COVID COMMS #24: How to run staff awards in a pandemic

If you’re wondering how to run a staff awards bash in the middle of a pandemic you’re probably scratching your head.

Go big or small?

Go for prizes or not?

Go for COVID-19 or recognise everyone?

It was a tricky topic tackled in the ever fascinating Thursday Public Sector Comms Headspace Zoom chat. Helena Donkersley from Wakefield Council posed the question and a big thank you to everyone who took part.

As the discussion unfolded, yet again I was struck that the pandemic ihas been an uneven experience. Some are working so flat out with the pedal to the metal that burn-out city is in view. Some are furloughed and doing nothing. Your workforce are not all heroes but neither are they feckless scroungers.

It feels as though the mood has changed

We’re done with clapping. We’re being told to go back to the office if we can. But this isn’t normal let alone a new normal. Services across the public sector are being cut. People are starting to see services disappear and that’s the background to your celebrations.

Don’t go big on a venue

While those who have kept the wheels turning in a pandemic deserve Wembley Stadium the mood music of splashing out on a big venue isn’t right. In fact, any venue doesn’t feel good timing wise unless maybe its outdoor.

Don’t go big on prizes

While the staff member who telephoned people to make sure they are alright deserves the world on a stick the FOI for the £3,000 spent on cut glass vases would be tricky to defend if services are being cut. That’s the unfortunate reality.

An extra half day leave is a possibility. But when staff aren’t able to take what they’re already entitled to that seems a bit hollow.

Don’t go big on sponsorship

In the past, the annual staff awards shindig could have been covered with sponsorship. The lighting contractor could have been good for a couple of grand. But I’m not so sure that pool of money is as deep or plentiful. Which all points to scaling down.

Don’t ditch the everyday

At the council where I worked, there was the change programme and everyone else. The change programme were the golden people constantly mentioned in despatches. It led to those not in the golden circle feeling devalued. As tempting as it is to throw everything at COVID-19 is that really the right thing to do?

But go really big on saying ‘thank you’

In what was a surprising turn in the discussion, it became clear that actually what people really wanted was not a big prize. What most people would value over all would be to hear their boss and their bosses’ boss say ‘thank you’ and mean it.

The NHS chief executive who wrote to the children of key staff to say ‘thank you’ to them and their Mum or Dad was a hero I think nailed this.

I love the idea too of the chief executive driving out to say ‘thank you’ to individual staff members and hear direct stories from people who deserve celebrating.

As my Mum used to say, manners cost nothing. A ‘thank you’ is free.

Join the Conversation


  1. I couldn’t agree more, Dan. We had the usual shindig at a local hotel planned back in April, but events overtook us, so last week our CEO and other execs surprised people by taking their awards to them, wherever they worked, like a mini-flashmob. We already had the trophies but added a basket of goodies – and it’s gone down really well, particularly as their teams then got to enjoy the presentation too, whereas the hotel event always excluded people (mainly because of numbers).

    The nominations pre-dated Covid, but interesting that you mention it because I am very clear that we shouldn’t be singling people out for Covid heroics, when everybody did their bit. I had that debate with the powers that be yesterday.

  2. Interesting. I’m currently orqanising a “virtual awards ceremony” which is basically a presentation – struggling to find a good platform for it to avoid the usual Powerpoint snoozefest and lend it a bit of an air of celebration through animation etc. Any ideas?

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