When money is tight, it’s not always practical, or possible, to give your employees a financial bonus at the end of the year. As such, many employers have had to get creative when it comes to nonmonetary employee rewards. Fortunately, there are a variety of different ways to show your employees how much you appreciate their hard work that don’t involve cash.
From a psychological perspective, money might not even be the best way to motivate people, explains Carl Greenberg, Ph. D., founder of Pragmatic HR. Nonmonetary rewards increase intrinsic motivation within employees; in other words, these types of rewards increase employees’ motivation to work by raising their self-esteem. While financial rewards encourage workers’ externally, nonfinancial rewards can satisfy employees just as well by making them feel like a valued part of an organization and showing them that they are appreciated. “People look at these things more in terms of information about their worth to the company and their ability to achieve and succeed with their goals,” Greenberg says.
The main types of nonmonetary rewards that employees are likely to appreciate most are those that encourage career advancement. That doesn’t necessarily mean promoting someone; there are other ways to advance a career, such as “giving people the opportunity to grow into bigger jobs in the company—developmental opportunities,” says Greenberg. He suggests sending an employee to a conference or training session specific to whatever skill the individual is interested in learning.
Or, you could allow an employee who is interested in transitioning within the company to work on a project where they can gain some exposure to that new area. Greenberg emphasizes the importance of explaining clearly why the employee is being offered this opportunity: "Say, 'You’re really great, and I know you want to move. I’m giving you this opportunity to meet people in [this field] and network.'" Explain how it’s an opportunity to learn new skills.
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You could also offer an employee the chance for some change within their current position, by giving them more autonomy, for example. Tell them that you’re not going to check their work all the time anymore, Greenberg suggests; let them know that they’ll get to do more on their own. Or, give them more responsibility. “That doesn’t necessarily mean a promotion or more pay,” Greenberg says. “But if a person has a job that’s fairly confined, and they’re not overwhelmed, stretch them a little.” Of course, having a formal conversation about these decisions is crucial, so it’s clear that this means they’re good at their job, that you think they are a crucial asset to the business, and that you want to encourage their career track within the company.
“Rewards are in the eye of the beholder,” says Greenberg, so figure out what people value, and give it to them. For many employees, the ability to control their own schedules and have flexible hours might be the most valuable reward you could offer. For others, personal recognition from the top of the company can go a long way, whether in the form of a hand-written note, a face-to-face meeting to say “thank you,” or a small award, like a plaque or trophy, that clearly states why the employee is so valued by your company.
Greenberg shares a story of an acquaintance who recently sat down with the president of the non-profit organization with whom she has a contract. “Not once did the person ever say to her, ‘We really appreciate you being here.’ It’s something simple, but a lot of people don’t take the time to say, ‘Thank you for being here – this company wouldn’t be what it is without you.’”
Even the simplest of appreciative gestures, when sincere and heartfelt, can make an employee feel valued and motivated to continue doing a good job. What matters is “not necessarily the physical reward,” Greenberg says – it’s the sentiments behind it that make a difference.