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.

"Instead of being loyal to a company, Generation X and Generation Y are loyal to their careers and want to build their skill banks," Goldner said.

But costly workshops and training programs aren't the only way to help employees grow their skills.

"The real learning takes place with real problems and real issues on the job," Goldner said. "It's about serving on a team that's solving any kind of issue, either as a member or a leader. It's about shadowing somebody who has a skill you'd like to acquire. It's about delegating something that's old hat to you to an employee who's interested in gaining new experience."

Lunches and Mentoring

For some companies, employee growth and education has taken a more personal turn.

Aflac, the Georgia-based supplemental insurance provider, offers a "Lunch and Learn" program that Audrey Boone Tillman, the company's executive vice president of corporate services, calls "really popular." Held on campus during lunch hours, topics range from digging out of debt to buying a first home to caring for older relatives.

And at Nurse Next Door, a private home care provider based in Vancouver, British Columbia, personal development is serious business. Last year, the company, which had to cut raises and bonuses and scale back paid vacations from five weeks to two, launched a "Dreams Program" where coaches mentor employees monthly to help them work toward their big life goals.

"We've seen employees buy their first homes, take dream trips around the world and even climb mountains in Africa," said John DeHart, the company's co-founder.

Flex Employee Schedules

It's time more companies recognized that flexible work schedules can benefit both their bottom line and employee retention, said Hewlett, who's researched real-world examples of successful flex work programs extensively.

"The old systems of talent management don't work anymore," she said. "Time really does become a new currency."

DeHart of Nurse Next Door, which employees 3,000 workers throughout Canada, agrees.

"So many of our best caregivers and nurses are moms with young children," explained Hart, who has a 3-year-old himself. "They were struggling to work because their kids were their priority."

To make it easier for employees to shuttle their kids to and from school while holding down a job, DeHart created a flexible work program called The Mommy Shift, which offers moms and dads a part-time weekday shift of 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Parents in this program also have the option to take summers off when their kids are out of school and return to their job in the fall.

"It's really helped us recruit and retain our staff," DeHart said.

"At the end of the day, it's about creating the right culture," Goldner said.

"It's about how you treat your employees and your leaders. That's become so significant because of the inability to provide the raises and bonuses that people are used to. And when we round the corner, it's going to determine whether they stay or go."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist and former cubicle dweller. She is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube". For more information, see Anti9to5Guide.com.

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