Eight proven ways to reward your workers without busting the budget

Did you ever hear that adage about our people being our greatest asset?

Sounds kind of corny, right? It also happens to be true.

But how do you keep good employees happy, motivated, and performing at their best? How do they become loyal enough to say no when headhunters start calling? How do you get them to buy into your big vision for the company?

Sure there are the obvious tactics: increased salaries, nice year-end bonuses, or free medical coverage. You could even announce that the office will be closed the last 10 days of the year.

As someone who regards himself as a generous boss, I’ve tried and taken many of those steps for my staff. They can be tangible proof that your company rewards its hard-working employees, and can also be a great recruiting and retention tool.

But they can just as often backfire, like when employees take their year-end bonus and then give you two-weeks notice at the start of the next year. Or when you’ve given a big bump in compensation to a star employee, then word gets around, and now everyone seems to be clamoring for a raise.

So how do you reward employees, help them grow professionally, and help them contribute in positive ways to your business, without breaking the bank?

In my book, it starts by putting yourself in the shoes of your employees. Get in touch with your own early career memories of being overworked, underappreciated, and underpaid.

At startups, most people sign up for something that’s a lot more than just a paycheck. And that gives you a license to reward your workforce in ways that most corporate bosses could never do. Hint: it’s a lot more than letting them telecommute once in a while.

Here are my favorite ways to give props economically or, in many cases, for free:

1. Let them take the lead. I recently got back from an out-of-state business pitch, and a lot was on the line. I’m a pretty good presenter, but I deliberately handed the mouse to a trusted employee and allowed him to drive the meeting. We won the business.

2. Ask their opinion. Rather than tell people what to do, first ask their opinion of a situation. Although you might not always follow their advice, listening to their point of view helps everyone come up with the best solution.

3. Buy them lunch. Having beverages and snacks around the office is now pretty much a given. But telling employees they can order up lunch from their favorite restaurant is not. Try it, and see their reaction.

4. Introduce them to your network. Make a list of the people who have positively impacted your career, be they former bosses, colleagues, or employees. Ask them to speak before your company and share their expertise. Everyone benefits because it’s more affordable and memorable than boring training sessions. As a bonus, your team sees the bonds you’ve built with the people who came before you.

5. Invite them over to your home. I remember a boss I didn’t really like. When he invited me over to his home to meet his family, my attitude toward him suddenly changed. I saw him in a different, far more human light.

6. Order the office to play hooky. I’ve sponsored my share of off-site events for my team, including expensive out-of-state retreats in beautiful hotels that include catered meals, massage treatments, and group activities. No mas. Last month, as an employee initiative, we closed the office on a Wednesday afternoon and all went for burgers and beers and then saw Jurassic World. I ended up using it as an opportunity to catch up on some sleep, and awoke surrounded by happy co-workers watching the closing credits.

7. Come bearing gifts. When I worked at the ad agency Gitam/BBDO in Israel 20 years ago, every Passover and Rosh Hashana employees were asked to choose from a selection of gift options. One year, I chose a modest, yet sleek silverware set. When I opened the drawer this weekend to make my son lunch, I spotted a fork and a spoon from those years, and it brought a smile to my face.

8. Tell them they do a great job. Offer praise when it’s due. While a parent’s love is unconditional, your praise as a boss is actually very conditional and needs to be specific and genuine. I worked harder than I ever worked in my career for a boss who used to leave me handwritten notes commending me on a job well done. I knew he meant it, and it motivated me more than a few extra shekels ever could have.

The bottom line: it pays to show people they matter.

Photo credit: Lauren Kallen

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