Winning a couple of bobblehead dolls may not sound like much. But in a time of cutbacks and layoffs, such humble company prizes can make a difference for employees like Jennifer Zuri.
Zuri, marketing communications manager at Aquascape, a St. Charles, Ill., landscaping firm, scored her most recent bobblehead — bearing the likeness of the company's founder and chief executive giving a thumbs-up — after resurrecting a dormant committee in charge of boosting employee morale.
One early project involved organizing a lunchtime "wallyball" tournament at the company fitness center. She printed certificates for the winners and put them in frames found in a storage closet. Months later, employees are still regularly playing, and Zuri is planning an office Olympics for the end of summer.
"When budgets become tighter, you have to become more creative and we have creative people," said Zuri, a seven-year employee. "The wallyball tournament cost us nothing."
Trying to get with the (incentive) program
Amid this downturn, many managers are realizing that keeping morale intact is crucial and harder to achieve. Businesses have to motivate survivors of layoffs as well as prepare to compete for talent when the economy rebounds. That's when recognition and incentive programs, in which employees can win anything from prime parking spots and cash bonuses to bobbleheads, gain importance.
"It can be very shallow stuff, and employees are not dumb," said Tom McMullen, an expert in incentives at management consulting firm Hay Group. But even hanging a picture of an employee of the month can be meaningful if it contributes to a healthy workplace. "If that picture on the wall is part of a bigger thing — a work climate — it's very powerful," McMullen said.
Experts say the inverse also holds true: In a toxic workplace, hastily conceived reward programs can exacerbate morale problems because employees can perceive them as ploys by management to curry favor. Incentives also can sow jealousy.
"The problem with employee engagement is that one-off programs can actually be a bad idea," said Bob Miller, CEO of Excellence in Motivation, which provides incentive programs for Fortune 500 companies. He advises a "holistic approach" that balances overall compensation with rewards, and added that the downturn might be the right time for companies to gauge whether their incentive programs are engaging employees or need a tuneup because they are bloated and ineffectual.
Then there's the challenge of trying to motivate employees who rarely respond to incentives. They may be entrenched in their dislike for their job or their manager, or they might be too cynical to accept a reward.
Dealing with varied individual responses to reward programs is "one of the biggest challenges we face," said Paul Scriba, president of W/M Display Group, a Chicago-based maker of retail store displays and fixtures. W/M Display Group has long-running bonus programs for production efficiency, on-time delivery and perfect attendance. Some employees can earn up to 12 percent more a year.
"While the programs may make economic sense and certainly they're intended as opportunities for employees to gain from the financial benefits as the company grows . . . sometimes you have to do a pretty good sell job internally," said Scriba, who recently introduced cash bonuses for employees who submit ideas for making manufacturing processes greener. "You have to balance the economics of it and the personalities of those involved with the program."
Picking and choosing what stays, goes
In the recession, some firms have kept alive incentives for certain employees while cutting back elsewhere to save money.
For example, Vernon Hills-based technology vendor CDW, which conducted its first-ever layoffs in January, used to provide bagels twice a week to employees. That's been cut to once a week, and the company also reduced subsidies at the office cafeteria. But a sales recognition dinner and annual trip for top sales employees to plan strategy with senior executives has been retained.
"Absolutely we're a sales organization," said John Smith, senior director of co-worker services at CDW, where employees often come to work wearing button-down and polo shirts emblazoned with the company logo. "It's very critical to recognize your top performers and those that are generating revenue."
ThoughtWorks, a Chicago-based information technology consulting firm, gives its employees a three-month paid sabbatical when their tenure reaches 10 years.
Nancy Kistler took her leave last summer after 14 years at the company, where she oversees several large client accounts. Instead of traveling around the world like some of her colleagues, Kistler stayed home in Grand Rapids, Mich., with her two young children. It was a welcome break after having traveled weekly for 14 years.
"I was really thankful for getting that opportunity because you don't get that anywhere these days, and having it be fully paid makes a huge difference," Kistler said. "To me, it really said a lot about how I'm valued by the company."