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Gratitude in the workplace

Can a simple thanks lead to greater happiness and engagement at work? Jacqueline Antalik, our Director of User Experience, explores the question.
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Science shows that both expressing and receiving gratitude in the workplace makes people feel happier and more fulfilled. It can be a low cost way to increase employee engagement and can foster a feeling of trust among colleagues. Despite this, only 30% of people express thanks to their coworkers. This can be an expensive problem for organizations as studies on employee engagement link lack of appreciation with people leaving their jobs.

For years at OXD, we’ve practiced a monthly ritual of pausing to reflect and express our gratitude via “shout-outs.”  Shout-outs can take the form of expressing thanks to a colleague who helped with a task, or thanking them for making a situation better with their presence or attitude.

So when OpenIDEO launched a design challenge that asked “How might we inspire experiences and expressions of gratitude in the workplace?” we were eager to join in. We put together an internal team of people—designers, project managers, developers, and support staff—passionate about gratitude and improving our workplace. Together, we assessed and contemplated the culture of gratitude at OXD. Using a design thinking approach, we developed ideas on how we could meet this challenge. And like with any design research project, the challenge started with a research phase. Here’s what we learned:

Make gratitude part of your company’s culture.

Expressions of gratitude can be mandated by HR or they can be informal and spontaneous. These more formal expressions of gratitude give leadership teams a chance to show by example that expressing gratitude is part of the company culture. Top-down expressions of gratitude often take shape as formal appreciation programs or rituals.

Most organizations already have some kind of employee recognition, often taking the form of years of service awards or annual bonuses. However, many of these programs are built on the premise of recognizing and rewarding the “top performers.” In contrast, gratitude is an appreciation of others, who they are, and their contribution, regardless of “winning” results.

Our research revealed the need to empower everybody to express gratitude, regardless of role. In addition to our monthly shout-outs, at OXD we’ve been working on cultivating more informal or spontaneous day-to-day expressions of gratitude. This is often a casual and informal act or activity initiated by staff that can serve to strengthen relationships among colleagues. It can happen at any time and doesn’t require a formal event. In fact, 88% of people say that expressing gratitude at work makes them feel happier and more fulfilled.

Laptop showing an online message string showing gratitude

Recognition and gratitude aren’t the same thing.

Recognition is often tied to a successful outcome or heroic effort that results in some kind of reward whether it’s monetary, a promotion, or social recognition. Gratitude however, is about recognizing and expressing the appreciation we have towards everyday efforts. You could say it’s more heartfelt; focusing on who people are and how their efforts have  helped you, even though you may have not had “winning results.” Here’s an example:

Recognition: “Nice work winning the contract with client x. Look for a nice payout on your end of year paycheque.”

Gratitude: “While we didn’t win the contract, you were great to work with because of your calm demeanour and positive attitude. Your presence helped the team stay grounded and focussed on what needed to get done. Thanks so much for your contribution."

Recognition and gratitude are different, but both are important. While people are generally pretty good at recognition, we often forget about expressing gratitude.

Note card showing a gratitude message of a simple thank you

Authentic expressions of gratitude are about quality not quantity.

Our research also taught us that an expression of gratitude is most meaningful when it comes from someone who appreciates and understands the effort and complexity involved in a task.

“It’s nice when the people that I work with closely will casually let me know I did a great job on a specific task. They have the most understanding of the problems that I’m trying to solve. If it comes from someone outside of my team, it’s still nice to hear, but it means more when it comes from those that can relate to the effort involved."

Rather than a single person or department mandating how gratitude should be expressed, our research shows authenticity is increased if the expression of gratitude is personalized based on the person and the situation. Many of the colleagues we interviewed did not want to be the centre of attention—for example, employee of the month—preferring one-on-one verbal feedback or simple gestures like going out for a coffee treat.

We also learned that people appreciate gratitude most when it feels like a voluntary, purposeful expression of thanks. If gratitude doesn't feel sincere, it loses its meaning. Since a thank you can feel scant on its own, be sure to articulate the benefits of the person's actions as well.

“Thanks so much for helping me unjam the photocopier. I know you’re busy but you stopped to show me how to…"

It's is a mindset.

Gratitude is something that we need to express but it’s also something we need to cultivate within ourselves. Last winter I travelled to Victoria with a group of colleagues for an all-day workshop. At the end of the day we were exhausted and looking forward to heading home. But due to a surprise snowstorm, our flight back was cancelled. What would normally be a one hour journey ended up taking five hours via taxi, ferry, bus, and another taxi. Rather than bemoan the impact of snow on our transportation system, I was grateful that I was travelling home with a great group of people. We had lots of laughs and bonded over a makeshift dinner of potato chips and chocolate bars from the ferry terminal vending machine. When we are in the midst of a stressful situation, it’s important to pause and reflect on what is good.

It’s also important to be aware of the psychological concept of negativity bias. This is our tendency to focus more on the negatives (in ourselves and others) instead of the positives. Avoid negative thinking and embrace the expressions of gratitude you receive. Instead of downplaying your efforts, bask in the glow of appreciation. You’ve just received an expression of gratitude.

OXD staff taking time for a gratitude coffee chat

Putting it into practice.

It can be as easy as a heartfelt "thank you" to a colleague. Or think about people who rarely get thanked or praised for the work they do. Maybe it's the security guard you pass twice a day but never stop to connect with.

Here are a few more ideas:

1. Start with a thankful coffee chat.

This is a casual and informal activity that can strengthen your relationship with your colleagues and show your appreciation. A simple “thanks” is always enough when it’s genuine. Remember to be specific about what you are thanking the person for. Here are some phrases to get you started:

Thank you for the support on/with….

Thanks for taking the time to…

2. Share your expertise or wisdom.

Expressions of gratitude don’t need to involve money. Offer the gift of time or wisdom to a colleague in the form of developmental feedback. This could take the form of providing an opportunity for your colleague to learn and practice a new skill. Invite them to observe the next workshop you facilitate or share a topical article or book which you then discuss together.

3. Checkout the OpenIDEO Challenge website for inspiration.

There’s no need to start from scratch. A total of 347 ideas were submitted to the OpenIDEO Challenge and of these submissions, 41 were selected to move on to the refinement phase, including our submission—the Gratitude for Newbies Toolkit. Remember to tailor your expressions of gratitude to the person, situation, and organizational culture. Use these ideas as a springboard and then refine and modify for your context.

Everyone likes to be appreciated, don’t hold back in your expressions of gratitude! Work is a much more pleasant place when we can rely on our colleagues instead of competing against one another. Start simple and remember it takes practice. With time you’ll find something that works.

Want to be part of a team that practices gratitude at work? Take a look at our careers page.