Today’s workforce is hungry for roles that offer not just a steady paycheck and reliable benefits, but also a lasting sense of personal fulfillment. They want more-than-just-a-job jobs, which means companies interested in attracting top talent must be equipped with strategies to support the employee experience. One employee recognition strategy is proven to accomplish exactly that: peer recognition programs.
Peer recognition programs help employees feel personally connected to their colleagues. This feeds trust, loyalty, and camaraderie, which leaves employees feeling more like members of a team than cogs in a machine. When employees feel supported by their colleagues, they’re also more likely to demonstrate a sense of ownership in their roles and to pursue opportunities for growth. All these benefits relate back to peer relationships and, ultimately, contribute to meaningful work.
Sometimes, workplace relationships emerge spontaneously. Peers might happen upon a common interest and build fulfilling partnerships, mentorships, or friendships from there. But because the impact of peer-to-peer relationships at work is so significant, these connections should not be left to chance. As with anything else that impacts business, leaders should plan to systematically support peer-to-peer relationships. Let’s explore why and how peer recognition programs can accomplish that.
The Importance of Meaningful Work
Before we unpack the ins and outs of effective peer recognition, let’s establish some context around why it’s so important to make work feel meaningful. There are a few reasons employers who make an effort to support meaningful work are at an advantage relative to those who don’t:
1. Meaningful work is something employees crave — badly.
In fact, one study found that nine out of 10 respondents find meaningful work so important, they’d sacrifice some portion of their paycheck for the opportunity to do it. Employers who are able to fulfill this craving will be able to attract a stronger talent pool, and be better equipped to retain them.
2. There is much room for improvement when it comes to making work meaningful.
The average employee reports that their work is about half as meaningful as it could be. That means there’s a big problem to be solved, but there’s also room to make a big impact with an effective solution.
3. Making work meaningful is in a business’s best interest.
Aside from the obvious fact that employees who feel fulfilled will be more satisfied in their roles, there are a variety of additional positive outcomes associated with meaningful work. To name a few, employees who find work meaningful tend to work longer hours, earn more senior titles, and report higher job satisfaction.
Clearly, making work meaningful is an issue that demands the attention of leaders who want to help their teams thrive. With this in mind, we’ll move to the next chapter in our quest to understand how peer recognition supports fulfilling work: answering the question of what makes work meaningful.
What makes work meaningful?
Everyone has different passions, experiences, and career goals — so, how is it possible to take a scalable approach to making work meaningful? Surprisingly, there are a few general factors research indicates as key to making work meaningful, regardless of individual interests.
A study published by SHRM outlined these factors as follows:
1. Having Control Over Work
When employees truly own their roles, they feel empowered to make an impact. This sense of ownership is one of the most important factors for making work meaningful: if people feel like the work is theirs, it means much more.
2. Getting Helpful Feedback
Letting employees know how they are performing, where they excel, and what areas have room for improvement is also key to making work meaningful. It transforms a person’s role from a static position into an ongoing journey. This makes work both more engaging and meaningful.
3. Knowing Work Serves a Higher Purpose
Lastly, employees want to feel like they’re contributing to something greater than themselves through their careers. That something might be your company’s broader mission, a positive change in the community, or another initiative related to collective progress. Importantly, employees need to know how their individual contributions feed these broader goals, which peer recognition can help clarify (we’ll discuss more on this below).
Interestingly, these three pillars of meaningful work align with one of the most widely accepted theories of human motivation, presented by motivational expert Daniel Pink in his book Drive. According to Pink, intrinsic motivation hinges on a sense of autonomy (also known as having control over work), the pursuit of mastery (also known as recurring feedback and subsequent growth), and a sense of purpose greater than oneself (also known as a higher purpose).
The parallels between these factors and those outlined by SHRM seem unlikely to be a coincidence. Could it be that meaning drives motivation? At the very least, the same central factors contribute to both and successful leaders must be equipped with strategies to systematically support each. That’s where peer recognition comes in.
Peer Recognition in Practice
Peer recognition programs make it simple for employees to praise each other for excellence at work. When someone catches a colleague doing something great, they can easily recognize that person through the program to let them know how much they are appreciated.
Many peer recognition programs encourage participants to make this exchange public so the rest of the team can pile on the praise too, thus amplifying its impact. Typically, public peer recognition is displayed on a social feed accessible to employees across locations, departments, and management levels. This kind of centralized social feed can be critical for uniting a distributed team.
