How to keep your workforce motivated and on track even when bonuses aren’t in the cards.
By Bridget McCrea
Learning how to do more with less has become a top priority for Los Angeles-based Artisan Precast, a firm that, like many others, took a hit during the economic recession. Working with a smaller budget than it was, say, five years ago, this 25-employee precaster has had to find creative ways to keep its employees motivated without the help of large bonuses or fancy incentives.
“We can’t operate the way we did back in the early 2000s,” says Christopher Miller, president. “The business environment is completely different, which means we have to take a new approach as to how we run our company.” As part of that commitment, Artisan Precast has had to scale back its employee incentive programs while still maintaining high levels of productivity and worker morale. It’s a delicate balance, he says, but one that must be achieved in order to keep employees happy, safe and productive.
“We’ve basically revamped everything in the company – including our employee incentive programs – to deal with the situation,” says Miller. But that doesn’t mean workers are left out in the cold when it comes to those “extra” rewards for a job well done. In fact, he says the firm has retained its bonus structure, which is based on two key measures: the number of accident-free workdays in a row, and the firm’s production output.
To ensure employees stay motivated and loyal during a time when the firm can’t necessarily afford to shell out big bonuses, Miller has established more “personal” rewards, such as half and whole days off from work with pay.
“A couple of times a year, particularly around the holidays, we’ve gotten ahead of the game and let them enjoy a paid Friday off,” says Miller, who on occasion will also bring in catered lunches for the team. “These are the simple things you can do that don’t require a big outlay of cash, but that the staff really appreciates.”
Despite the obvious economic challenges that companies like Artisan Precast continue to face in today’s business environment, Miller says employees have given him positive feedback on the firm’s incentive program. That appreciation also shows up in the company’s employee turnover rate, which is “very low” according to Miller. “In today’s world, if you can be a bit more personable and appreciative as an employer,” he says, “you stand a much better chance of retaining good, loyal workers.”
Stoking the fire
It’s no secret that companies across all industries are operating in a very different business world than they were just five or 10 years ago. Sales are down across the board, new customers are harder to find and competition is stiff. Belts have been tightened, and everything from marketing programs and advertising initiatives to employee incentives is being hit hard.
Unfortunately, skimping on the latter can be highly unproductive for the precaster that wants to lift itself out of the “slump” and get back to business as usual. “Most people are aware that companies are having hardships, and will understand if they don’t get a sizeable financial bonus,” says Adrian Miller, president of Port Washington, N.Y.-based Adrian Miller Sales Training. “But if you want to have a motivated and enthusiastic workforce where everyone is rowing in the same direction, you still need an incentive program that supports that goal.”
Like Artisan Precast has already discovered, offering time off can be a great way to reward workers without having to hand out cash or prizes. “People love time off,” says Adrian Miller, who also sees gift cards (see the sidebar “Using Gift Cards as Incentives”) as an inexpensive way to show staff members your appreciation without breaking the bank. Because they’re tailored to a person’s interest (a book lover would enjoy an Amazon gift card, while a weekend athlete would probably like one from Sports Authority), these incentives go beyond cash and make staff members feel appreciated.
Adrian Miller also advises precasters to set up “company stores” where workers can purchase merchandise at a discount. A $200 television from Costco, for example, can be sold through the store for $150. “Are you losing a little money? Sure, but you’re also showing your employees that you care about their financial situations and that you want to help,” she says. “A nice TV holds a lot more value than a $50 bonus check.”
One manufacturer she worked with recently also created contests in conjunction with its company store, offering “bonus points” to workers who helped achieve a safe workplace and sales goals. The points were redeemable for merchandise, which ranged from small prizes (such as company T-shirts and fleece jackets) to large electronics (for which employees could bank their credits). “For the small investment that the company has to make in these types of programs, the payoff can be significant,” says Adrian Miller.
Laying it on the line
When creating affordable incentive programs, Stephanie Smith, an executive consultant in New York, says precasters should never try to guess what their workforces want. Instead, says Smith, ask them what they would like and give them choices that are aligned with those desires. Inexpensive options could include short write-ups (about recent accomplishments, for example) in the company newsletter, the chance to head up a project or the opportunity to attend an industry event.
“Everyone is motivated by different rewards, and where one person might love a write-up, another may really want to go to that precast concrete conference,” says Smith. “By addressing these personal choices, you can come up with inexpensive, easy ways to motivate your employees to success.”
