A couple of years ago, Tammy Schneider, a manager at Glass Jacobson, approached her higher-ups with an idea. The Baltimore accounting firm had business units devoted to specific industries, but Schneider wanted to create one entirely for women.
"They were very supportive and they've given me the flexibility to run with it," said Schneider, who is now director of the Women in Business Practice, which offers free finance seminars to women business owners and others.
"The culture here [provides] … the flexibility and support to take a few chances to see where [ideas] might lead," Schneider said.
Workplace experts say companies like Glass Jacobson are clued in about how to create healthy workplaces where employees can do their best work. While salary and benefits are important — and while air hockey tables and season tickets at Camden Yards are nice — boosting workplace morale is a more nuanced matter, they say.
It's also a tough challenge for managers.
"Workers are feeling incredibly overworked," said Adam Seth Litwin, assistant professor of management at the Carey Business School at The Johns Hopkins University. "While [workers] may feel lucky to be employed, they're in over their heads, and they're not getting significant sympathy from their managers."
To build rapport with workers, Litwin says, managers must embrace transparency. "It's really important to be really open and honest with them about the state of the business and the challenges the business is facing," he said. "The deterioration of trust in the workplace is just a huge issue right now."
So what does it take for workers to embrace a company, even if raises are not forthcoming?
"It's essentially about a sense of direction — buying into the direction of the company, feeling that the work is meaningful and ultimately feeling appreciated," said Doug Claffey, CEO of WorkplaceDynamics, a Philadelphia-based consulting firm that has been conducting employee satisfaction surveys since its founding in 2006.
"Better workplaces can actually pay less money," Claffey said — adding, however, that companies cannot pay workers "absolute dirt" and expect them to be happy.
Perks at companies surveyed by WorkplaceDynamics range from telecommuting to tuition reimbursement to Bagel Fridays. One firm offers a "hardship" program to help its employees avoid eviction or interruption of gas, electric or water service in case of financial difficulty. Another company owns a condo in Florida and encourages workers to use it — and throws in $250 in spending money to boot.
Claffey emphasized that perks are "symptoms" of a good workplace — not causes. Simply adding such benefits to a poor workplace environment, in which employees are kept in the dark and don't feel safe or appreciated, "is not going to make a difference," he said.
The most important factor in employee satisfaction is confidence in a company's direction, WorkplaceDynamics has found. That's followed by working conditions and career opportunities. Pay and benefits are at the bottom of the list.
Good communication between management and staff is also key to achieving a well-functioning workplace, the survey firm found.
Kristi Betz, senior account executive at IMRE, said the Baltimore digital advertising, marketing and public relations firm "does a fantastic job of keeping us informed."
IMRE holds annual and monthly meetings, where financial information is shared, successes and best practices are celebrated, and goals are discussed, she said.
"It really makes you feel invested in the company," Betz said, adding that the meetings inspire workers to stretch to achieve the firm's goals.
Johns Hopkins' Litwin emphasized that employers can draw on workers' innate work ethic.
"In times like these, an organization really needs to tap into the natural motivation of the workforce — provide more opportunities to be creative, to be strategic. If fewer people are around, then [management] is going to be asking people to take on more."
Employers should present this situation to workers as a challenge, Litwin said — as an opportunity to build their skills: "It's a way an organization can go against the grain of an economic slowdown."
Straightforwardness and a team approach helped Glass Jacobson.
As the recession hit home in 2008, the company's leadership was "honest with all of us," said Sarah A. Sedlak, director of business development.
Glass Jacobson management gathered the staff and told them: "We made the decision that we are not laying anyone off. We are going to make it through this," Sedlak said.
Belts were tightened — no raises were given, though cash bonuses were. And no one was laid off, Sedlak said: "What worked for us was we were all in it together."
Another indication that the company values and trusts its employees, Sedlak said, was its insistence that everyone have a presence on the firm's website and on social media.
Initially some worried that the publicity would bring recruiters buzzing around, but management held out.
"The overwhelming response was, 'It's our job to keep our people happy,'" Sedlak said.
Apparently they are. Asked about turnover at the firm, Sedlak said it was negative, explaining that while one worker left to be a stay-at-home mother, two former employees returned to the company.
"That's a pretty good sign," she said.
Gilad Chen, professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, said managers could reward workers who stay with a firm during its darkest hours — and, again, not necessarily with money.
"If the company has been through rough periods, which could lead to poor levels of job satisfaction, there could be an opportunity there," Chen said. For example, he said, companies could offer employees more responsibilities or perks such as the ability to work from home.
Also, said Litwin, management can speak honestly with workers: "If you can do that, then workers are much more likely to maintain their trust and are much more likely to work with management to get through the tough times."