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Derek Irvine


SVP strategy and consulting

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Employee recognition: Creating a sense of community at work through celebration

It might not feel like a time for merriment, but to build a sense of community at work, we first need to lift morale.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused untold disruption to the world of work, but even before it changed everything the workplace was evolving, with more focus being put on people rather than processes as technological advancements caused their own form of disruption. If anything, the pandemic has shone a light on the importance of making sure humans play a part in the future of work and has given organisations the opportunity to pause and re-evaluate how they operate.

The world’s experience with Covid-19 affirmed the importance of work as the new community in so many ways. 

In our newly released book, Making Work Human: How Human-Centered Companies Are Changing the Future of Work and the World, Workhuman CEO Eric Mosley and I explain why bringing more humanity to the workplace is the way forward. We look at how business leaders can implement a culture of positivity and gratitude in the workplace, dramatically improve the employee experience, and drive business sustainability in these unprecedented times. Our strategies are based on wide-ranging research, ROI analysis, extensive data and statistics, and real-world case studies, and we examine the who, what, why, and the ever-practical how to make work human. Below is an adapted excerpt from chapter two.

Work is the new community

The workplace is becoming a driving force for progress and change around the world. Even in traditional workplace cultures, the need to hire and retain talented and adaptable people is eroding old barriers.

The downside of disruption has become more evident and pressing around the world. We see political polarisation, social disconnection, and tribalism everywhere. As the world’s top talent follows opportunities, global urban supereconomies grow, and less attractive economies decline.

Once, most people looked outside of business to answer big problems, to government, religion, or national culture. Now the power of businesses to make change has increased relative to other institutions because businesses have to adapt faster than government or other institutions. Whether inspired by social pressure or self-interest, leading companies are adopting a moral case for their role in the betterment of society. They have listened to the arguments, often made by employees, that their responsibilities go beyond the bottom line.

The world’s experience with Covid-19 affirmed the importance of work as the new community in so many ways. When millions of employees pivoted from gathering at the office to working at home, we had the universal shared experience of feeling both together and isolated. Everyone felt some sense of disconnection, especially as the novelty wore off – work still got done but small, spontaneous moments of support, gratitude, and friendship became much harder.

The cost of social isolation

After years of happiness research, one thing has proved fundamental – the importance of our connections with other people. Despite this, modern societies are built as if the opposite were true. We are surrounded by people, yet we feel genuinely connected to almost none of them. The effects are devastating. Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking, and the epidemic of loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity. We could change this in a day if we all reached out and made at least one positive connection.

Loneliness at work is one symptom of the fraying social fabric. It doesn’t have to be this way. Our workplaces can nurture a new sense of community, connectedness, and common purpose. This is because companies need to be united in purpose yet also diverse in outlook and background to compete in today’s globalised innovation economy. If we want talent and knowledge to flow freely, societal cohesion must become a conscious part of organisational culture. Cultures of support, inclusion, transparency, and trustworthiness attract talent longing for psychological safety and belonging.

Achieving a true sense of belonging at work is the end goal of most inclusion efforts – yet belonging is a feeling, and feelings are hard to influence. A recent international survey we conducted with fully employed workers showed that when employees are able to recognise and thank each other, a sense of belonging goes up 21%.

In today’s organisation of interdependent teams, cooperation and support are more effective than division. Sharing information and ideas is more powerful than hoarding them. Interacting with a variety of people with trust and positivity creates energy.

Three ways to celebrate

Our surveys show that celebration is one of the most appreciated ways to create community in a workforce. There are, broadly speaking, three popular milestones that call for public celebration:

  1. Workplace anniversaries are traditional celebrations as people reach one, five, ten years or more with a company. Workhuman research shows that interestingly, the traditional celebration that makes someone the guest of honor at an event is the least popular option; only 10% of respondents said that would be their preference. The most popular options include shared memories and congratulations from coworkers and managers, and private congratulations from their manager(s).
  2. Celebrating life events like getting married, having a baby/adopting a child, buying a house, having a birthday, and retiring are strongly associated (87%) with feelings of belonging to an organisation. Celebrating just one life event correlates to a 23% increase in respondents saying their company has a human-focused work culture. This positive result notwithstanding, 30% of employees surveyed say their company had no life event celebrations – zero – in the last year.
  3. Celebrating team success is distinct from recognising individual achievement – not a substitute for individual congratulations, but a public recognition of the importance of shared accomplishments. Companies we know are quite comfortable with these milestones, which might carry individual awards for team members. We recommend that awards are evenly distributed, sending the message that everyone is important to the group milestone, and that the commemoration is broadcast far and wide around the organisation, which gives employees out of the immediate network a chance to chime in with congratulations.

Long ago, when distance and communication made for huge barriers among people, communities thrived when they had common purpose, culture, and identity. In the modern networked workplace, distance and communication barriers are slight, yet humans still seek common purpose. In a world of disaffection and dismissal, the new community can be the place where people feel loyalty and unity despite their differences.

Interested in this topic? Read How to nurture a strong sense of community among your remote workers.

Author Profile Picture
Derek Irvine

SVP strategy and consulting

Read more from Derek Irvine

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