Getting there also means shaking off the idea that your firm is somehow not as good as it once was, says Smith, and avoiding comparisons with other companies that may be offering higher incentives and rewards to their own staffers. “Look at things from a fresh perspective, and don’t worry about not being able to give your workers what you gave them five or 10 years ago,” she says. “Instead, come up with a program that strikes a balance between employee recognition and financial management.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade/technical feature statewide.
SIDEBAR 1: 10 Ways to Increase Productivity
So bonuses weren’t in the cards last year, you say? Try these 10 ways to get your workforce motivated and productive without breaking the bank:
- Monitor production carefully. By keeping tabs on just how much labor and money goes into each product, you’ll be in a much better position to judge the productivity of your workforce and make the necessary adjustments.
- Empower your employees. Workers who are empowered to make decisions and participate in important company issues are workers who will put the interest of your company first. Allowing workers to put their talents and skills to work – and not just follow orders – goes a long way in sparking productivity.
- Know what motivates them. Don’t be afraid to get out onto the shop floor and ask employees for feedback on your company, operations and/or compensation plans. When you get back to your desk, think about how you can use that information to improve your work environment, employee morale and overall productivity.
- Provide regular feedback. You wouldn’t want to work for a company that kept you in the dark about your own performance and that of the company as a whole, so why would your employees? Keep them informed of their own progress and that of the entire company, and you’ll end up with a much more receptive and productive team.
- Establish effective, two-way channels of communication. There was a time when a boss called an employee into his office only when there was a problem. These days, the productive work environment requires effective two-way channels of communication among all employees and management. Take a look around at your own operations for any dysfunctional communication channels, then work to improve them.
- Give employees the tools they need to succeed. Give them not just the material tools, but also the knowledge tools that are vital in this competitive work world. Whether through in-house training programs, industry training such as NPCA’s Precast University, one-on-one mentoring from management staff or another system that works for you, the key is to keep employees on the leading edge of the game.
- Go beyond money. Not everyone is motivated by money. Find out what your employees would really like when it comes to perks and incentives, then go back to your company budget to figure out a middle ground that works for both of you.
- Test out flex time or job sharing. In this day of two-earner families, flex time (shifts that break out of the 9 to 5 mold) and job sharing (when two employees handle a full workweek by sharing the hours) are two good options that you might try using in your own operations.
- Consider different incentives and pay-for-performance strategies. If you try an incentive system that doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to shelve it and try another. One way to do this without repercussion would be to use quarterly programs. If feedback at the end of the quarter reveals that the bonus or incentive program didn’t motivate employees, opt for something else next time.
- Congratulate them on a job well done. It’s a simple fact of human nature: People love praise. If you notice that a particular employee has done more than his or her fair share of quality work recently – or if he or she has made great improvements over the past few months – don’t be afraid to let him or her know. The feeling of pride that comes as a result of getting praise goes a long way in helping someone work even harder next time.
SIDEBAR 2: Using Gift Cards as Incentives
If you have a few bucks left in the budget for employee incentives, consider changing those greenbacks into gift cards before distributing the rewards. According to recent studies from the Incentive Federation, gift cards rank as the most frequently used type of corporate reward.
According to the organization, convenience, ease of use and administration, and the range of options make gift cards the perfect choice for many sales managers and incentive program administrators. These non-cash rewards are enhanced by a perceived “trophy value” that surrounds them. An outdoor gas grill purchased with a gift card, for example, will serve as a positive reminder to the participant of his or her performance (and company) every time it is fired up.
Cash, on the other hand, quickly gets mixed in recipients’ minds as compensation and usually disappears into the family budget with no direct communication benefits to the giver. Here are a few more reasons to consider gift cards as part of your workplace incentive program:
- Recognition programs: Gift cards are marks of accomplishment that can be given in an awards ceremony or included in a congratulatory note or e-mail. There is also opportunity to share the experience with family by having them partake in rewards such as restaurants and travel. Unlike cash, employees are unlikely to consider gift certificates and cards as compensation and thus do not begin to expect them.
- Safety initiatives: Gift certificates and cards are used to recognize individual or team milestones: months without injury or accident, reduced days off for illness or injury, following and documenting safety procedures, or demonstrating knowledge of preventive practices and emergency preparedness.
- Sales incentives: Gift certificates and cards work especially well for sales incentives. They’re scalable – that is, available in many denominations – and thus flexible enough to reward for any volume of incremental sales. And unlike cash, which is a common and expected form of variable compensation in this field, certificates and cards are seen as a one-time reward for a job well done.