Even Without Raises In the Budget, You Can Reward Great Employees

Across the Panhandle, businesses small and large have spent the past few years trying to come up with innovative ways to retain loyal employees and recruit new blood at a time when economic challenges have kept more financially lucrative incentives impossible to deliver. From free lunch to free computers, many businesses have tried to make a difficult situation a little less so as they wait out a recession that is not over yet.

Finding new ways to reward employees during tough times can pay off big By Michael Peltier Originally published in the Dec 2010/Jan 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine

Rika Edge wanted to give her employees a boost for the hard work they were doing at the Physicians Weight Loss clinic in Pensacola. But money was tight.

The region, just emerging from recession and the effects of Hurricane Ivan six years ago, watched as tar balls started showing up on nearby beaches. Tourists stayed home, setting off a chain of events that rippled through this Panhandle economy, affecting not just hotels and beachfront restaurants, bars and T-shirt shops but the goods and services used by their employees.

So, Edge decided to send her employees to a Gulf shore resort and spa.

Meanwhile Rick Oppenheim, owner of RB Oppenheim Associates in Tallahassee, turned his attention to reworking his firm’s health care plan. In response to rising health costs that his employees were finding difficult to absorb, he searched for less expensive alternatives that would still enable them to maintain their coverage.

Across the Panhandle, businesses small and large have spent the past few years trying to come up with innovative ways to retain loyal employees and recruit new blood at a time when economic challenges have kept more financially lucrative incentives impossible to deliver. From free lunch to free computers, many businesses have tried to make a difficult situation a little less so as they wait out a recession that is not over yet.

“I expect a lot out of the people who work for me, I drive them hard,” Edge explained. “So, I try to do what I can to reward them for it, even when times are tough.”

Oppenheim agreed, saying, “The last thing you want when the economy is bad is to have a cloud hanging over the workplace. We’ve tried to create an environment that keeps things upbeat.”

Backed by research

That willingness to go the extra mile when the economy has taken a nap is not just an act of kindness, it’s also savvy business practice say a host of managerial gurus who contend non-monetary rewards can be very effective in boosting morale, retaining good workers and working through stressful times.

A June 2009 survey by McKinsey & Co., a New York-based global management consulting firm, found non-monetary motivators can be equally or more effective than monetary rewards, especially in tough economic times. Surveying more than 1,000 managers worldwide, the company found that praise and commendations from immediate managers, attention from leaders and opportunities to lead projects were as effective as bonuses and base pay increases.

“Money’s traditional role as the dominant motivator is under pressure from declining corporate revenues, sagging stock markets and increasing scrutiny by regulators, activist shareholders and the general public,” the surveyors concluded.

Interestingly, however, the survey found managers less likely to offer such non-monetary incentives to employees, saying they take too much time and won’t yield results. The surveyors blamed that lack of managerial enthusiasm on supervisors who still think money matters most in recognizing top performance.

“While such rewards certainly have important roles to play, business leaders would do well to consider the lessons of the crisis and think broadly about the best ways to engage and inspire employees,” surveyors concluded. “A talent strategy that emphasizes the frequent use of the right non-financial motivators would benefit more companies in bleak times and fair. By acting now, they could exit the downturn stronger than they entered it.”

Little things mean a lot

Sherry Lyn Crump, manager/owner of the Tropical Smoothie store at Premier Fitness Center in Tallahassee, has an energetic staff to match the adrenaline junkies she serves. But with cash tight, it was difficult to come up with ways to compensate them for their extra effort. Then the thought came: What about lunch?

With her staff on the go with deliveries and errands, Crump decided a meaningful way to help would be to provide fuel for employees and their vehicles. She started providing paid lunches and reimbursed mileage costs to her employees commuting to work and driving around town for catering deliveries.

“I’ve got a largely college-aged staff, so I tried to think of something I could do that would be meaningful to them,” Crump said. “They seem to like what we did.”

Oppenheim said he’s used administrative leave to give employees at his public relations firm a chance to get out of the workplace without losing money for it. Extended vacation time or an occasional paid day off can go a long way to keep hard working employees happy.

“Sometimes, time is the best reward you can give someone,” Oppenheim said.

Some techniques to retaining and satisfying employees are more systemic, area business leaders agree.

Looking out for employees isn’t always fun and games. Facing higher medical premiums at a time he couldn’t afford to absorb it, Oppenheim took a look at employee health care. With health premiums rising and the company at its limit on what it could match, Oppenheim sought out less expensive options from which employees could choose.

“We took a look at all our employee benefits and found ways in which we could reduce costs without cutting benefits,” he said.

