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TOP PLACES TO WORK

The appreciation factor

People are working harder in a tough economy, but they’re also feeling more valued

(Tom Foley for The Boston Globe)
By D.C. Dension
Globe Staff / November 6, 2011

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I'm spending more time at work, and I have less time for my family. My employer really appreciates me. At first glance, the two statements appear contradictory.

The workers who responded to the Globe’s 2011 Top Places to Work survey indicated they had less flexibility to balance their work and personal lives than in the past. In fact, that facet of their lives at work suffered the most this year.

At the same time, employees said that they felt more “genuinely appreciated’’ at work. Much more appreciated. The measure of appreciation jumped nearly 9 percent, the largest positive change since last year.

So these Massachusetts employees are telling us that they are working harder, with less work-life flexibility, but feeling more appreciated. Does that make sense?

“I’m not surprised at all,’’ said Alan G. Robinson, a professor at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Tough economic times are when employees and managers at the best companies pull together.’’

At poorly run companies, hard times have the opposite effect, Robinson said. “That’s when you see things start pulling apart,’’ he said. “That’s when the squabbling starts.’’

At Cape Cod medical practice Emerald Physicians, which scored very high in “employee appreciation’’ in the Top Places survey, “we have great perks, but we are also appreciated and empowered,’’ said Julie Badot, the director of marketing and special projects. “Ultimately, it’s the combination of both that makes this a great place to work.’’

Badot said that more important than Emerald’s perks - which include free lunches every Thursday, company outings to concerts, and free weekly yoga sessions - is management’s trust that each employee has the ability and the authority to do the right thing.

“People know they are valued,’’ she said. “That’s what it’s about.’’

Yet Emerald is a demanding employer. The practice, which has nine locations on the Cape, is open nearly 10 hours a day. The staff of around 130 serves more than 30,000 patients a year.

“The work here is difficult. We don’t sugar-coat that,’’ Badot said.

An unpredictable economy has caused many companies to put off hiring, which means more work for the existing staff. Robinson says the best employers are sure to recognize the extra effort. “If the leaders of a company are people-centered, and they communicate to the employees that, yes, we’re in tough times, but we’re going to get through it - that makes people feel good, appreciated,’’ he said.

Doug Claffey, chief executive of WorkplaceDynamics of Exton, Pa., which conducted the Top Places to Work survey for the Globe, said more pragmatic considerations may also be in play. Existing employees become more valuable at companies where hiring is down. “Those companies could now be thinking, ‘We don’t want to lose these people,’ so appreciation is up,’’ he said.

Winchester Hospital, which also scored high on employee appreciation, “will celebrate anything,’’ said Lesley McDermottroe, a staff nurse. “If someone gets recognized by a professional organization or graduates from a certification program, there will be a celebration.’’

Each unit in the hospital has an employee-run “leadership council’’ that forwards ideas and concerns to management. “They are always looking for any kinds of suggestions,’’ McDermottroe said.

Listening to employees is big, according to UMass’s Robinson. “It’s the opposite of ‘check your brain at the door,’ ’’ he said. “Employees at companies that solicit and use their ideas feel valued and invested in the company.’’

At Flour Bakery + Cafe, which has three locations in Boston and Cambridge, also a high scorer in appreciation, none of the bakery manager offices have doors, and all have anonymous suggestion boxes. “We try to create all sorts of ways to get feedback from the staff,’’ said general manager Aaron Constable.

Recently, a staffer who was in law school suggested that the bakery use a “blackout stamp’’ to make credit card numbers unreadable once an order has been processed. All three locations now use the stamp. A chef suggested ways that the company could improve its green profile by improving company composting and recycling practices. That chef is now in charge of Flour’s green programs.

Listening to employees and using their ideas, Robinson said, is one of the best ways to put employees “front and center’’ and to achieve success.

“Think about two competing companies across the street from each other,’’ he said. “Their equipment is probably similar. I’d be willing to bet that the more successful company is the one that treats its employees better.’’

D .C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.