providing people with the essential services they can't do without. But while these frontline workers inspire us, who is inspiring them? 

"Frontline workers are literally putting their lives on the line," says Gary Beckstrand, vice president of employee recognition and engagement company O.C. Tanner. "They are sacrificing, adapting, and creatively finding ways to keep vital services running during an unprecedented time."

Recognition, particularly in such trying times, can make a big impact on the performance of overwhelmed workers. Beckstrand points to findings from weekly surveys monitoring employee sentiment that the O.C. Tanner Institute has been conducting since March 23. 


Those workers who have been recognized during the COVID crisis were 47 percent more likely to show high levels of engagement and productivity, 43 percent more likely to feel successful and twice as likely to feel supported by the organization. While the survey did not specifically poll essential workers, Beckstrand sees the findings as reflective of the effect a recognition program can deliver to an organization during such a difficult time.

He gives the example of a large healthcare provider that is using recognition to celebrate hospital staff serving in the center of the COVID-19 outbreak. According to Beckstrand, they've kept employees motivated and energized with eCards tailored to the moment with messages reinforcing how the world needs them, honoring them as heroes or highlighting healthcare-related actions they're taking.

Gary Beckstrand, vice president, O.C. Tanner
Gary Beckstrand, vice president, O.C. Tanner

The recognition efforts emphasize the individual impact of the workers. The company turned pictures of staff, thank-you notes from the community and chalk drawings left outside of the hospital into rotating screensavers on employees' computers and TV monitors across the campus; The images provide constant, meaningful and updated reminders to the staff of why they are doing the work they are doing. 

Once the healthcare provider gets past the worst of the crisis, it will hold an employee-appreciation celebration, providing the essential workers with "a special custom award and a substantial amount of recognition points," said Beckstrand.

"Frontline health workers face extraordinary uncertainty in times like these, and their jobs were already stressful before, with some of the highest turnover rates in the nation," says Cord Himelstein, vice president of marketing and communications for HALO Recognition. His organization works with a number of healthcare clients, including this year's Motivation Masters Best Recognition Program winner Penn State Health. "In times of crisis, recognition can be a wonderful tool to stay connected with staff and ensure their intrinsic needs are met."

Many of HALO's health customers are on points-based programs, and Himelstein says they have seen an uptick in activity around nominations and eCards, as quick and easy ways to distribute recognition widely. 

"In some cases, colleagues from within the organizations are 'donating' their points to frontline people in an act of solidarity," he adds. "Nurses Week [which took place in mid-May] has always been a big recognition day, so many organizations took the opportunity to send a strong message of gratitude."

Cord Himelstein, vice president of marketing and communications for HALO Recognition
Cord Himelstein, vice president of marketing and communications for HALO Recognition

Himelstein explains that developing a "culture of recognition" can not only help boost employees' spirits during difficult times, but create a deeper bond with workers that will last once the crisis is overcome. 

"Being a nurse is among the most stressful occupations in the world, and they were in short supply before the pandemic even started," says Himelstein. "Recognition programs are a reliable way to motivate large and sometimes disconnected workforces, perfect for the bustling healthcare environment, and when delivered consistently can provide much-needed continuity during turbulent times."

It was partly for this reason — and eCards' particular value as a reward for workers during these challenging times — that Hinda Incentives has offered its EngagementLink Express eCard platform free of charge to any company through the end of 2020. The platform includes 70 different cards in categories like “Congratulations”, “Thank You”, “Great Job”, “Happy Birthday” and other life events.

Beyond Healthcare

Healthcare is not the only industry whose employees have had to work throughout the pandemic. Grocery store workers have been vital during this time, providing food to the country and allowing people to shop and eat. A grocery chain that O.C. Tanner works with is creating a special commemorative yearbook-style brochure to capture the great work being done and recognize employees during this unprecedented time.

"They're including comments from senior leaders and awarding their 10,000+ frontline workers with a custom gift," says Beckstrand. 

In offering rewards to frontline workers, incentive experts urge managers to provide versatile offerings that will appeal to the personal preferences of a number of different employees to ensure the rewards are meaningful.

"The last thing an organization wants is for a well‐intentioned reward or incentive offering to fall flat with its employees, which could lead to questions of whether their work is truly appreciated," says Dave Etling, senior vice president and general manager of InComm InCentives. "Organizations should recognize that each of their employees will have different preferences, which means an effective rewards system should offer multiple options to meet recipient preferences."

That doesn't mean it has to be something elaborate. For example, InComm developed a reward program for a major telecommunication provider whose field technicians had to work throughout statewide lockdowns to ensure broadband networks remained functional during the pandemic. 

"The company sought a reward system that would be meaningful and helpful for its workforce without requiring a complicated setup," says Etling. "They ultimately decided to help its technicians purchase lunch while out in the field."

The resulting rewards program awarded the company's 25,000 field technicians with $25 per week, delivered via digital gift cards, that were redeemable at nearly 30 quick‐serve restaurant brands. The technicians could select which gift card they wanted through InComm InCentives' customized online store. 

InComm isn't the only gift-card supplier to focus on front-line workers. Prepaid technology company NGC launched an Essential Brands category of digital eGift cards from merchants providing food, delivery, subscription and household essentials and is offering up its free Benefit fundraising mobile app to nonprofit organizations looking to raise money. 

Bottom Line Benefits

Truck drivers are other essential workers who have to operate during the crisis, often under pressure conditions. 

"The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world as we know it. Not only do we all have a greater appreciation for our healthcare workers but truckers as well," says Andrew Chermark, founder of Smart Fleet, a GPS tracking and management system company, that creates gamified safety incentive programs for trucking companies and other clients. "They are out day after day delivering PPE, food, and essential products to all."

Through Smart Fleet's Driver Rewards app that is downloaded on a smartphone, drivers can view their scorecard on points such as avoiding speeding, idling, hard braking or sudden acceleration, and compare how they rank compared to colleagues. They can then redeem the points for gift cards to Amazon, Walmart, Starbucks and more.

"A truck safety program like ours ensures they will get home safely to their families," says Chermark. "They are at such risk making their deliveries in ordinary times, not to mention in a crisis like this."  

He also emphasizes that a safety program can help in an area that's top of mind for every organization right now: the bottom line.

"Safety has a huge impact on a company's bottom line. We have found that when companies reduce accidents, their insurance rates go down, and productivity increases," he says. "A safety incentive program helps reduces losses organizations experience from accidents and is especially critical in a time like this.

O.C. Tanner's Beckstrand acknowledges that during this crisis, many organizations have been hard hit and have been cutting non-essential spending to deal with immediate and future economic challenges. 

"Too often, recognition is seen as nonessential when in fact the data is clear that investing in recognition, while always beneficial, is especially impactful during tough times when we're asking employees to adapt and literally do more with less," he says, adding that he's seen companies delay or put a temporary hold on recognition spending, "but the risks are significant and may not be clearly understood." 

O.C. Tanner's research shows that when organizations did not have a recognition program in place during the COVID crisis, they saw that employees reported significant higher levels of mental exhaustion (+14 percent), reduced engagement (-48 percent), and intent to leave their organizations post pandemic (+20 percent).

"The data supports what we should know intuitively," says Beckstrand. "It's critical to acknowledge and recognize employee's great work, especially when it's essential to keep the business going during the crisis and provide continuity moving forward during a prolonged economic downturn."