Editor's Note: This is a true-life agriculture example of how an employer can make it more enjoyable to work for a company and how a small-scale national program can inspire certain workers. Not all employees appreciate the same things, and having a variety of incentives in which to be involved will hit home with different segments of workers who have individual personalities.



It started innocently enough: A postcard announcing a cartoon caption-writing contest for the 2009 DuPont Cimarron Family Calendar dropped on Michael Economopoulos' desk. "Looks like fun," he thought, so he scanned the postcard describing the contest and e-mailed it to his 15 corporate office employees, encouraging them to unleash their creativity by creating captions for the calendar illustration.



The DuPont Cimarron Family Calendar features a different amusing bovine-themed illustration each month. The contest asked entrants to write dialogue for a similar illustration showing two cows engaged in conversation at a fence. The trick was to make the cows' comments relevant to DuPont Cimarron brand herbicides, which control weeds and brush in pasture and rangeland. The winning caption would appear on the September page of the 2009 calendar.



Economopoulos, president of Progressive Solutions, LLC, a company based in Marshall, Ark., that provides vegetation management services to customers in 20 southeastern states, received one caption entry. That staff member received $15 in "bonus bucks"-good toward the purchase of company logo merchandise.



But Economopoulos thought he could gain more participation by creating a little more friendly competition within his team. So he re-sent the e-mail invitation to enter the internal contest and extended the response deadline. This time, he received 15 entries, with several employees submitting multiple captions.



"We posted them all on the wall and took comments from people," Economopoulos recalls. "It was something to liven up the workplace, to have a little bit of fun."



One entry stood out, and Economopoulos submitted it to the DuPont contest. Several weeks later, he was notified that the submission, written by Kathy Derden, had won the national DuPont contest. Her winning caption:



Cow 1: "You're a gourmet. What do you think of this grass?"
Cow 2: "This Cimarron Plus treated pasture has a lovely bouquet, with a hint of clover and no thistle aftertaste."



"We made an announcement over the PA system, and everybody was thrilled," says Economopoulos. "People enter contests all the time with no expectation of winning, although I did think ours was a good entry." For her caption, Derden won $25 in company bonus bucks, and the employees who submitted multiple entries each won $10 in bonus bucks. For winning the DuPont Cimarron Family Calendar contest, Progressive Solutions won the framed original cartoon artwork signed by artist Stephen Soeffing.



Increasing staff interaction, knowledge
Rallying his staff to submit entries for the caption contest is only one of a number of relationship-building activities Economopoulos has used to engage his staff over the years. Monthly birthday parties, "Biggest Loser"-style weight-loss contests, extra time to work out at the gym, and smoking cessation programs are just some of the ways Economopoulos has helped increase office camaraderie while improving employee health and wellness.



"We have a very hardworking staff," he explains. "Because our work as applicators is seasonal, we have 250 employees out spraying and we go full tilt from April to November. There's a lot of work to be done, so we try to break things up." For example, Economopoulos is purchasing Hawaiian shirts for employees to wear on Hawaiian Shirt Fridays.



Economopoulos also wants his corporate staff to be smart about the application business. A recent field trip took office staff into the field to experience application work firsthand.



"We use backpack sprayers and do hand application," says Economopoulos. "Some of the office staff put on backpacks and sprayed alongside our workers. These types of activities give our staff a well-rounded view and appreciation for the difficult work we do in the field."



Networking opportunities
Employees attend state Vegetation Management Association meetings where they staff the Progressive Solutions booth and meet and talk with customers.



Economopoulos also encourages his staff to attend one or two seminars annually that will provide a direct benefit for them in their jobs, such as computer or management skills classes. "Not only does this get the staff out and about and provides opportunities and tools to help them become better at their particular jobs," says Economopoulos, "but it allows them to network with other people."



Economopoulos says his penchant for discovering new ways to promote staff engagement, wellness and professional development pays off. "Every now and then we need to do something to relieve the stress and bring a smile to everyone's face."



A colorful Hawaiian shirt doesn't hurt, either.