It's challenging to keep up morale and motivate staff when the marketplace is filled with uncertainty. Having survived several economic cycles, I've seen the benefits of investing in staff even during the lean times. During those times, I've been able to count on employees to keep my business engine going and as the market opens up, they've been there to help the company take advantage of new opportunities.

Even when budgets are tight, there are ways to reward and recognize employees without spending a lot of money. One obvious but often overlooked approach is to make it a regular practice to thank employees and acknowledge their contributions. I'm always amazed at how far a simple "great job" goes in generating goodwill.

Some other ways to let employees know that they are appreciated, include:

'¢ Establishing a special award, such as a "Star for the Day," to recognize outstanding performers. You might give them a gift certificate to a mall, or token gift to show your appreciation.

'¢ Planning get-togethers to bring employees together. Create opportunities for employees to socialize, such as Friday afternoon get-togethers, impromptu pizza parties and celebrations for birthdays, team accomplishments, and other occasions.

'¢ Establishing holiday traditions, such as annual volunteer day or company outings.

'¢ Pulling together a cross-functional team to serve on the fun committee and build up company spirit.

'¢ Using e-mail, a company newsletter, or bulletin board to praise individual and team accomplishments and recognize birthdays and other occasions.

It's always important to keep the lines of communication open, offer a flexible and family/friendly environment, and make sure that everyone feels respected. By rewarding your employees, you'll reap the benefits of a strong and dedicated team. It's a terrific competitive advantage.