Recognizing Great Work at Atomic— Small Moments with Big Impact

Employee recognition is very important.

Gallup says, “Workplace recognition motivates, provides a sense of accomplishment, and makes employees feel valued for their work. Recognition not only boosts individual employee engagement, but it also has been found to increase productivity and loyalty to the company, leading to higher retention.” I think this is especially true at agencies like Atomic, where the majority of our employees spend their time on project work that can be invisible to others within our company.

In 2017, we rolled out an employee recognition program that does a great job recognizing Atoms who are living out our values. This year, in Ann Arbor, we’ve added to the recognition program in smaller, but still meaningful, ways. In this post, I’ll cover what we’re doing broadly and share some of the empirical evidence we have that our program is making an impact.

Employee recognition isn’t a “one size fits all” thing. Recognition programs should support value-aligned contributions and behaviors both big and small. Prior to 2017, we recognized employees in an informal manner:

  • Verbally: At our daily office standup meetings, Atoms are regularly recognized for good work on internal projects, with clients, and for the community.
  • In print: We send out company-wide “Nice words” emails.

These are great, but I suspect a lot of excellent contributions went unrecognized over the years because people were reluctant to speak up in a group setting or to send a company-wide email. Furthermore, the recognition didn’t persist over time. In the case of standup meetings, if you missed the announcement, you missed your opportunity to hear about the Atom’s good work.

Protons and Neutrons

In 2017, we expanded our recognition program and made it more explicit by creating Proton and Neutron awards.

  • Protons recognize an Atom for doing something that exemplifies one of our six values. Any Atom can nominate a colleague for a Proton. For example, an Atom might receive an “Own It” Proton when they’ve gone above and beyond to create value for a client. Or they might present a “Give a Shit” Proton when a peer organizes an event to give back to our community, etc.
  • Neutrons recognize tenure or participation in significant Atomic milestones. They are given out by managers. We’ve started with a small set of Neutrons—recognizing years of service, significant company anniversaries, and attending Atomic Con. But we expect the collection to grow over time.

Atoms are nominated for Protons via Google form. It is reviewed, approved, edited for content, and then shared at standup by the person who made the nomination. Neutrons are given on the anniversary of the Atom’s service, and they are also presented at standup. As a managing partner, I hand out the Neutrons and always share gratitude for the person’s contribution to our company’s culture and reflect on the good work they’ve done.

We wanted to create a physical item that could be given along with the recognition, so we designed challenge coins that are associated with each Proton value and significant Neutron milestones (e.g., 1-, 3-, 5-, and 10-year anniversaries). Challenge coins are a great choice for recognition items: They’re small, but very cool, and they can be highly customized. We used Challenge Coins, Ltd. to create our coins.

The Protons and Neutrons have been very successful, but they are only awarded occasionally. I’ve found that Protons tend to be given for “above and beyond”-type activities, while Neutrons are awarded yearly. We started thinking of ways we could spread that goodness around more often for smaller, but still significant, acts.

Sugar Cubes

In May 2018, a contingent from Atomic attended the Positive Business Conference. At the conference, they have a wall covered in envelopes. Each envelope had an attendee’s name on it, and stacks of colored paper were stored alongside the wall. Each square of colored paper is called a “sugar cube.” It’s a place to write something nice or encouraging about another person, to be delivered in their envelope. We all left the conference with a stack of personal notes from people we met at the conference—it was very uplifting.

So we decided to copy the idea in our Ann Arbor office and set up our own sugar cube wall.

I’ve been impressed with how quickly people picked up on writing positive notes to each other. A sugar cube-worthy act has a lower bar to clear than a Proton, so people feel more comfortable giving them out often. Another benefit is that sugar cubes are private and give people an easy way to share a personal note.


The Gallup Q12 survey measures employee engagement with 12 specific questions. We ask our employees to fill it out twice a year. We also track our results over time. One question deals specifically with recognition: “In the last seven days, I have received praise or recognition for doing good work.” Respondents answer on a scale of 1 to 5 (strongly disagree to strongly agree).

In the past two years, our Ann Arbor team score for the recognition program has improved from 3.53 to 4.25. A score of 4.25 puts us in the 98th percentile of similarly sized offices. I feel our recognition program has had a significant impact on that score and more importantly on our employee’s engagement. How does your organization recognize employees for good work?