Working from home during the pandemic has had its upsides--and its downsides. Many have appreciated not having to commute and the flexibility that allows them to care for their children, but others have missed the buzz of the office and the sense of  human connection they get from working in the same physical space as their colleagues. 

Analysts now suggest that a hybrid solution -- working from home and working from the office -- may be possible in the latter half of 2021, although skeptics think it could be further away. In the meantime, organizations must find ways to mitigate the lack of engagement--and potential productivity decline--associated with prolonged remote work. 

According to findings from a new Workhuman survey, the simple solution may be the often-ignored leadership practice of employee recognition. Last month, Workhuman surveyed 1,000 U.S. employees to gauge how they view the role of recognition at work. The results show that employee recognition can combat their feelings of isolation and disconnection, ultimately driving better business results and improving the bottom line.  

The study reveals specific strategies leaders can use to boost engagement as the pandemic drags on.

1. Say "thank you" more often

Workhuman's survey findings show that recognizing colleagues -- even just saying the words "thank you" -- matters. Over half (54 percent) of employees said something as simple as a consistent thank-you would ease pressure around their performance while working remotely. 

"It's long been thought that a formalized way of recognizing colleagues was just a nice to have. These survey findings coupled with our 50 million-plus data points across our customer base all lead us to the same conclusion: Employee recognition leads to better business outcomes, lower turnover rates, and higher productivity. During Covid-19 especially, appreciation is an easy, yet effective way to combat feelings of isolation and lead to a more human workplace," says Eric Mosley, CEO of Workhuman. 

While you might think you're clogging up someone's inbox, Mosley suggests frequent thank-you moments or an extra email to give gratitude has the potential to make a lasting impression on employees within the organization. 

Of course, it is also crucial to share your frequent and genuine thank-yous with all employees rather than just one demographic. Over one-fourth of men surveyed reported that they always received thank-yous, although only 19 percent of women could say the same. Discrepancies like this can have consequences. Earlier Workhuman research found that turnover rates were higher among women than men during the pandemic. 

2. Leverage employee recognition to increase retention rates

Talent retention is a perennial concern for many organizations. Findings from Workhuman's survey reveal that saying thank you through recognition does lead to higher retention rates by increasing the likelihood that employees will stay with their current employer.

Insights from Workhuman also show that recognition in the workplace led to two times less turnover and increased both year-over-year performance and engagement. According to the survey data, employee recognition is not something to write off; rather, it is something that can be leveraged to achieve organizations' business goals and improve productivity. 

3. Use gratitude and recognition to increase employee productivity

By encouraging employees to thank one another, and to connect and celebrate as a group, organizations nurture a sense of belonging and reinforce mutually supportive co-worker relationships. That, in turn, can improve productivity. About one-third (31 percent) of the employees Workhuman polled said gratitude increases their motivation to succeed. Twenty-five percent reported it increases productivity. 

Additionally, social recognition allows employees to understand the deeper meaning of their work and how their efforts contribute to a wider organizational purpose and goals. This is echoed by Gallup's 2017 "State of the American Workplace" report, which found that employees who feel a deep sense of affiliation with others on their team "are driven to take positive actions that benefit the business -- actions they may not otherwise even consider." 

Gratitude and recognition can be key drivers of employee engagement during a time when engagement is desperately needed. Remember: Workers want affirmation that they are appreciated, and that can start with a simple thank-you. Applied consistently and organizationally, gratitude and recognition can help your company emerge from the pandemic stronger and better able to manage whatever challenges may lie ahead.