Monday, July 31, 2000

Want to keep employees? Have some fun

By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Stacey Martin, project manager at CoActive, has trouble launching her water rocket.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
        Mike Halloran knew back in 1994 that his company, Optimum Group, needed to do something to guarantee a committed team of employees for clients for the foreseeable future.

        An integrated marketing communications company, Optimum Group had 30 employees at the time, but Mr. Halloran, the 42-year-old president, knew that his expansion plans would bring new clients into the fold and eventually lead to new people on the payroll.

        But how could he make sure that the people would stick around?

        One way to slow turnover and make it easier to recruit workers was to figure out a way to bring fun, pleasure and comfort into the workplace, Mr. Halloran decided.

        He created a “Fun Committee” and encouraged that team to develop ways to make Optimum Group the kind of place where people wanted to show up and spend 40 or more hours each week.

        Empowering a crew of workers to figure out ways to make the workplace a fun milieu was a gamble — but it paid off. Turnover soon declined to about 4 percent — and that's in an industry that averages 15 percent to 20 percent turnover each year.

        Optimum, which is now known as CoActive Marketing Group, has become something of a textbook example of a growing trend of companies that are striving to blend work with play to woo new workers and keep old employees.

        The committee at the Lincoln Heights firm recommended, and executives approved, some offbeat approaches to guarantee a friendly workplace:

        • An employee Easter egg hunt where committee members hide $1,500 in prizes, candy and fruit, which allows grown-ups to become 3-year-olds again for one hour each year.

        • Free Internet access at home for all employees.

        • Employees are encouraged to decorate their personal space, and the company pays to paint cubicles and office walls in whatever color is chosen by the employee.

        • An innovative recognition system with several facets ranging from seven $5 coupons that can be handed out by each employee each month to four $1,000 employee-of-the-year commendations.

        • A bonus program tied to company profits.

        • Frequent contests that may include the prize of watching Mr. Halloran wash a lucky employee's car.

        Mr. Halloran said, “I am a firm believer that no matter what level of the organiza tion you are in, you need to get your hands dirty and roll up your sleeves.”

        The company's strategy is a model for other firms interested in improving the atmosphere in their workplace, said Tom Terez, the Columbus-based author of 22 Keys to Creating a Meaningful Workplace (Adams Media; $24.95).

        “Of those 22 factors, this company has really nurtured keys of informality, relationship building and acknowledgement,” Mr. Terez said. “All are very important to people. They are doing some great stuff.”

        Mr. Terez, who has studied workplaces for 12 years, said that progressive companies like CoActive need to take steps to make sure that people who may not appreciate public praise or recognition receive positive reinforcement that they do appreciate.

        To write the book, he interviewed more than 300 workers and executives and found that money is not necessarily the most important way to recognize people.

        “In all my interviews with hundreds of people, no one ever mentioned high pay or extrinsic rewards as a deep source of personal satisfaction,” Mr. Terez said.

        “Virtually all people mentioned fair pay, respect, dialogue, purpose and the need for genuine appreciation,” Mr. Terez said.

        Christina Wald, 31, was hired earlier this year and said the workplace climate of the company was one of the reasons she gave up the freedom of freelance employment for the security of working at a firm.

        Hired as a senior designer, Ms. Wald said even the art of films on the walls at the company appealed to her. “One thing that attracted me were the science fiction movie posters that were up,” she said. “I figured I could fit in in place where art was in the genre I liked.

        “I've been in a situation where there was a sweat-shop mentality. You feel you're expendable, that the company doesn't really care, and to me it's important that you work for a company that does not make you feel that way.

        “Nothing is worse than being in place where everybody is gloom and doom.”

        One recent idea that also has great appeal to Ms. Wald is a lunchtime lottery.

        Once every three weeks, names are drawn from a hat, and workers head out for lunch based on the random drawing.

        The firm has grown from 30 employees in 1994 to 88 today.

        “I participate,” Mr. Halloran said. “Whoever gets in my group gets the free lunch.”

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