Money talks when it comes to attracting and retaining skilled labour. But decent wages and benefits don't form the whole bottom line when it comes to motivating employees.
In fact, a happy workplace often hinges on non-financial strategies and incentives that boost morale, productivity and quality of work life, say human resources, workplace counselling and other experts.
At Polson Bourbonniere Financial Planning Group in Markham, Ont., for instance, the competitive wages for the 14 financial planners and administrative staff are supplemented with flexible work hours, team-building events and monthly cake breaks to recognize staff birthdays.
"If you give somebody a raise, they're tickled for a day or two, but it doesn't really motivate you," says Susan Kelly, the firm's vice-president of operations, noting that a low turnover rate - one person in the past 10 years has left the company - is a better indicator of happiness levels.
"People have to be relatively satisfied with the money they make, but the non-monetary things you do for staff can go a lot further in terms of morale. It's addressing work-life issues, creating a collegial atmosphere, treating them with respect that really counts. … Bottom line, a happy, unstressed, loyal employee is a highly productive employee."
The 1990s saw a workplace revolution of sorts when many companies, looking to get more bang with fewer bucks, began offering such perks as casual Fridays, summer hours, flexible work hours and job sharing.
As employees do more with less, and businesses are challenged to woo and retain skilled labour, it's the non-monetary incentives that can set companies apart, says Marylka Empey, a certified management consultant in the Toronto area with Trinity Associates Inc.
"A lot of research validates the fact that money does have its importance and place, but it does not sustain employees' feeling of engagement with an organization and the work they're doing. What their work is, how they're being managed, what the culture of the organization is - all that counts," says Ms. Empey, who chairs the Human Resources Special Interest Group of the Canadian Association of Management Consultants.
In good times, when companies must work hard to retain valued employees, and bad times, when uncertainty, layoffs and cost cutting can eat into morale, simple initiatives can help keep workers "positive, focused, engaged and productive rather than anxious and fearful," she says.
Small businesses, in particular, "are definitely trying a lot more creative approaches than they have in the past to try to attract and retain workers," says Dan Kelly, senior vice-president, legislative affairs, with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which represents more than 107,000 small-business owners.
"In a restaurant, it could be a discount on products or services provided by the firm itself. I've heard of business owners so desperate for staff that they've taken employees into their homes, like an employee at one Dairy Queen in Royal, Alberta. There are restaurants in Canmore providing transportation for employees to and from work."
Nothing can kill morale more than feeling "like you have no voice or are a cog in a wheel," says Mr. Kelly.
Richard Yerema, managing editor of the Canada's Top 100 Employers project by Mediacorp Canada Inc., says a common thread of the most forward-thinking companies is that they "create an ownership culture."
Among the companies that made the 12th annual Top 100 list released in October is the Great Little Box Co., a packaging manufacturer with its head office in Vancouver and about 190 full-time workers that was lauded for its no-cost programs and "exceptional" ability to engage workers. One novel Great Little Box program - which actually saves the company money - rewards employees who come up with company cost-savings ideas that are put into use by giving them a share of those savings.
Another cited in the Top 100, the Yukon Hospital Corp., which operates facilities across the territory, allows its 170 full-time and 107 part-time workers to listen to music on the job. They're also kept up to date on developments and can provide feedback through a biweekly newsletter and suggestion box.
Claude Balthazard of Ontario's Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA), notes: "Usually the drivers of engagement at work are things like challenge, autonomy, stimulation, access to information, resources, growth opportunities. Financial compensation is usually third or fourth down the list, but then again, it's the jobs that also have all that that tend to pay more."
Still, workplaces have to tread carefully when adopting certain no-cost practices.
Ms. Empey notes that even seemingly innocent perks like flex time can cause problems, such as if it's given to workers with family demands and not to those with no such responsibilities. "Not every workplace culture can solidly support things like flex time, and really it has to be properly managed because it could lead to tensions."
"Some jobs have a lot of flexibility, but for some organizations, that degree of trust is so difficult, like jobs that involve production work, where everybody kind of needs to be there or it could be really disruptive," says Mr. Balthazard, who is HRPA's director for human resources excellence.