Tri Fit in good shape thanks to creative recognition program

Small business takes personal approach to engage and retain workers

A personalized poem, a treasure chest, podcasts and an adventure day may not sound like a typical recognition program, but this creative approach has worked out well for one small company in Oakville, Ont.

Providing organizations with fitness, health and wellness services, Tri Fit has been in business for almost 30 years. The company, which has doubled in size in the last five years, has about 48 full-time staff, two part-time wellness consultants and 30 to 40 contract employees who manage customized programs for clients through facility maintenance, employee screening, marketing campaigns, health fairs, workshops and administration.

While most of the staff are female, young and transient, turnover is low. For the most part, employees leave to go back to school or on maternity leave, says Veronica Marsden, founder and president of Tri Fit.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever lost anyone to competition,” she says. “We have a phenomenal reputation in the industry.”

The success rate is helped by a recognition program that celebrates both the company’s core values of health and wellness and employee contributions.

“As our company has grown and it’s become more important to us to retain staff and look for ways to keep employees engaged and excited and motivated and learning, it’s really important to have a number of different systems and initiatives in place,” says Marsden.

For one, Tri Fit holds an all-day staff meeting five times a year to bring everyone together and celebrate their contributions. This event is particularly important as many employees work at client offices spread across southern Ontario.

“Most of our staff work on their own, in terms of the day-to-day job, and that’s why it’s been a challenge for us,” says Marsden. “That’s why the recognition system and team-building is so important.”

A highlight of the all-day staff meeting is a “treasure chest” filled with fitness, sport or health-related items, such as shirts and cookbooks, for exemplary employees nominated by management or peers.

“It’s amazing, the chatter, the laughter, the excitement about opening the treasure chest,” says Marsden. “They’re like big children. They love it.”

More importantly, any number of workers are recognized, she says, and the gifts not only reflect the company’s values but come from places popular with employees, such as Whole Foods or Lululemon. Previously Tri Fit provided gift certificates but concerns about them being a taxable benefit ended that program and Marsden says staff have had no issue with the change.

A draw is also held during the day for three people to “win” a lunch with a senior person. It’s an opportunity for the leadership team to get to know 15 employees better each year, thank them for their commitment and hear feedback on how the company could improve.

“I always take out the person I know the least,” says Marsden. The event also continues a popular tradition of recognizing five-year employees by presenting them with a framed, personalized poem that has been researched and composed by the leadership team and is read out loud at the all-staff meeting.

For initiatives such as this to work, recognition must pervade an organization, says Helen Schneiderman, a consultant with Caliber Leadership in Vancouver.

“For smaller companies, the whole culture of recognition doesn’t differ but, if anything, it may be easier where people know one another, know the leaders, get to see them more,” she says.

Another popular initiative at Tri Fit is the annual adventure recognition day that involves a mystery outing. The team-building day always includes an “elaborate” lunch and thank-you gift but, initially, people have no idea what they’ll be doing. Last year, staff received weekly Mission Impossible-themed podcasts that gave clues about the day. Tri Fit employees were told to meet at a mall where they boarded a bus and changed into company-provided camp-wear clothing. Food orders were taken and eventually the crew arrived at an outdoor café for breakfast. They then toured one of Tri Fit’s facilities and afterward took part in a rock-climbing exercise.

Other adventure days have included an orienteering session on Toronto’s subway system and creative team photos, the best of which won an award at a lunch featuring already-edited video of the event that day.

“It’s the one day of the year our staff cannot wait for,” says Marsden. “There’s a tremendous amount of buildup and hoopla around the day and it’s our basic team-building, recognition day.”

While Tri Fit follows tradition in giving gifts to employees marking a special occasion, the company takes it a step further by always visiting employees who, for example, have a new baby or are very ill. There is also a mentor program, which recognizes employees who have demonstrated leadership abilities but cannot be offered a management position because of the company’s small size. And bonuses or cash incentives are given out for new business or employee referrals.

As for the challenge of administration and costs, Marsden says the manual administration is informal and easy to track and Tri Fit has increased its recognition budget by about 250 per cent over the last three years.

“We realize in the scheme of things it’s really small change, when you look at the cost of an unhappy employee or the cost of replacing them,” she says.

Often organizations may hear about “fancy” programs and decide they can’t compete, says Schneiderman, but “really it’s what’s meaningful to employees that’s important. The key is affordability and does this make sense to drive the behaviours of performance we want at an organization.”

In addition, the informal recognition programs at smaller companies make for easier, less-cumbersome administration, she says.

However, Peter Hart, CEO of Rideau Recognition in Montreal, says there can be as much work needed for a small program as a larger one, in areas such as development and implementation, and recognition is harder to administer without state-of-the-art tools. Costs can even be higher, especially if the recognition program is more of an afterthought, as Rideau found in a 2005 study. Smaller companies said they spend more per employee than their larger counterparts, he says.

“We were flabbergasted when we saw that but then realized it makes sense because, in smaller companies, usually the management is a lot closer to its people,” says Hart.

But Marsden says the only tough part for the leadership team is coming up with creative ideas for the annual adventure outing. And this year, for the first time, it’ll be a surprise for her too so she can relax and enjoy the day.

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