When you think of a secret weapon for connecting with employees and creating a better, more collaborative work force, is the humble birthday card the image you get in your head? Maybe it should be.

As Chris Weller of Business Insider shares, Sheldon Yellen, CEO of disaster relief and property restoration company Belfor Holdings, has made giving employees birthday cards a serious habit. He personally hand writes about 20 of them every single day, the equivalent of 7,400 cards each year.

Yellen's rationale? Even though it's a small gesture, when people get a birthday card, they feel more appreciated. That, in turn, often leads to them paying the kindness forward, acting on the positive feelings they have in their own ways. And while not everyone agrees that the card writing pays off, Yellen claims that the habit has created a more gracious and compassionate atmosphere that positively affects the business's bottom line. He also says that it's a catalyst for communication.

An old habit for a modern generation

What Yellen is doing isn't a new concept--he's actually been doing it since 1985. But it might be especially important now, given the makeup of the modern workplace. A joint survey from Make Their Day and Badgeville, for example, shows that money and stuff aren't key motivators for workers:

  • 70 percent of individuals say their most meaningful recognition didn't have a dollar value.
  • 83 percent said recognition for contributions was more fulfilling than any rewards or gifts.
  • 76 percent were very or extremely motivated by peer praise.
  • 88 percent were very or extremely motivated by managerial praise.
  • 90 percent were very or extremely motivated by a fun work environment.

Additionally, Badgeville asserts that while just 40 percent of workers who don't feel meaningfully recognized will go above formal responsibilities, 85.5 percent of employees who feel meaningfully recognized will do so. Highly engaged employees also are 26 percent more productive, with their businesses seeing 13 percent greater total returns.

These statistics are particularly representative of Millennials. Research from Blackhawk Engagement Solutions reveals that 64 percent of Millennials prefer individual versus team recognition, valuing affirmation from managers or via company announcement more than from peers. The study also shows that 85 percent of Millennials want to be recognized for exceeding personal performance levels, 80 percent for receiving a promotion, and 79 percent for exceeding team performance. Rodney Mason, Blackhawk's GVP of marketing, explains that Millennials are used to getting praise from parents, teachers, and other adults, so they naturally expect to get that praise from business leaders, too.

In this context, even though every generation wants to know they matter, Yellen's decades-old birthday card habit fits what Millennials have been conditioned to want. That's no small thing considering that Millennials now are the largest group in the work force.

Making the idea your own

Yellen has found a relatively easy and inexpensive way to show employees he cares. But there are plenty of ways to vary his theme, depending on your time and resources. For instance, you could

  • Post recognition shout-outs on your company's Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn page.
  • Leave tasty treats on employees' desks with notes of appreciation.
  • Dedicate meeting time to announcing employee accomplishments. Ideally, let the employees tell their co-workers what they achieved. The accomplishments don't even have to always be job related. If someone just closed on a house or met their weight-loss goal, for example, it's still positive stuff you can give praise for.
  • Have lunch with an employee each week.
  • Send a quick chat message or email of thanks when you see an employee working hard or representing company values.

The big takeaway here, as Yellen asserts, is that businesses are made of people. If you prioritize profits over the human element, you'll likely stunt your company. But if you understand that it's your workers that make the business hum, if you communicate you know their worth and show gratitude even in simple ways, your only limit is what your team can dream together.