It isn’t always easy to find the right way to reward an employee. Although handing out a bonus would be appreciated by anyone, depending on your budget, that may not always be realistic. Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to reward employees without spending a small fortune.
1. Offer positive feedback.
“It may seem obvious, but many managers underestimate the value of giving positive feedback to their team members. This no-cost approach can be very affirming and motivating for employees at any level,” says Anne Eidelman, Chief Experience Officer at FOUNT Global, Inc, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company focused on reducing work friction. (FOUNT Global is a subsidiary of TI People.)
Eidelman says that the positive feedback strategy is part of FOUNT Global’s corporate culture. “When we gather for all-hands video calls, we’ve instituted time for informal shout outs where team members can recognize each other and share stories that surprise and delight everyone,” Eidelman says. “Employees have remarked that it’s become the best part of their week and they could really feel the love and energy across time zones.”
2. Free food.
“Having been a business owner and entrepreneur for 16 years, I can vouch that offering small perks, such as free snacks or coffee, can help boost employee morale,” says Tommy Mellow, founder of A1 Garage Door Service, which was founded in 2007 and has approximately 100 employees.
“These types of perks may seem small, but they can make a big difference in how employees feel about their job and their employer,” Mellow says.
He says he’ll often have snacks in the company breakroom, an assortment of fresh fruits, granola bars, nuts, popcorn, and trail mix, along with chips and baked goods (although not all at once). He generally has granola bars on hand and offers more snacks on Fridays.
Obviously, you don’t have to go nuts with nuts and other foods when it comes to employee rewards, but something to keep everybody’s energy up, or the occasional treat, can be well received.
3. Bring in a food truck.
Do you really want to make an impression on your in-house team? Kamyar Shah, CEO of World Consulting Group in Los Angeles, says, “If you have a large organization and want to make a big difference to many employees at once, bring in a morale-boosting food truck – or a few – to your parking lot for lunch hour.”
4. Wish your employees a happy birthday.
Consider giving your employees a birthday card with a gift card inside. If you have 100 employees, you’re going to have trouble remembering everyone's birthday, but you can also sign up for an automated employee rewards programs that will do it for you.
"When we gather for all-hands video calls, we’ve instituted time for informal shout outs where team members can recognize each other and share stories that surprise and delight everyone." —Anne Eidelman, Chief Experience Officer, FOUNT Global, Inc.
5. Give employees a day off on their birthdays.
It may or may not be practical for your company, but if you really want to give your employees a nice birthday gift, tell them to go and do something fun.
“A simple but easy reward is giving your employees their birthdays off. Coming to work on your birthday is kind of a bummer,” Shah says. “Most people would rather be at home with their friends and family for a birthday celebration. Allow them this simple luxury and they’ll really appreciate it.”
6. Let your employees work from home.
Assuming you don’t already have your employees working from home, this can be a welcome perk.
“Commutes are a pain and eliminating it for even one day a week can be a big boost,” Shah says.
7. Give your employee the best parking spot for a month.
If your employees aren't working remotely, offer them a convenient place to park. This is one of those classic employee incentive gifts, where an employee does excellent work and then gets one of the best parking spaces in your company's lot. You could even give them your space for a month, if the employee is doing exceptional work.
It’s the sort of gesture, Shah says, “that lets an overachieving employee know that’s their work is noticed.”
8. Throw a party.
You'll want to be a little careful here: if your employees feel that they're barely making enough and you throw a fancy party somewhere, they may feel resentful. But if your employees are well-compensated, they are probably just going to see a fancy party as a fun perk.
If your budget is too small for a big party, your company party don’t have to be expensive. You could have a company picnic at a park, impromptu birthday parties in the breakroom (if you aren’t giving the employee a day off), or parties to celebrate an employee’s work anniversary. However it’s handled, the goal should be to show your employees that you appreciate them.
9. Give out gift cards.
Hand out $25 in cash, and employees are may think, "Really? That's it?" But a $25 gift card to a favorite coffeehouse or retailer can feel generous.
Eidelman says that FOUNT’s managers will some times give employees $25 gift cards for meal or grocery delivery, usually after someone finishes a big project. She says that they’ll generally include a note that reads something like, “Thanks! Please let FOUNT buy you dinner for a job well done.”
“These gestures help employees feel seen and appreciated,” Eidelman says. “And managers have even received pictures of the person's delicious meal.”
10. Offer flexible work schedules.
“A while back, I was helping out a tech startup struggling with high turnover. Despite fair salaries and occasional bonuses, talented individuals were leaving. So we decided to get creative. We brought in flexible work schedules to accommodate varied lifestyles,” Banias says.
Banias says that the tech startup changed its hours pretty radically, without hurting the company.
“Some employees were parents who valued being able to be there for school drop-offs and pick-ups. Others were night owls, most productive when the sun was down,” Banias says. The company accommodated everyone’s need for different hours. “This tweak didn't cost the company much, but it cultivated a sense of trust and autonomy among the team.”
11. Show your employees that you care about their health.
If extending the company health plan is too much for your budget, consider offering paid gym memberships. Not everybody will appreciate that, but for an employee who wants to get healthier but can’t justify the cost of a gym, that could be very generous reward.
“These gestures underline the company’s commitment to its employees’ well-being,” Banias says.
12. Help an employee do better at their job.
Helping your employees can help your business. Ari Chazanas is the president and CEO of Lotus West Properties, a property management, development, and investment firm founded in 1999. He says, “I've never been a fan of handing out bonuses or perks just because. I think that if you're going to do it, you should do it because you want to help your employees grow and improve their lives. If you want to reward them for doing well in their work, then you should recognize them when they succeed and help them build on that success.”
Chazanas says that if somebody really has flourished on a project, he’ll talk to them about what they did well and how they can incorporate those skills into future projects. "Or if someone has been struggling with something, I'll find ways for them to get some extra support, so they can get better at it without feeling like they’re being penalized,” Chazanas says.
13. Pay for training.
Another way to help people do their jobs better is to offer to pay for training, the type that will help employees further their career, such as when they take a professional development course or get a certificate that they need to do their jobs better, whether at your company or another one.
However, if you give people training that everybody at the company has to do, like learning a new communications or messaging platform, that’s hardly a reward. In that case, after they finish the training, you might want to reward them with a gift card or free food.
14. Organize team building activities.
Andrew Pickett, a trial attorney with his own firm, Andrew Pickett Law, in Melbourne, Florida, says that he has had a lot of luck taking employees bowling or doing outdoor sports.
“I didn't find that these cost a lot of money, but they did contribute to fostering a better team dynamic and made employees feel appreciated,” Pickett says.
15. Say “thank you.”
It may not seem like much of a reward, but sometimes – especially if you are making an effort to reward your staff and let them know they’re valued – a thank you can make all the difference between a frustrated employee and an appreciated employee who wants to stick around.
Just tell your employee that you appreciate what they’re doing. If you're sincere, they’ll know it – and probably feel a surge of appreciation for the company.
Still, when it comes to offering low costs rewards to your employees, “it’s crucial to remember that every business is unique,” Banias says. “What worked for that tech startup might not be the right fit for a traditional law firm or a busy restaurant. It boils down to understanding your team and their needs, then customizing incentives to match.”
A version of this article was originally published on March 22, 2011.
Photo: Getty Images