After a year of Covid disruptions, you and your employees are probably low on patience, energy, and, depending on how your industry was affected, maybe cash, too. Many teams are teetering on the edge of burnout. At the same time, many compassionate leaders lack the funds to offer them material perks, from bonuses to extra time off, to boost morale. 

Thankfully, a new study suggests a way out of this predicament. If you're not in a position to offer your people financial incentives, a simple two-line thank you letter might go a long way towards helping them push through this last phase of the pandemic. Recognition is always appreciated, but psychology suggests this simple idea might be particularly powerful as we slowly begin to transition out of the pandemic. 

A little recognition has big effects. 

The pandemic has been hard on everyone, but it's been particularly brutal for frontline employees like social workers battling to help those most affected by the virus. At the same time, budgets are stretched thin so that leaders in these sectors are constrained in how they can help their exhausted staff. 

Could a short, handwritten thank you letter make a difference, wondered a research team out of King's College London and Harvard? To find out, they had supervisors pen two-line thank you letters highlighting the positive impact social workers made this past year and mailed them to the employees' homes. 

"One month after this simple intervention, the social workers who received a letter reported feeling significantly more valued, more recognized for their work, and more supported by their organization than those who didn't receive a letter. There were also positive (though not quite statistically significant) impacts on subjective well-being, belonging, intrinsic motivation, and sickness absence rates for social workers who received letters," the researchers report on Harvard Business Review

While a heartfelt note might not motivate a hard-charging sales person exactly as much as a warm-hearted social worker, there is no reason a similar initiative wouldn't work in the for-profit world too. The study authors just stress that the letter should come from someone (be it a customer or higher level exec) the recipients don't usually receive praise from. And that details matter: An email blast will do very little compared to a hand-signed letter. 

Now is the perfect time for a little appreciation.

This isn't the first study to show that small gestures of appreciation can have an outsized impact on employee motivation and performance. Wharton research a few years back found that simply bringing someone in, whose salary is paid by the sales generated by a call center, to thank the employees manning the phones boosted revenue by 20 percent per shift. But there is reason to think this sort of intervention might be particularly powerful at the moment. 

"Research on the Fresh Start effect suggests that recognizing your employees can be particularly impactful at key temporal landmarks," write the study authors on HBR. "For example, a thank you note sent at the start of a new quarter, or positive feedback delivered at the conclusion of a major project, can serve as a booster shot of motivation when employees need it most."

Why not close out this horrible pandemic with a shot of appreciation too? Psychologists have found that consciously tying up loose ends and formally marking the end of a life phase leads to fewer regrets and greater happiness later on. 

As we begin to transition out of the pandemic, consider marking the shift with a heartfelt show of thanks to your team. Not only will that likely boost performance, it should help your people achieve a feeling of closure and move on positively from this difficult phase.