Don’t forget us

If you ask a business owner to describe his or her most valuable asset, you would probably get a variety of answers. As someone who works for business owners, I would hope a lot of them would say their employees are their best assets! Lucky for me, I’ve worked for some pretty good companies that do a lot to keep their employees happy.

I read a Forbes article recently that discussed the merits of a new book: “Make More Money By Making Your Employees Happy.” The author, Dr. Noelle Nelson, says “When employees feel that the company takes their interest to heart, then the employees will take company interests to heart.” As one such employee, I agree.

But appreciating employees doesn’t always have to constitute more money. Yes, bonuses are good things, but there are a lot of ways to make an employee feel valued that don’t cost much at all. And with employees being a brand’s best ambassador, it may be worth a shot to help make your business even more successful.

1.    Food
Consistently listed in Fortune’s list of the Top 100 Best Places to Work, Google was No. 1 in 2012. It’s one of the fastest growing companies in the United States, and I personally know a few fanatics who would give anything to work there.

People hear about the unusual perks like “nap pods,” but another thing that Google is well-known for is their food. Employees are never far from a snack pantry, and they can eat meals in an employee cafeteria for free.

That seems a little much for most smaller businesses, but as a former college student who went to many an organizational meeting for the free pizza, I can attest to the joy of a meal on the company every once in a while. It doesn’t have to be much. Sometimes bringing in doughnuts or coffee or just taking care of lunch during a big meeting is a welcome perk for employees. It also keeps the stress of a working lunch from getting to everyone!

2.    Flexible time and work/life balance
Work/life balance has become something of a buzz word in the last few years. In the days of smart phones, laptops and Wi-Fi on every corner, it sometimes seems like work never stops.

However, this can be beneficial to the company that has the ability to offer flexible time when life happens. All employees have dentist appointments, everyone gets sick and some people have children who can’t go to day care when they have a fever. In the days of Wi-Fi at home and laptop-based work cultures, leniency on where the work happens is a great way to keep your employees from getting overly stressed or behind on their duties, which will likely hinder their productivity later.

At Cisco, ranked No. 90 on Fortune’s list, estimates show that 90 percent of employees have the ability to telecommute when they need to. If telecommuting isn’t an option, personal time is another big (and easy) win. In 2011, new Apple CEO Tim Cook gave employees paid vacation through Thanksgiving to celebrate a record-setting year for the company. Obsidian does the same, and that whole smart phone and laptop-based Wi-Fi culture really helps ensure our productivity even when we aren’t in the office! Even SAS Institute, No. 3 on the Fortune list, offers unlimited sick days so employees don’t have to use their vacation time when they aren’t feeling well. And of course, a good recovery time makes for a more productive return to the office.

3.    Take employee suggestions
If you’ve ever watched “Undercover Boss” on CBS, you may have noticed that as companies grow, top management seems to lose contact with day-to-day operations. Even small companies are not immune to this, especially if the people responsible for making decisions aren’t participating in the daily grind.

CHG Healthcare Services, which came in at No. 9 on Fortune’s list of best companies to work for, jumped 18 spots from No. 27 in 2011 due in part to their dedication to routinely taking and acting on employee suggestions. Companies represented on “Undercover Boss” often do the same, but have you ever wondered what they are missing from the thousands of other employees who don’t have the opportunity to speak up during filming?

Even if employee suggestions aren’t viable, taking them into consideration is a great way to boost morale. When employees feel like they have some control over what happens at their company or feel “in the know” about the company’s state of affairs, they are more likely to react positively to changes that don’t seem to come from a closed-off boardroom. And if you actually enact an employee suggestion, sit back and reap the benefits, because word will get out and everyone will feel better about the decision.

4.    Keep your employees healthy
Wegmans Food Markets, which landed at No. 4 on Fortune’s list, makes employee health a priority. They go beyond providing insurance and offer things like smoking cessation programs, for which 2,000 Wegmans employees have enrolled since 2009. This is not only a great perk for employees, but for Wegmans, as they reap the benefits of a healthy workplace.

As with many of these programs, it doesn’t have to be huge. At Obsidian, we recently enacted something we like to call the Obsidian 2.5. With most of us sitting at a desk for many hours each week, our owner decided to make it a little easier for us to stay active. We now have the freedom to use 2.5 hours of administrative time each week to work out, whether that means taking a run in the park, going to a gym or using a workout video at home. It’s made it a lot easier to manage fitting trips to the gym into my schedule, and really keeps me more alert and feeling better at the office every day, all for the low low price of…free.

5.    Create a great culture
I love Zappos.com for a lot of reasons, but this is just one more positive thing about the company that came in at No. 11 on the Fortune list this year. The company has a very distinct culture, one that includes things like “laughter yoga” classes on-site and Zfrog awards, which lets employees pitch new business ideas.

Some of these things may seem off-the-wall and not quite a fit for another type of company, but it’s important to embrace whatever culture exists at your place of business. Prior to working at Obsidian, I enjoyed a few years in the marketing department of Raising Cane’s, a restaurant chain based in South Louisiana. My first day in the office included an hour of “culture immersion,” which included tips on how to really get into their culture of working hard and having fun. Music in the restaurant’s kitchens and painting windows for the holidays were just a few of the quirky things we enjoyed.

Got any tips or suggestions for how to make employees feel valued? Leave them in the comments!