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Companies embrace praise

Employee recognition – especially in a down economy – can be an effective and inexpensive morale-booster.

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•Last month at Dean College in Franklin, Mass., senior managers surprised the staff with a visit from a local ice cream vendor to thank them for their hard work during a student orientation session. The school also has a formal recognition program, along with employee awards.

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Yet deciding how to honor individual workers can be challenging. There are now four generations in the workforce, ranging from the "silent" generation of World War II to Millennials in their 20s.

"Recognizing everyone in the same way is not going to work," Ms. Gibson says. "Some people love to be recognized in an awards gala in front of the whole company. If you did that to someone who doesn't like to be in front of a crowd, that would be worse than firing them." To avoid jealousy among workers, companies must give awards on the basis of specific behaviors and achievements. "It can't be a popularity contest," she says.

Baby boomers like to be pampered. As they retire, Gibson says, "Employers have to start thinking of how they're going to recognize them."

Managers sometimes complain that Millennials need immediate reinforcement. "It's a generation that grew up being lavished with praise from Mom and Dad, and some have the same kind of expectation at work," Mr. Saunderson says. "They want to hear praise on a more frequent basis."

Whatever the generation, gratitude has a powerful effect. "It's really an ego booster when our employer takes the time to praise us with a simple 'Attaboy' or 'Your work is great,'" says Josh Bunch, assistant creative director at Brainstorm Marketing in Des Moines, Iowa. Other rewards at the firm include movie tickets, a paid day off on a birthday, and a trip to Kansas City in appreciation for a project.

Whether recognition is formal or informal, it must be aligned with an organization's culture and values – its mission and vision, Saunderson says.

"Sometimes people get caught up in thinking that recognition has to be things," he says. "It can be. But it can be just respecting people, looking at what their ambitions and career aspirations are, and understanding their personal and family lives."

A year ago, Saunderson's son had a car accident. "My boss said, 'Roy, don't even think about work.' To have that kind of support meant the world to me. In an indirect way, that was recognition."

Making employees feel valued also increases productivity and profitability, Gibson says. Satisfied workers produce satisfied customers and a stronger bottom line. That also reduces costly turnover.

Noting the power of appreciation and praise, Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a marketing professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, says, "Taking the time out to say 'great job' does not cost anything but a few moments of one's time. So many managers go out of their way to let employees know what they are doing wrong. Yet appreciation most definitely affects morale. In a down economy, praise is a great tool for improving morale without spending a fortune."

As office space shrinks, amenities grow

Besides personal awards and verbal recognition, companies are offering a wider range of amenities than in years past to show their appreciation for workers.

While break rooms and coffee bars still rank as the most common amenities, employers are increasingly providing Internet cafes, fitness facilities, and outdoor recreation areas, according to a study by the International Facility Management Association.

As employee workspace decreases, these amenities become more essential. Office space for middle managers, for example, has shrunk from an average of 151 square feet in 1994 to 121 in 2007, a decline of nearly 20 percent. Employers want to attract and retain the best employees while compensating for reduced space.

"As companies reduce personal workspace, employees place greater importance on in-house amenities that simplify and enrich their workday, such as lunch-hour yoga at the company fitness center," says Angie Earlywine, workplace strategist for HOK Advance Strategies in San Francisco. Multipurpose space has become a popular feature. Other popular amenities are exercise parks, cot rooms, and lactation areas for nursing mothers.

Last month Steve Sarowitz of, an online payroll service in Arlington Heights, Ill., opened a game room where employees can go during breaks to play foosball and darts.