While good leaders routinely look for ways to show appreciation to their employees, current conditions have made it harder - and perhaps even more important - to recognize the contributions of others. A prolonged work-from-home order or staggered return to the office means less visibility for some workers who may already fear they're being overlooked. For others, receiving positive feedback or other forms of validation can provide a momentary and much-needed boost at a time when job-related stress and uncertainty remain high.  

A little appreciation goes a long way. Research shows that the simple act of expressing gratitude can positively impact our mood and outlook. In one study, participants who spent ten weeks writing just a few sentences about things they were grateful for experienced greater optimism about their lives. Not only that, they also engaged in healthier behaviors, like exercising more regularly and getting more sleep.

Expressing gratitude can also boost productivity. Researchers at the Wharton School found that a group of university fundraisers who received hearty thanks from the school's director of annual giving made 50 percent more fundraising calls than a second group that went unrecognized.

Here are some low-cost, high-return ways to make your appreciation known, even from a distance:

Make it specific and sincere.

Gratitude doesn't require a grand gesture.  By conveying your appreciation with specific, personalized expressions of thanks, you'll show others their contributions haven't gone unnoticed. An unexpected phone call, handwritten note or inexpensive gift can surprise and delight team members -- and restore the human connection that's often missing when people are working apart.  

To help a major healthcare services provider increase engagement with their remote teams, I suggested that leaders participate in a two-week gratitude challenge. They spent a few moments each morning listing the contributions of their direct and second-level reports, with the goal of recounting how they impacted the organization in ways large and small. Next, leaders expressed their thanks in short video messages that were sent directly to the recipients.

One SVP thanked his assistant for helping him organize quarterly performance snapshots. A sales director acknowledged the efforts of two members of her team who worked over the weekend to polish a marketing campaign before launch. The videos were an immediate hit and eventually led to other recognition rituals, including weekly appreciation features at staff meetings ("Thank You Thursdays") and a Slack channel for sharing kudos with team members.   

Give employees flexibility in how they work.

Sometimes the best way to show people they're valued is to give them more time to themselves. An analysis of work-related communications exchanged by more than 3 million people in 16 global cities found that the average workday increased by 8.2 percent, equal to nearly 50 minutes, during the pandemic's early weeks. By giving employees well-placed periods of relief, leaders can prevent burnout and allow them to prioritize their week.

The gift of flexibility doesn't require a total overhaul of how work gets done. A major hospital system has rolled out "Focused Wednesday Afternoons" for its 22,000 employees, hoping to provide a midweek break from pinging devices and communication channels. Other companies are experimenting with "quiet days," where phone and Zoom meetings and calls are strongly discouraged. 

Look after employees' growth and wellbeing. 

The pandemic-led downturn will prevent most companies from giving bonuses or pay raises in the near future. But that shouldn't preclude other intangible benefits, like opportunities for career development and professional growth. As a year-end gift, ask team members to draw up a wish list for learning: online courses, digital or print subscriptions to business magazines, all-access passes to virtual summits -- anything that provides opportunities for continuous growth.

Leaders can also reward employees by looking after their emotional and physical wellbeing. One of my clients, a software development company, gave employees an unscheduled mental health day to catch up on projects or simply catch their breath. Another client in financial services has decided to cover the cost of telehealth resources like at-home workout subscriptions and ergonomics support.

By acknowledging the life-size juggling acts facing your employees, you'll score points for showing appreciation while also giving them greater control over their time and health -- a huge investment in their quality of life.

Although the nature of work continues to change, the need for meaningful, personalized gratitude remains constant. We're all working harder and longer, and receiving recognition for that effort is both gratifying and restorative. Take time to provide thoughtful acts of appreciation, and you'll gain the trust and admiration of your employees, no matter where they are.