Weird ways to make work wonderful

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(MoneyWatch) Every leader in every company struggles with ways to make work more engaging. It's always hard to find great people and is vital to keep them, since internal hires tend to be more successful than external ones. So once you've handed out the employee of the week/month/year badges, what can you do to enliven the daily grind? Here are some ideas:

Encourage creativity. Creative people get ideas by watching what other creative people make. That means they are productive to the degree that they have the time and opportunity to have a life. SHIFT Communications reimburses each employee $100 per year when they attend Broadway shows, sporting adventures or go to the opera. It's a great way of making sure no one gets stale; creativity feeds on creativity. And companies don't have idea -- people do.

Meeting-free days. Incessant meetings are the one reason invariably given when people explain why they left their jobs to work for themselves. So reward employees with one day a week when there won't be any meetings. Mondays are popular choices because everyone can start the week by being productive; other companies prefer Fridays because people leave feeling their work has been finished and they're free for the weekend. Whichever you prefer - it costs nothing and gains a lot.

Productivity software maker Do.com (recently acquired by Salesforce.com) goes one step further: It has no meetings at all -- just a show-and-tell session on Mondays. That's it. The company also provides a catered lunch four days a week and a staff-built jukebox with everyone's favorite tunes.

Get to know everyone. At financial tracking site Credit Karma, employees come from all over the U.S. but need to get to know one another. To foster a sense of camaraderie, the company hosts weekly game nights with computer and board games, and also hosts movie nights. That means people get to know each other well beyond the transactional relationships that work normally develops. These events aren't hugely expensive, but the head of talent at the company, Ragini Parmar, says they make all the difference.

Vacation together. Tech firm ZeroTurnaround took its employees on vacation to Crete for a week last September. Employees from Boston, Prague and Estonia spent a week working in a villa overlooking the Mediterranean, and they now know each other pretty well. Tech recruitment firm Eliassen Group takes everyone in the company -- and their immediate families -- on a cruise if they meet their annual targets. The operative principle: The company's success depends on employees helping each other.

Hold a "bring your pet to work" day. I can't quite explain pet passion, but if my Facebook page is anything to go by people love their pets beyond reason. I'm not sure a lot of work gets done in companies that host such events, but I feel pretty sure employee engagement and communication improves -- as long as there aren't too many dog fights.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.