Rewarding, Recognizing and Celebrating Achievements from Afar

How do you celebrate a major milestone? Maybe you call the troops together to share a pizza, or bring in a jug of coffee and a platter of decadent donuts. Better yet, you might treat your hard-working team to lunch or dinner. And if it’s a moment worthy of a special celebration, you might throw the team a party or call a team holiday by giving everyone a day off.

But, what if the team is geographically dispersed? When asked how they honor their team’s achievements, many virtual team leaders come up empty. Sure, they may send a few congratulatory emails or team IMs. And they may stage an impromptu celebration in a nearby conference room for anyone who’s close enough to attend. But when it comes to planning a true team-wide celebration, few virtual leaders do this well, if at all.

At the same time, they realize that perhaps even more than co-located teams, virtual team members need opportunities to celebrate achievements all together to sustain great performance. That’s because for virtual team members, out of sight can easily mean out of mind. The feeling of isolation can be especially acute when the team has accomplished something particularly heroic, with no discernible fanfare. A team celebration presents a rare opportunity for virtual team leaders to capture the hearts of team members and inject energy in ways that ordinary team meetings and congratulatory emails cannot.

In this edition of Communiqué, my colleague Beverly Winkler joins me to brainstorm ideas for celebrating achievements and recognizing remarkable performance for virtual teams. Click here for more tips for sustaining great performance, extracted from our Virtual Leadership virtual workshop series and our new Leading Virtual Teams tips guide.

  • Kick off every team meeting with a few minutes of formal and informal ‘kudos’ to acknowledge recent successes.  When people work virtually, they have few opportunities to share victories, unless special time is carved out. Kudos may come from the leader first, who encourages members to pat each other (and themselves) on the back. Once this kind of self-acknowledgement becomes part of the team culture, members will recount their own successes without prodding, and will more easily acknowledge others’ achievements as well. This can also be a great way to end a team meeting on a high note.
  • One, two, three — cheers to us!  Even though people may be sitting far away, they can feel like they’re sitting at the same table as they get ready to hoist a cup in celebration. If you’re sharing coffee or tea with people nearby, plan ahead for those who work far away by sending gift cards to a nearby coffee house or another favorite nearby beverage joint. Before the meeting, make sure everyone has their favorite brew ready to sip. An especially thoughtful touch: Send out a special mug to represent the team. This can be one you have made with a team logo or emblem of some kind, or it can be a store-bought mug whose color, shape or design represents the team in some way. Once you get on the call, ask everyone to toast to the team’s success at the same time. If you have access to a webcam, so much the better!
  • Pizza, popcorn or pastries, anyone?  Ordering in a pizza or making popcorn for a team celebration sounds easy, but for a team that works remotely, celebrating with food can be a bit tricky. There is something to be said about “breaking bread” together that makes a celebration special. You can send gift cards so everyone can buy their food of choice. (After all, people in Australia may not crave pizza at 6 AM local time!) Or you can send something non-perishable and relatively inexpensive, like a bag of microwavable popcorn or a box of chocolates. Whatever the treat, make sure everyone has something to share when it comes time to recognizing the team’s success. Ask everyone to describe what they’re eating. (And if it’s popcorn, you may have to ask people to mute their phone while munching!)
  • Send something from the heart.  This might take the form of a handwritten card, a meaningful book, a fun desktop object, or even a basket of fruit or flowers. Few people take the time to send real cards or specially-chosen gifts these days, and team members will appreciate that you went the extra mile for them to do it. These important messages really let an individual know they matter to you and the business. An added benefit: Family and friends of a particularly hard-working team member may be impressed by the gesture, and may just be a little more understanding the next time a family event has to be missed or postponed to meet a work deadline.
  • Call your team members on the phone.  Sounds simple. But in today’s techy age, we all IM, text and email. The sound of your voice will add enormous credibility and provide a specific message that’s meant especially for this person.
  • Make it official.  When people work virtually, they appreciate having something tangible in their hands to remind them that they belong to a “real” team that’s worthy of being recognized. You can find templates online, or right in your slide-making or word-processing software, which make it easy to create and print custom-made certificates. The certificate can denote a team achievement (example: Excellence Award for Exceeding Sales Goals in Q3), or it can reflect an individual achievement, such as best sense of humor in the face of adversity or most improved performance. Mail the certificate in an envelope so the individual can open it when the achievement is announced during the team meeting.
  • Create a celebration center. If you don’t already have an online team site using SharePoint or another kind of collaboration software, set one up. Add tabs for birthdays, anniversaries, hobbies, vacation pictures – or anything people would like to share or celebrate. (You can use a low-tech tool for a similar purpose, such as asking team members to create “fun fact sheet” about themselves and posting it in a shared location.) Kick off meetings by acknowledging special occasions. One step better: Have everyone sign and send a virtual card. Or ask people to record a more personal greeting via webcam, which can be posted or sent.
  • Time it right.  If you have far-flung team members who span multiple time zones, be considerate of everyone when you plan a same-time celebration. This might mean rotating the time of celebratory meetings every so often. Or you might create a “virtual same-time” celebration by uploading videos of local gatherings so all can see in one place, if not at one time.
  • Invite a senior leader to your team meeting.  Ask the leader to share personal thanks to the team. Leave time open for the team to ask questions about the business. Leaders get a double payback from this one: recognition from a senior leader and increased knowledge about the business.
  • Shout it from the virtual rooftops. Of course, thoughtful emails that recognize great performance are also much-appreciated, especially if the message reflects that the sender clearly took time and thought to compose it. Copying a wider audience, such as fellow team members and other leaders, can amplify the positive effect.
  • Play to individual preferences. While one person might appreciate a handwritten card, another might just as soon receive an unexpected phone call expressing thanks. Consider the preferences, demographics and culture of each team member as you decide how best to say thanks.

People who work virtually need constant reinforcement that they matter-to each other, to their leaders and to the overall organization. While it takes more planning and creativity to celebrate achievements of individuals and virtual teams alike, the payoff is great. Remember; celebrations are the moments when team members feel like they belong to something bigger outside of their virtual office. And the more team members feel that they are their contributions are appreciated, the more engaged, energized and motivated they are likely to be. Plus, you’ll have more fun as the leader too!  Click here for a sheet of tips.

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Virtual Teams and Virtual Meetings  |  Meeting Facilitation  |  Training  |  Virtual Meeting Tips Booklet


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