Some peer recognition programs also support the option for employees to attach redeemable points when giving recognition. This means recognition functions both as a message of praise and as a tangible reward.
Most larger companies opt to partner with a dedicated employee recognition vendor like Fond to host the social feed, manage the rewards catalog, and make it easy to track participation and other key performance metrics. But regardless of how the program is managed, it’s the recurring expression of gratitude that makes peer recognition such an impactful tool for supporting meaningful work.
How Peer Recognition Supports Meaningful Work
It’s easy enough to claim that peer recognition programs generally make work feel more meaningful, but exactly how remains unclear. The three pillars of meaningful work detailed previously give us a useful framework for answering this question.
Let’s start with the first pillar: having control over work. Peer recognition programs help build autonomy on two levels. First, positive feedback encourages employees to step into their strengths, which lends them the confidence they need to truly own their roles. Second, when someone regularly receives recognition from their colleagues, it sends the message that those people trust them to succeed at their jobs and to do so autonomously.
Siena (she/her) recently joined a company as an associate graphic designer. While her role is fairly junior, her artistic eye is impeccable, and the rest of her team relies heavily on her visual instincts to make their work shine. When colleagues repeatedly recognize her for her great work, Siena starts to gain the confidence she needs to be proactive about ensuring every deliverable her team passes along is visually exquisite. Without that recognition, it would’ve taken her a lot longer to gain the confidence to speak up about how the company could improve design elements.
Next, feedback. This is perhaps the most obvious connection to make, as peer recognition programs are centered around delivering positive feedback. Positive feedback is necessary for affirming that employees are growing and succeeding in their roles at work, and it also lays the groundwork necessary for delivering its counterpart: constructive feedback. Both types of feedback are necessary for growth and (as one might imagine) employees are much more receptive to constructive feedback when they also feel recognized for the strengths they bring to the team.
Lance’s boss needs to deliver some tough feedback about recurring oversights in his analytic work. Luckily, last week Lance (he/him) received recognition from three different colleagues praising him for his strength as a writer. While the criticism of Lance’s analytic work is tough to hear, it’s offset by the security he finds in knowing his peers see his strengths too. This foundation allows Lance to view the constructive feedback as more of an opportunity for growth rather than a personal attack.
Finally, the third pillar of motivation: knowing that work serves a higher purpose. Peer recognition can be a powerful tool for supporting this, but leaders need to be thoughtful, intentional, and informed to get the best results. Simply letting employees know that they did a good job on their last project isn’t enough. Whoever writes the recognition needs to take an extra moment to articulate not only what the recipient contributed to one specific project, but how that project ties back to the bigger picture. If you’re able to do this effectively, employees will begin to understand how their individual contributions feed a larger purpose.
Blake (they/them) spent the past three weeks meticulously crafting a new pitch deck for their company’s Sales team. When they pass it off for review, Blake is proud of their work — it’s a strong presentation and they went above and beyond what was asked of them. But it’s not until Blake’s teammate recognizes them that they make the connection that this presentation will enable the team to win in new markets, which will significantly expand the company’s ability to make an impact. Without recognition, Blake would have continued to think of their work as simply a good presentation. Peer recognition makes it mean more.
By feeding the three key pillars of motivation, peer recognition exercises a systematic impact on employees’ ability to find meaning at work. It transforms the challenge of supporting meaningful work from an abstract goal into something that can be planned for and, ultimately, realized.
Finding Meaning Through Workplace Relationships
On top of everything we’ve already discussed, peer recognition programs come with a massive added bonus: they have a tendency to spark real relationships between colleagues.
When employees regularly engage in positive social exchanges — and especially when those exchanges are centered on gratitude — it’s natural for peers to form strong bonds with one another based on mutual appreciation. Oftentimes, the connections sparked by peer recognition can evolve into powerful working partnerships, mentorships, or friendships.
A workplace where colleagues feel genuinely connected to and supported by each other feels like more than a workplace; it feels like a team. That means when employees make the push to hit that next big milestone, whatever it may be, they’re not just doing it for themselves, and they’re not just doing it for the company — they’re doing it for their peers, too. And it’s possible that that is the most meaningful work of all.
Katerina Mery is a Marketing Specialist at Fond with a background in cognitive psychology and a passion for improving the way people live and work. She especially enjoys learning about how to accomplish this through rewards and recognition. In her spare time, you can find Katerina running outside, admiring art, and exploring the latest and greatest local restaurants.