Atmosphere can also be a big factor in keeping employees satisfied and on their toes, said Carrie Zimmerman, co-founder and CEO of the Zimmerman Agency in Tallahassee. The public relations company has gone to the extreme to foster a creative environment that encourages employees to “play” and in the process become more productive and professionally challenged, the business equivalent of “happy campers.”

“You try to create an environment that your people can get excited about,” Zimmerman said. “We’re a creative industry but, especially now, we work 24/7. To do both, you have to create a culture that feels natural and organic.”

Employees, for example, can go to “The Beach,” a meeting room within the confines of the building that is painted in a beach scene complete with Adirondack chairs, a tiki bar and other coastal amenities. On Fridays, a beer cart begins making the rounds in the afternoon. It’s gotten some notoriety and now even has periodic client sponsors.

The agency grounds are wired for wireless Internet and employees can work from anywhere on campus. Old computer equipment is given to families at no cost after each company upgrade. Zimmerman sponsors a kick ball team and allows employees to take occasional long lunches, “nooners” as they are called, to work out without having to rush back to the office.

“People are staying longer because there are fewer jobs out there,” Zimmerman said. “It’s important that they feel supported and productive.”

Highlighting local resources

Summer along Florida’s northwest coast was anything but booming, unless of course you’re talking about oil collection booms, ubiquitous symbols of the BP spill. Taking both direct hit and collateral damage from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that began April 20, Panhandle businesses could do nothing but watch as tourists stayed home during the critical summer season.

Timeshare bookings were down, reservations cancelled and though the region experienced an influx of workers hired by BP to clean up the company’s mess, the hospitality industry — from charter boats and marinas to restaurants and bars — felt a chill in revenue normally reserved for winter months.

In response, the Gulf Breeze Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders came up with an innovative idea. If tourists weren’t going to be staying in the pricey timeshares and beachside resorts, why not let the locals have a day in the sun?

In September, the chamber partnered with Portofino Island, which opened up its 28-acre resort to area employees for $10 apiece. Another $25 granted the recipient a five-day pass to the resort’s private club and spa.

Rika Edge, whose Physician’s Weight Loss franchise is all about getting healthier, jumped at the opportunity. She signed up her employees and by doing so accomplished two tasks. She supported the local chamber while giving her spill-stressed employees a little R&R.

“It was just a small way I could say thanks to my staff,” Edge said. “After all, it’s been a pretty stressful summer for everybody.”


Non-Traditional Employee Motivators

Experts agree that employee benefits, vacation and salary are employee retainers, not motivators. While many executives think first of bonuses and pay increases to induce productivity, studies suggest that these (sometimes) surpising perks are often what employees really want.

Flexible work schedule: Straying from the regular 9-to-5

“Nooners”: Extra no-questions-asked time at mid-day to shop, work-out or socialize

Telecommuniting: There’s something to be said for working in your PJs

Cross-training: Taking on a new role or learning a new skill is a top priority for most employees

Movie day: Take the gang out to the movies one afternoon

Time off: Who doesn’t appreciate extra time off to play?

Handwritten thank-you: Write it like you mean it — the old-fashioned note card packs a punch

Fun day, work day: Make work a fun place to be by instituting some levity

Self-determination: Let workers choose their own projects — or trade with qualified co-workers

— Tisha Crews Keller


Expand the ‘In-Crowd’ and See Morale Soar

One aspect of motivation building challenges some traditional workplace norms. Researchers and HR professionals point to the “in-crowd” — the nucleus of employees who seem to know everything as it happens — as some of the most invested employees. What that means for the rest of the team (yes, the “out-crowd”), is that work can seem like high school all over again.

Communication should come directly from the top, experts say, to short-circuit the rumor mill and hurt feelings. That means telling facts, situations, problems and asking for input as soon as it’s announced to anyone — even middle managers.

What’s more, employees who get information sooner rather than later from official sources tend to feel better about situations (even bad ones) and may consider themselves more a part of the team.

Some tips to expand those in the know include:

  • Schedule brief (meaning, brief) one-on-one sessions with each employee and their immediate manager each week to discuss workload, policy changes and solicit important feedback.
  • Install a project board in the main work area for a team or the entire staff. Showing what is going on in the company helps defuse jealousy, elicits help from co-workers and promotes a team spirit.
  • Conduct team or unit meetings immediately after management meetings, no matter how frequently the chiefs pow-wow. Suborinates need to feel valued and invested in solving problems to make the most of the team atmosphere.

— Tisha Crews Keller