Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Rewards and Recognition

Best practices are tailored to an organization's unique culture

by Sara Goudarzi
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Laboratory leaders are tasked with the difficult responsibility of not only attracting but also maintaining talented individuals as satisfied employees. To alleviate the stress level of their workforces and boost morale, those in charge must look for ways to acknowledge their staffs’ efforts and contributions.

This is often achieved through various rewards and recognition practices that are set in place. The results of such practices help build the self-esteem of the individuals, promote teamwork, and instill in employees loyalty to their labs and their overall missions.

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“They’re doing their jobs, but it’s important to recognize that people are doing extraordinarily beneficial science that helps support the nation and helps provide solutions to societal problems,” says Robert Webb of his staff. Webb is the lab director of the Physical Sciences Division (PSD) of the Earth System Research Laboratory.

“So there’s a responsibility by the employees to be accountable to society, but then we should be recognizing [them] for the advancements that they’re making,” he adds.

As part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Webb’s laboratory analyzes and interprets processes that affect weather and climate. One-third of the lab’s efforts is focused on observations and data collection—such as measuring sea spray as it is produced in hurricanes and how it transfers energy and builds up the strength of the storm—while the rest of the lab’s work is directed at data analysis and computer modeling.

The research engineers and scientists in the PSD, in large part, focus on weather forecasting and predicting and understanding climate. The lab utilizes about 40 NOAA federal employees, 70 university cooperative institute employees, and an ensemble of contractors and other experts, bringing the group to a total of about 140 people.

Together, the team publishes about 70 peer-reviewed papers each year and is continuously collecting measurements in a profile of the atmosphere by dropping small instruments with parachutes out of planes and, in turn, generating terabytes of computer model simulation data.

“[We’re not just] sitting in an academic environment—we’re actually a mission agency trying to solve problems and provide solutions for society,” says Webb.

Achieving this volume of work is not a small feat for the team, and Webb is always sure to acknowledge the efforts of his staff.

“I’ve been on the job for a little over a year now, and the primary mechanisms for rewarding staff are through a combination of Department of Commerce and NOAA internal rewards, in addition to nominating staff for professional society awards,” he says. “So NOAA has the administrator’s awards, which are recognizing activities that relay directly to NOAA’s mission, and then we have Department of Commerce–level awards, which are recognizing a much higher profile.”

Examples are NOAA’s highest honor awards, the gold and silver medals, which are awarded each year by the Secretary of Commerce and recognize individuals or teams who make notable contributions.

Within the oceanic and atmospheric research line office that Webb and his staff are in, there’s also a recognition process for papers, where they nominate outstanding articles. The goal is to give the researchers a sense of value and to really promote their science to help develop a unique sensor that can then be used to help advance NOAA’s mission.

“I think the private sector drives things much more with monetary rewards than we’re able to do within the federal government, and so we try to provide rewards that are more satisfying than monetary ones,” Webb says.

One example of a reward that Webb has set in place is for numerical weather and climate modelers and researchers primarily involved with data analysis. He wants to allow them to participate as observers in field campaigns in order for them to get a better understanding of the difficult conditions under which field scientists generate and collect actual observational data.

“So [an example of] this is getting people out in the NOAA P3, which is the same plane as a hurricane hunter uses,” Webb says. “[When] these large streams or atmospheric rivers come crashing into the West Coast, we drop samples and we have our engineers and our field scientists there, but we also put some of our very high-performing numerical modelers and data diagnosticians on the planes [to give them] an opportunity to see and do something very different.”

Another way Webb rewards employees is through time off. When an employee has been working an unusually large number of hours, those in charge augment the amount of vacation hours by allowing that person to take off an additional day or two so that he or she can recover—whether that means mowing the lawn that has been neglected for days or simply time for the employee to collect his or her thoughts and recharge.

Providing supplemental vacation days is one tactic that Michael Furrey, owner of Agra Environmental and Laboratory Services (AELS) in New Jersey, also employs to keep his staff satisfied. “Time off is a very effective reward policy,” he says. “Our employees respond well to a day off to do something that is fun and relaxing. They feel like Agra cares about them and they return [with] a positive [and] helpful attitude toward their co-workers and the clients.”

AELS is a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection–certified laboratory serving 400 public and private clients across the state. The lab staff provides drinking water and wastewater services for compliance with all federal and state regulations. The lab also provides certified water operators and consulting compliance services. Together, the staff of just 25 processes about 1,000 samples each month. This type of workload can wear on such a small staff. For this reason, Furrey is always looking for creative ways to show his appreciation and to build a sense of teamwork.

“We have rewarded employees by taking them on one-day trips, such as to Six Flags Great Adventure, on boat rides around Manhattan, and to Christmas bowling parties,” he says. We also provide bonuses if employees go out of their way to obtain a license or a certificate of completion for learning new equipment.”

Furrey also rewards his staff by nominating them for industry awards and encouraging them to present at conferences and seminars, an activity that not only allows the team members to share their work and ideas but also helps the company keep up with advances in the field. He also provides positive feedback when he believes a person has done outstanding work, a tactic that he believes helps instill the overarching goal of the company.

“Agra provides a healthy and positive work environment and emphasizes the fact that we are in the public health field protecting the public from environmental hazards and dangers,” he says. “This is a very rewarding aspect of the job, since [the employees] are considered stewards of the environment.”

Nicole Adams, lab manager at life sciences company Chromocell Corporation, also believes that providing a constructive environment is key to maintaining talent within the workplace. At her organization, the seven laboratories focus on food and flavors, in addition to molecular biology, cell production, assay development, high-throughput screening, and synthetic chemistry. These processes operate smoothly thanks to the efforts of about 50 employees who are treated equally by management, a recognition style that Adams believes leads to the success of the company.

“Here at Chromocell, we refer to everyone as team members and not employees, and whether they are part-time or full-time, everyone has the same designation,” she says. “So it’s kind of immediate recognition, being part of the group.”

At her company, team members who excel are given new challenges, which means better recognition within the company and within the industry. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to have a junior-level person leading a project or being in the initial stages of establishing a project. This autonomy and room for growth allow employees to feel appreciated for the hard work they’ve put in.

Although Chromocell does not provide monetary rewards or time off, management takes time to ensure that they show their appreciation.

“In our weekly laboratory meetings, our CEO always kicks off the meeting, and if there’s someone who needs to be recognized, he always calls them out and gives them a heartfelt thank-you and all that,” Adams says. “People really respond well to even the smallest show of recognition, and it’s not the size of the recognition but the fact [that they’re being recognized], and I really do think it works well.”

The company also allows employees to attend one industry meeting each year and offers partial tuition reimbursement. Additionally, all staff members, including part-time members, are offered 401(k) benefits. Management also hosts several parties and barbecues in an effort to provide generous universal rewards to the team.

The company's approach to recognition is unilateral; and other than the verbal gratitude expressed in meetings, management very rarely singles people out for positive or negative reasons. “This," Adams says, "prevents the ‘teacher’s pet’ syndrome.”

To support this idea of team recognition, Chromocell management provides free lunch to its staff every day. “That’s to reward everyone for working so hard, coming in from all the different directions where they may live,” Adams says.

Adams, who has worked for other organizations, believes this group recognition and reward style works best for her company, inspiring in everyone a very strong drive to produce for the team.

“Chromocell has a lot of very hardworking people, and I really do believe their efforts are relative to the amount of connection they feel with their jobs and the people around them,” she says.

No matter the approach, valuing good effort and exceptional scientific contribution increases satisfaction and, ultimately, productivity in employees, an important and universal factor leading to the success of any organization, including laboratories.