The Administrator’s Desk: Motivation on the Cheap

July 15, 2007

Low- and no-cost ways to motivate staff.


Money, as they say, doesn’t buy happiness. That’s been drilled into our collective consciousness for centuries. Why, then, do office administrators so often rely exclusively on financial bonuses and performance incentives to reward their staff for a job well done?

Don’t misunderstand: Competitive pay is a must - especially for physician practices, which increasingly require highly trained workers to maintain profitability and ensure regulatory compliance in the changing healthcare landscape. But when it comes to recognizing employees for the wonderful people they are (and fostering teamwork), the most effective tools in your arsenal may cost nothing at all.

“While no substitute exists for competitive pay, compensation alone will not keep staff members driven and motivated,” writes Kimberly Wishon-Powell, the author of “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation: How Much Does Money Really Matter?” for the American College of Medical Practice Executives. “The carrot and stick approach to job satisfaction lacks validity in today’s work force as a new generation dominates staffing.”

In fact, she notes, monetary bonuses can be counterproductive in a medical practice setting where clinical and clerical staff must work together to improve patient care. “Employees can sabotage relationships among team members to receive the highest levels of productivity and rewards,” Wishon-Powell writes. Dividing the monetary bonus pool, in an attempt to be fair, rarely works either, she says, since it creates tension among employees who feel they work harder than others.

Consequently, administrators looking to develop an effective employee recognition system are well advised to put the checkbook away and focus instead on good old-fashioned morale-building techniques.

Say it loud

According to Ken Hertz, a consultant with the Medical Group Management Association and a long-time practice administrator, public recognition is among the most effective tools office managers have for showing employees they’re valued members of the team. Save your praise for weekly or monthly staff meetings, he suggests. “If you’ve had a really great quarter, take a minute to tell them that you couldn’t have done it without them,” says Hertz. “If there’s a nurse who is particularly great, tell him or her that the patients compliment them all the time. This way, you’re recognizing people in front of other people, which is the very best way to do that.”

Public recognition also plays a critical role in building staff morale, adds Wishon-Powell. “Announce an outstanding achievement at a staff meeting, and solicit a round of applause,” she writes. “Recognizing the hard work and dedication of employees gives them a sense of satisfaction and personal fulfillment.”

Complimenting employees for their hard work and dedication, naturally, holds even greater weight when it comes from the physicians themselves. “Doctors are an incredibly underutilized resource,” says Hertz. “If I walk over to the front desk and thank someone for doing a great job, that’s one thing. But if the owner of the practice walks over and addresses that person by name and thanks them for all the work they do with patients, it means so much more. Now that employee is walking five feet off the ground all day.”

To do your part to prompt doctor-employee feedback, try purchasing notecards with your doctors’ initials on them, Hertz recommends. Every few weeks, hand them one and ask them to write a short “thank you” to a member of the staff who went above and beyond. “When the employees open those notes, it’s like, ‘Wow!’” he says. “It makes such a difference in the practice.”

Come together

Group activities that reward employees for reaching milestones can also help build emotional commitment from the staff. MaryAnn Simmons, office administrator for Pulmonary Care of Central Florida, a two-physician practice in Winter Park, Fla., allocates a small percentage of the monthly budget for bowling parties, drinks after work with the staff, or special celebrations for birthdays. In some cases, she says, the events are organized “just because.”

“It doesn’t have to be anything real expensive,” says Simmons. “I’ll even sometimes make something for lunch, like chili or lasagna, and bring that in for everyone to just remind them that they’re an important part of the team.”

Other low-cost ways to show your staff you care are to issue years of service awards, grant paid days off when possible (think sunny Fridays in July), and allow those with leadership potential to run staff meetings or training programs. Hertz gives out $20 gift cards to a local department store or movie theater “just to say thank you” when the staff meets certain performance goals. “If you use those rewards to celebrate team victories, it builds team spirit and enthusiasm,” he says.

For her part, Simmons gives out candy with paychecks and sends daily reflections or motivational quotes to her staff over pagers and e-mails to help “center them.” “If you can make someone else’s day great and let them recognize themselves for how wonderful they are as an individual and what they contribute to the practice, it makes for a much better work environment,” she says.

What’s in it for you?

Employee recognition is an important communication tool that encourages your staff to repeat the behavior you reward. It can also, of course, spur motivation and raise productivity. Office administrators, however, should not let such goals guide their choices when implementing a rewards campaign. “If you’re rewarding them so they’ll work harder or stay later, they’re going to see through that,” he says. “You have to show them that they make a difference, contribute, and add value to the practice, and that’s what will motivate them the most.”

Shelly K. Schwartz is a freelance writer in Maplewood, N.J., who has covered personal finance, technology, and healthcare for 12 years. Her work has appeared on CNNMoney.com, Bankrate.com, and Healthy Family magazine. She can be reached via editor@physicianspractice.com.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of
Physicians Practice.