The ROI of gratitude: how Betabrand gets it right

A couple of hours before the store opens, the employees of Betabrand shuffle into their headquarters in San Francisco’s Mission District. There’s not much in the way of seating on the retail floor, so the staff tuck themselves between racks of sideways-corduroy jeans, executive hoodies, and even dress pant yoga pants.

They’re gathered for the weekly all-hands meeting. It proceeds as most company-wide sessions do: There is PowerPoint, talk of upcoming products, an assessment of store and website traffic, etc. But as the meeting draws to a close, Rabekah Ringbom, Betabrand’s HR & Operations Manager, stands up and scans the faces of everyone assembled: “Does anyone have Props this week?”

The “Props” ritual is Betabrand’s way of expressing gratitude to its employees, and is a regular terminus to this weekly congregation. One by one, hands rise into the air and Betabrand’s staffers share tales of appreciation for another teammate’s work. One employee is commended for her marketing efforts in the previous week. Another earns a heartfelt tribute for two years of remarkable contributions. Yet another is lauded for portraying a “convincing devil” in a recent photoshoot for the website.

The “Props” ritual is Betabrand’s way of expressing gratitude to its employees, and is a regular terminus to this weekly congregation.

The deserving recipients of Props are also rewarded with a gift card to a local business. Boba, coffee, and cold-pressed juice are among the spoils. After a short burst of applause the meeting is over. But why does Betabrand do this? And why would a company reward employees for doing what they’re already paid to do?

The key to building trust is gratitude

“Props was borne out of feedback surveys,” explains Rabekah. These surveys are distributed regularly at Betabrand, and the management pays careful attention to them. “Employees were feeling under-appreciated and there wasn’t a clear way to acknowledge others.” Rabekah has experience with “gratitudes and intentions” from previous work. She thought it could be useful at Betabrand.

Props isn’t just about collecting swag. “Giving gift cards is nice, but it’s more than that. It’s about making a statement. It’s about helping employees feel publicly acknowledged,” shares Rabekah. “The key to building trust is gratitude.”

That there is good in the world is where the definition of gratitude begins, according to Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at University of California Davis. According to his research, practicing gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%. And in a 2002 paper, Emmons et. al. found gratitude to be “positively correlated with Agreeableness, Extraversion, and Conscientiousness.”

But only 10% of adults say thanks to a colleague every day. In light of the overwhelming research demonstrating the value of gratitude in the workplace, that’s a paltry portion.

After all, it’s not just the recipient that benefits. People who express thanks and appreciation regularly can enjoy less stress, get more restful sleep, and might even find improvements in their physical health. Managers have reason to celebrate too:

“Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania randomly divided university fundraisers into two groups. One group made phone calls to solicit alumni donations in the same way they always had. The second group — assigned to work on a different day — received a pep talk from the director of annual giving, who told the fundraisers she was grateful for their efforts. During the following week, the university employees who heard her message of gratitude made 50% more fundraising calls than those who did not.”  – Giving thanks can make you happier, Harvard Health

So even productivity can be positively affected by a culture of gratitude in the workplace. Perhaps the most impressive win for employers is found in one of their toughest challenges: employee retention.

More than breakroom cupcakes

At Betabrand, CFO James Tagliani is spearheading a new program that’s a big bet on keeping employees sticking around for a long time. “We found out at a company Happy Hour about a year ago, that a lot of our employees had never traveled abroad or even left the country.” That revelation led to the development of the FlyAway program: where Betabrand selects an employee and sends them anywhere they want in the world, for free.

“We worked with Capital One to get a Spark card. It gives us two miles for every dollar spent. And we put all our expenses on this card. We’re accruing a huge amount of miles, which end up paying for a lot of these trips.” So far these miles have transported Betabrand staff to places like Iceland, Tokyo, Paris, Ireland, and a new trip happens every month or so.

Even at companies much larger than Betabrand, this would be a remarkable perk. Employees can go wherever they want—even to visit a relative—and their teammates even help them fundraise for ancillary costs of the trip.

James sees tremendous value in getting the staff airborne. “It’s a really fantastic moment for the company, where every six weeks we have this big reveal. My boss likes to call them ‘Oprah Moments.’ To see how grateful they are to have this experience is awesome.”

In a sense, Betabrand has crafted a perfect feedback loop of gratitude. The employees are grateful to an employer that recognizes them for their hard work and contributions, and in turn, employees like James work hard to make sure everyone has an opportunity to participate and benefit from this program.

“It’s a lot of work to put all the trips together. I’m even driving people to the passport office. It’s a lot of time and energy, but it’s the best time and energy I spend in the month. It really is giving back to someone who puts so much of themselves into the company.”

Every six weeks we have this big reveal. My boss likes to call them ‘Oprah Moments.’

After Props, there is a palpable sense of energy as the entire company emerges from the retail stacks and gets back to work. Along with the rest of the management, James Tagliani seems to intuitively understand the power gratitude has keep employees happy and motivated.

“I’ve been with a ton of very big companies that think that if you put cupcakes in the meeting room you’ll retain your talent. It doesn’t work.”

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