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The one thing better than a cash bonus at work

Sure, money is nice. But workers might especially like when companies get creative at rewarding them.

Ann Clark, of RE/MAX Executive Realty in Franklin, with her company’s “Standing Ovation Award.”Webb Chappell for the Boston Globe

When Tara Sagor celebrated 15 years at Justice Resource Institute, the nonprofit sent her two gifts: a cash bonus and a glowing note from the organization’s leaders.

“You are passionate about the work, committed to excellence, clinically brilliant, a fighter for social justice, and the most organized person we know,” the note reads. “Any time either of us have had a question or needed help, you were there to find the answer.” A year later, the money has been spent. But Sagor, who oversees training and trauma response, still has the letter, and reads it occasionally when she needs a boost.


It’s not that Sagor doesn’t appreciate the bonus. But the letter spelled out why she deserved it with details about her professional growth and contributions that showed her employer was paying attention. The letter conveyed that “we see you, we appreciate you, and here are examples of things you personally have done that have made us stronger as an agency,” Sagor says. “That’s a pretty powerful thing.”

Sometimes, all we want is a little acknowledgment. Like many employers, Justice Resource Institute, a Needham-based social services agency with locations around the state, has found that personal recognition can be more effective than monetary rewards. Academic research backs that up, suggesting that workplaces where bosses praise their employees are more productive and hang on to workers longer.

In a 2019 survey of more than 1,500 workers, three-quarters of respondents said that motivation and morale would improve “if managers simply said ‘thank you’ more and noticed when people do good work,” according to the employee engagement platform Reward Gateway. Especially in a tight labor market, cash can only go so far, according to a 2017 review by researchers at Harvard, the Université du Québec à Montréal, and the Incentive Research Foundation. The researchers noted that employees “increasingly seek autonomy, mastery and connectedness at work.”


One way to accomplish this, workplace analysts say, is for employers to make sure their recognition programs reinforce the organization’s values — then remind workers they are crucial to carrying them out. At Steel Art Co., an architectural signage company in Norwood, that means emphasizing the family roots of the business, founded in the 1950s. It has taken top contributors on fishing trips on a boat owned by the husband of a company executive who is part of its founding family. “This is not your typical office outing,” says Gerry Racine, vice president of human resources. “It’s a family business, and this is just another indication of how the family operates, running a family business for family values.”

At Acceleration Partners, a marketing and technology company based in Needham, chief executive Robert Glazer takes the personalization of rewards to another level. He asks employees to tell him about their personal dreams, and each year he makes 10 of them come true. Acceleration has sent employees to flight school, taken them mountain climbing, and arranged race car driving lessons. And those are some of the easy ones. Glazer has also helped workers reconnect with long-lost relatives. For one team member based in London, Acceleration flew in a cousin from Australia. Another employee got a trip to Greece to see her 90-year-old grandparents for the first time in two years. Acceleration has even hired private investigators to help workers locate family members with whom they’ve fallen out of touch.


Glazer says employees tell him “they’re most appreciative that we cared about something that was important to them.” He adds that “if we can make our employees happier, better engaged, get what they want, then we benefit from it on a higher level.”

At first, Glazer worried that such generous gifts could potentially breed jealousy among employees whose dreams weren’t selected. But he says those fears proved unfounded. Though the dream fulfillment isn’t strictly performance based — Glazer selects employees whose requests are reasonable, timely, and somewhat affordable — workers know that it can’t hurt to be on Glazer’s radar.

Some companies have found that recognizing individual contributors is a good way of maintaining a cohesive workforce. RE/MAX Executive Realty in Franklin gives a “standing ovation award” each year to an agent who “has a great, giving, and positive attitude, and is unfailingly helpful.” The recognition helps encourage everybody to keep those values in mind, says Carol Recchino, director of agent services. “Although you’re not taking an ‘attaboy’ to the bank to pay your mortgage, it’s inspiring,” she says. And she hears agents talking about who might win well before the recognition event, which features an Oscar-like statue for the honoree. “It prompts them to show up, and by showing up I mean not just being there,” she says.

Team building is particularly important in real estate sales, where there is no shortage of financial incentives for agents to meet financial goals. Agents are typically paid based on what they sell and how much it costs. But everyone does better if agents work well together, Recchino says. That’s why this year the company gave the standing ovation award to Ann Clark for imbuing the office with a collegial, friendly atmosphere. “She always has a smile on her face,” Recchino says. “Her positivity is infectious. So you want to be with her, and that’s a huge thing.”


Clark says she was thrilled to get the award. And her collegial attitude still shines through. “It made me feel good that [my] attitude was recognized,” she says. “But I do feel that there were a lot of people who were equally deserving of it.”

Andy Rosen is a Boston Globe staff writer. He can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.