Take a moment to consider the term 'employee incentives.' Like many of us, you may immediately envision the stable of chefs that cook made-to-order meals at well-known tech firms, or the all-expense-paid, performance-based trips to beach destinations gifted by companies with large budgets. These flashy employee incentive programs often make the business trades (and can improve company rankings on annual 'best places to work' lists), but they are rarely accessible to small-business owners.
The good news: Business owners don't need big budgets to keep employees incentivized to do good work. In many cases, they don't need a budget for employee incentives at all.
Below are a few employee incentive ideas that can help cash-strapped entrepreneurs keep staffers happy and motivated at the office.
1. Write a Note
Hop on over to your local greeting card store and purchase a package of thank you notes. Keep them in your desk and make a point to notice when an employee pitches in without being asked, does more their job description or completes a task with a great attitude.
“Then give them a handwritten thank you card," recommends Jessica Haefke, president and CMO of FoodVacBags.com, an e-commerce company based in Wisconsin. “Just recognizing what someone did in a personal and positive way can be a huge incentive to come to work. It can help people feel great about their jobs and want to work harder."
Pro tip: Cards that serve as excellent employee incentives include at least two or three written sentences (not just “thanks") by the boss. Gear the note directly to that person, and if they are open to public displays of appreciation, bring up their good deed at the next staff meeting.
2. Have Fun
One of the ways Lisa I. Perez, president of HBL Resources, Inc., an HR consulting firm in Florida, has shown her appreciation is by creating what she calls a 'lifesaver program.'
“When employees go above and beyond; when they pick up extra shifts or stay a little late, a handwritten note and a roll of Lifesaver candies can go a long way to letting them know they were a 'Lifesaver!'" she says. “What's even better is taking a picture for social media so they can be publicly recognized—provided the employee likes the limelight."
Perez will also stop by the local grocery store on the way to work and pick up cupcakes when she thinks someone deserves to be acknowledged. “I'll put the cupcake on their desk with a note that simply says, 'You take the cake!'" she says. “People really appreciate the effort."
3. Start Small
Creating competitive games can be a fun way to get employees engaged. And when it comes to prizes, just look in your office closet or right outside the window, suggests Haefke.
Just recognizing what someone did in a personal and positive way can be a huge incentive to come to work. It can help people feel great about their jobs and want to work harder.
—Jessica Haefke, president and CMO, FoodVacBags.com
“Think about what you already have at your fingertips, like company swag—shirts, pens, coffee mugs," she says. “You can also gift high-performing employees a great parking spot for a month. It's amazing what people will do to be closer to an office building, especially if it is too hot or cold outside."
4. Customize the Prize
The best employee incentives are tailored to the staffer. If you decide to offer remote work as an incentive to an employee that doesn't have a great home situation, they may not appreciate the gesture. The same goes for handing a gift certificate for coffee to an employee who is allergic.
“Get to know your employees so you can know how to best incentivize them," Haefke says. “If you run a big company, talk to their direct managers or their peers to get ideas on what incentives would make the most sense to each individual."
Photo: Getty Images