Companies Find Cheap Ways to Boost Employee Morale

Photo: The New Corporate Rewards: How Companies Can Keep Up Morale on the Cheap

Like many small businesses, Libby Hager's employer took its share of recessionary lumps: LaBreche, a Minneapolis communications and branding firm, had to trim salaries at the end of 2008 to make ends meet. But Hager, an assistant account executive, is anything but disgruntled, thanks in part to some new company perks.

Take Fishbowl Friday, a time-off incentive LaBreche started last year, where colleagues put written kudos about one another into a fishbowl and one person a week is picked to take Friday afternoon off. (To make up the time, the winner will usually stay late on the days leading up to their afternoon off.)

"It doesn't seem like a lot, just a few hours in the afternoon," Hager said. "But it makes the weekend so much longer."

VIDEO: Praise in the workplace
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More important, Hager added, "It's a way for us to get recognition for the work that we're doing. Everyone's supportive of each other in a way that we had never been before. It really increases morale."

Yes, money talks. But now that handing out raises and bonuses isn't always an option, retention experts warn that employers had better come up with some alternative ways to show staff some love -- and fast.

"Ignoring your talent and assuming they will just stick around and deliver 110 percent because they don't have any other options is really wrong-headed," said economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of "Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business Is Down."

Eventually, the cream of the workforce crop will either resign or "spend 50 percent of their time on the job looking for another one," said Hewlett, who's founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy.

Little Things Do Mean a Lot

According to a 2009 Gallup poll, only 50 percent of employees surveyed said they were "completely satisfied" with the level of recognition they received at work.

"You'd be surprised how many people tell me that their supervisor doesn't even say 'good morning' to them," said talent retention expert Jane Goldner, author of "Driven to Success: A 10-Point Checkup for Achieving High-Performance in Business."

Snow Perks

Of course, a chipper greeting and friendly elevator chat will only go so far.

Recognizing this, Greg Muzzillo, founder of Proforma, a Cleveland-based supplier of print and promotional products, came up with some new non-monetary perks to compensate for the fact that his staff received "skinny raises and skinny bonuses" during the recession.

Among the predictable employee breakfasts and casual dress days, there were a few surprises -- chief among them a collection of managers charged with cleaning the snow off the windshields of their staff members' cars.

"It's a fun thing," said Muzzillo, who went so far as to print up "Executive Snow Removal Team" jackets, hats and gloves for participating managers. "It's, 'There's the bosses cleaning the snow off our cars!'"

Although Muzzillo expects 2010 to be one of his company's best years on record, he has no intention of giving up his pursuit of new and unique ways to reward his employees.

"It's important for organizations to continue to find new ideas," he said.

"The same old turkey every Thanksgiving doesn't work. The first year employees appreciate it, the second year they expect it, and by the third year it's like, 'Is that stupid turkey all we're going to get?'"

Facilitate Employee Learning

Another way companies can show their appreciation for staff is to invest in their professional development.

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