The COVID-19 pandemic turned the workplace upside down, from work-from-home orders, tens of millions of newly remote employees and the rise of videoconferencing as the standard way to communicate with team members to travel restrictions and the shutdown of entire industry sectors.

But recent research with over 200,000 employees across the globe indicate that one aspect of work didn’t change as a result of the pandemic: the preferred ways that employees want their colleagues to show them appreciation. Participants in the study took an online assessment based on “The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace” to identify their primary language of appreciation.

Comparing Remote and On-site Employees

Research completed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic comparing the appreciation preferences of remote employees and on-site employees found only minor differences in the frequency that employees wanted each of the languages of appreciation (acts of service, tangible gifts, words of affirmation and quality time).

This pattern continued in the research conducted in 2020 and 2021: There were no significant differences in how these two groups of employees wanted to be shown appreciation. That is, both on-site employees and remote team members identify words of affirmation as the most desired form of appreciation, with quality time next, acts of service third and tangible gifts significantly less often.

There were two small differences: Remote employees chose quality time (e.g., receiving advice from a mentor or hanging out with colleagues after work) more often than their on-site peers. They also chose words of affirmation (e.g., a word of thanks regarding a specific task or a note of encouragement) slightly less frequently. These differences were not statistically significant, however.

Primary Language of Appreciation by Location

Appreciation Language Percent of On-site Employees Percent of Remote Employees
Tangible gifts  6.3%  6.4%
Acts of service  21.1%  18.6%
Quality time  26.5%  35.5%
Words of affirmation  46.1%  39.5%

Comparing Preferences Before and After COVID-19

A second analysis explored whether appreciation preferences have changed after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. One group consisted of individuals who took the inventory prior to the mass spread of the COVID-19 virus in the United States. This group took the online assessment between 2013 and 2019.

To make a clear break between pre-COVID-19 and the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals who took the inventory between January 1, 2020 and March 31, 2020 were excluded from the analysis. The “during COVID-19” respondents were individuals who completed the inventory between April 1, 2020 and February 28, 2021, since it is generally accepted that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States started in March 2020 with government-mandated “stay at home” orders.

Interestingly, pre-COVID-19 and “during COVID-19” respondents chose the appreciation languages with the same frequency.

Primary Language of Appreciation by Time Period

Appreciation Language Percent of Pre-COVID-19 Respondents Percent of “During COVID-19” Respondents
Tangible gifts  6.1%  7.1%
Acts of service  21.3%  19.4%
Quality time  26.7%  28.4%
Words of affirmation  45.9%  45.1%

From one perspective, this finding is surprising. Given the additional isolation experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic (in both our personal lives and our work relationships), we might expect to see an increased desire for appreciation through quality time. However, it appears that the challenges of the “work at home” orders did little to impact how employees want to be appreciated.

This finding could be because employees did not expect more time with their colleagues. However, a more foundational explanation may be that an individual’s preferred way of receiving appreciation is more related to that individual rather than to his or her external circumstances.

Anecdotal reports from individuals participating in group training suggests that some people’s language of appreciation may change due to specific life experiences. For example, when going through a personal crisis, such as a hospitalization or death of a family member, the desire for quality time and acts of service increases. This change appears to be due to the common cultural response of showing support through these types of actions.

A second circumstance that appears to influence employees’ desired appreciation language is when their supervisor is especially strong in communicating appreciation through the employee’s language (almost too much so). When that need becomes satiated, the employee wants appreciation in other ways. When assessing groups of people, however, the evidence points to the fact that a person’s primary language of appreciation is stable across time and most life circumstances. It’s worth exploring this issue further, especially as the pandemic diminishes and new work patterns emerge, to see if individuals’ desired ways of being shown appreciation change significantly or continue to remain the same.