Today's employers are keen to keep their staff happy. But is that for our benefit - or for theirs? asks Rada Petrovic
LAST WINTER I was having twice-weekly physiotherapy at the expense of the company I worked for. The sessions were fantastically distressing - a knot-busting mix of massage and acupuncture, with some work counselling thrown in. However, relaxation and keeping my spirits up in the post-Christmas dead zone wasn't the point of them - each pounds 33 session was to keep my Repetitive Strain-Injured arm out of a sling, my fingers on the keyboard and myself producing the goods.

The ironic thing about paying pounds 66-a-week over the course of six months for this therapy is that it amounted to much more than the cost of the new chair, which would have not only stopped my arm seizing up in the first place, but also kept me happy and productive.

Employment agency Office Angels has just released the results of a survey on how companies can keep staff motivated during winter when Seasonal Affective Disorder - that harbinger of absenteeism and demotivation - strikes. Recommendations to no doubt shell-shocked clients include employing masseurs and physiotherapists, applying Feng Shui principles in the office space, having dress down days, away days, and installing daylight bulbs.

Being in the "people business", Office Angels is probably more enlightened than your average PLC about the importance of keeping employees happy - and therefore at their desks rather than shopping illicitly down the King's Road. "One company had building work going on over the summer," says Sarah El-Doori, press officer for Office Angels, "so, as a sweetener, they put water coolers in each office. When the building work was finished, they took out the coolers. The response from employees was phenomenal - people actually felt incredibly resentful; they felt that their company didn't care about them."

Obviously, keeping employee morale high isn't just a seasonal pursuit, it's an an all-year-round thing. And the tricks employers use to keep their staff feeling cossetted don't necessarily have to be expensive. "Anything we suggest, says El-Doori, "like the use of plants and flowers, are things that are easy to do and not very expensive for companies to implement."

A few well-placed lilies are all very nice as a midwinter pick-me-up, but they smack of corporate transparency when compared to an a trans-Atlantic Christmas shopping weekend. Peter Fulbrook took his entire staff (OK, there are only 10 of them) on said trip last week. "We got this big stretch limo at the airport - to be honest it didn't cost much, in fact probably less than three taxis would have done. But the reason for doing it was that we thought everyone would get a kick out of it."

Before you start asking yourself why you're not working for these people, I ought to point out that the trip wasn't entirely a goodwill freebie. "We decided that, if as a group we achieved our objectives for the financial year, we'd take everyone to New York. It was based on the performance of the business and people's individual performance."

Fulbrook admits that he particularly has to practise what he preaches because performance improvement is Prosell's business - he advises companies on how to improve interaction between people through courses and seminars. The people in question are all those who have a bearing on that company's success, be it suppliers, customers as well as the staff. The next seminar is called "Competitive Advantage Through People". It will try to educate managers on how to "reinforce the business philosophy in visible, tangible and practical ways", and its recommendations are pretty much in line with those sent out by Office Angels.

"What UK companies are doing is using fewer people to achieve more over a shorter period of time," says Fulbrook. "It's really a case of squeezing the pips out of people. At all levels, people's effectiveness is under threat - you can see how their health and relationships are suffering. Employers should care about disloyalty, low productivity, stress and absenteeism as they end up being a massive cost to companies."

The other problem with unhappy employees is that a company's reputation will start to suffer, first within its industry, then outside it. "Customer loyalty is affected by all the usual things - price, convenience, service - but also by its own loyalty to people. Customers are loyal to organisations of similar beliefs, just as staff are. How a company is perceived to operate is much more important than it used to be."

A key area of Prosell's work is advising the new crop of call centre companies who have higher-than-average levels of stress, demotivation and flagging morale among employees - the negative effects of which are felt directly by the public. (Hands up anyone who's encountered a cranky operator and wondered whether to go back to BT after all.) Call centres crystallise the problem of maintaining morale - a problem endemic to corporate culture, but which has tended, till now, to slide by unnoticed outside the service sector.

Last month, the Centre for Tomorrow's Company released an interesting report by the RSA (the quaintly-named Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) on how the successful companies of tomorrow will be those which pay proper attention to their employees, suppliers, customers and the community at large. The report warned that multiple wake-up calls to companies weren't being heard, and said somewhat apocalyptically that "Tomorrow's Company would recognise that failure to exploit the enthusiasm and inventiveness of employees is a key element of industrial waste".

Sir Stuart Hampton, who contributed to the report, is chairman for both the Centre for Tomorrow's Company and the John Lewis Partnership. Despite its fuddy-duddy image, John Lewis is a blueprint for Tomorrow's Company. Spedan Lewis, the son of the founder, drew up a futuristic constitution which contained mission statements such as "The Partnership's ultimate aim shall be the happiness in every way of its members" and "The Partnership shall recognise that only fools put business too far before pleasure, especially health and happiness, and that there is almost infinite scope for imagination and energy in the promotion of happiness in the more important sense of that word."

Spedan Lewis wasn't just being philanthropic. He recognised that unhappy staff would impact directly on sales on the shop floor. "We are in this role for the long term," echoed JLP chairman Sir Stuart Hampton, "and I am absolutely convinced that the only way to sustain success is to have a company with a happy workforce. Do they come in just for their pay or do they come in because they identify with the business?" Obviously the latter, as staff turnover is lower than at any other retail company. And if they survive five years, they actually have a job for life.

The John Lewis Partnership is a bit of an odd one. It has a rigid corporate hierarchy, but is as close as you'll get to an industrial democracy. Employees, like directors, are partners, who all have an automatic stake in the company, are privy to its books, and share 35 per cent of annual profits at a fixed percentage (the remaining 65 per cent being ploughed back into the business - no PLC here).

The Gazette is the in-house magazine which publishes anonymous letters criticising the company - in fact, there are rules about not trying to find out who the authors are. Along with council meetings and more localised branch councils, the channels of communication between employees, managers and board are kept quite anarchically open.

Partners also have some very tangible evidence of how their company wants them to be happy. These take the form of three ocean-going yachts, where, for a pounds 1 annual subscription to the sailing club, partners can go yachting for pounds 13 on a weekend.

Next year, the company is leasing Lundy Island for two weeks to provide subsidised holidays for partners, in case they'd rather not go to Brownsea Island again this year. There are half-price theatre tickets, three golf courses, a camp site, and the annual profit bonuses, which vary according to yearly profits. "If we're doing well," says Greg Williams of John Lewis, "there's a reward for it in March. Equally we understand that when things are tough, there's no surprise at the final outcome. But knowing that your own job contributes, that money is coming back to you, makes a difference."

Still, walk through the corridors of head office at the John Lewis Partnership and you'll probably come across a sign by a light switch saying, "Switch off this light, you're burning my bonus." Proving that there's no such thing as a free flower.