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Crazy Ties and Lobby Photos

Employers have faced a lot of tough questions in 2009. The hardest question many employers have had to ask this year was whether to cut or not to cut — jobs that is. But even for companies that have averted layoffs this year, there were other questions. Do we need to trim salaries? Do we need to eliminate bonuses? How can we bring our labor expenses down? Yet for some, if not all, the companies that made the Business Journal’s list of Best Places to Work, 2009, one of the most important questions they asked was “how can we keep our people happy without spending a lot of money?” As the Business Journal discovered, there are myriad ways to do just that. The ideas Valley companies are implementing to build and maintain employee morale on a budget range from quirky-and-clever to downright brilliant. Insurance and financial services firm, USI in Woodland Hills follows the FISH! Philosophy, which originated at Seattle’s World Famous Pike Place Fish Market, and aims to bring enjoyment to the workplace. The activities organized by USI’s FISH Council (the acronym stands for “Forging Ideas to Soaring Heights”) cost little to nothing. “We’re here more of our waking hours than we are at home,” said Maria Souza, human resources generalist and administration manager at USI. “It doesn’t have to be miserable.” To that end the program offers weekly themes and events, such as “Crazy Tie Day,” which cost the company nothing. The same is true for “Dress your Manager in Toilet Paper Day.” Some management teams might see the potential for erosion of authority with morale builders along the lines of employees wrapping their superiors in T.P. That’s not a problem at USI, which claims to be the eighth largest U.S. broker in the insurance business — an industry perhaps more known for its conservatism than any other. A favorite activity at USI is Bingo. Six times per year all 101 employees at the Woodland Hills office are handed out four Bingo cards each. Games of Bingo take place throughout the day. There are also ornament painting and decorating days in December, as well as a bake sale and heart-shaped balloon sale on Valentine’s Day. Proceeds from the sales go to a charity. Add to that an international pot luck day, simple meet-and-greets (with lunch provided), “Dress/Talk like a Pirate Day,” and casual-dress days, and the picture painted is a very colorful work-life at USI. Employees can also win their own individual casual day. If an employee finds a sticker wrapped with a cookie, one of which every person receives from time to time, that person can wear the Casual Day sticker on their favorite T shirt the next time they want to come to work without dressing for work. However, finding happy employees at work can be a result of even simpler efforts. “One of the things we do is an award called an RCB,” said Calnet Technologies Group human resources manager, Catherine Barnes. “Random Cash Bonus Awards of $100 are given to employees at the company meeting every month.” According to Barnes, RCD winners appreciate the kudos as much as they do the cash. “We give random cash to internal and external employees, based on messages we receive via email, letters, and voicemails complimenting an employee that go into our kudos box.” Group-level words of appreciation for a job well done, which come with the RCD program are especially important to external employees, such as network engineers who service clients in the field. “They often feel a little cut off from the human interactions inside the office, and this is a way to make them feel connected as well as appreciated,” she said. Another way Calnet connects workers is by tapping into its employees’ artistic talents. “We started something with all the employees being invited to submit personal photos to be considered as art for our lobby,” Barnes said. “We have some pretty talented photographers it turns out; and the winner each month gets to have their art professionally matted and framed, and displayed in our lobby.” In addition to getting their own amateur gallery exhibition, Calnet’s shutterbugs also win a cash award for having their photos selected for display. A more modest art-related morale builder at Calnet Technology Group is a series of art cards that employees can customize and print out (with the firm’s logo) for the purpose of expressing appreciation among one another. Similarly, instead of using birthday cards with preprinted messages, the IT firm’s top brass write their own personal greetings. “We don’t just hand out birthday cards,” Barnes said. “We mail them to the employees’ homes.” Other ways Calnet shows its appreciation for employees include recognizing anniversaries at company meetings and handing out award plaques to employees at the end of each year. However, Barnes would like to do more to make her employees happy. “I’ve been meeting with outside award and recognition companies to help me understand how to award,” she said. “I’m learning that here so many different levels and ways to create a lot of loyalty without spending a huge amount of money.” Elsewhere, Parker Brown Inc. General Contractors in Canoga Park has found that one of the best gifts they give its employees can have a multiplying effect. “Our CFO has enrolled three of us in Toastmasters, which is the foremost speaker-training organization in the world,” said Ben Alvarez, senior project manager at Parker Brown. The gift of learning to be a professionally trained speaker, said Alvarez, gives him and his fellow toastmaster colleagues the ability to handle “hot-spot” situations both inside and outside the company with greater aplomb. The result can avert lingering resentments and bad feelings. But the chance to take Toastmasters classes on the company tab has also offered a chance to have a little fun, according to Alvarez. “We’re entering a contest on telling tall tales,” he said. “It’s a good time.” Birthdays at Parker Brown are all-out affairs. “There’s not one birthday that goes by that a room is not decorated, floor to ceiling, desk — everything,” Alvarez said. “We definitely make a big deal out of birthdays here.” In addition to gonzo decorating, birthday boys and girls at Parker Brown also get a cake (the company keeps a record of each employee’s favorite), as well as movie tickets and a lunch outing to their favorite restaurant. “Then we do random ‘good week’ stuff,” Alvarez told the Business Journal. “We lock the doors and carpool to places like Santa Anita, or we go go-cart racing.” Additionally, Alvarez’ employer is fanatical about documenting company fun with images. “I’ve been voted picture-taking guy,” he said. “I take a lot of video and I even put together a compilation of company barbeques over many past years. We made the theme ‘Mission Impossible’ to acknowledge the challenges of the bad economy this year.” Speaking of the recession, one of the internal morale boosters Parker Brown Inc. has instituted, and which Alvarez appreciates most, cost virtually nothing. Yet, he said, it represents an attitude that assures him and his colleagues that their jobs are secure. “It’s just a red sign that says: ‘I will not participate in the recession. Our bosses believe in that, and we haven’t had to lay off a single person.”

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