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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 non-monetary employee rewards. Fortunately, there are multiple 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. Non-monetary 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, non-financial 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 non-monetary 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.”

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.

So how do you keep up if your firm is still facing tough economic conditions? It takes some smart strategizing. Here are some tips from Jill Morin, CEO at Kahler Slater, a Milwaukee design firm that has made it onto the Great Place to Work Institute’s Best Small & Medium Workplaces lists every year since the award was introduced in 2004.

Tie raises to increased responsibility. Kahler Slater has not offered across-the-board salary increases to its staff the past couple of years as it fought its way through tough economic conditions. However, it has given raises to staffers who got promoted and took on more responsibility. The company adjusted their pay to take into account its policy of paying higher-than-market rates to attract better-than-average people, says Morin. For those who already earned more than the market rate, it offered nominal increases to acknowledge their promotions, she says.

Link bonuses to achieving revenue goals. Recognizing that it was important for the team to benefit financially if the firm met its financial goals, Kahler Slater continued to pay bonuses during the recession. Its top executives devised a formula in which bonuses were based on both the company’s achievement of key goals in areas such as revenues and the contributions of its departments and individual employees in meeting those benchmarks. “It’s about succeeding as an organization and going above and beyond,” says Morin.

Explain the company’s financial status clearly. When two employees asked for cost of living raises that the company couldn’t afford, Kahler Slater had to turn them down. Higher ups referred the staffers to financial reports that the company posts online for all of its team to review, helping the employees to understand why they couldn’t get more money at the time. “Both of those people are still with us,” says Morin.

Provide rewards that aren’t just financial. For the creative types that Kahler Slater employs, working isn’t just about earning a paycheck, says Morin. So, while the company takes on “bread and butter” work to pay the bills, it also looks hard for higher-profile projects that will keep its team engaged. “We try to work with clients where staff can do their best work and really shine,” says Morin. “They want to feel they’re contributing to a cause greater than their own career.” Of course, passion doesn’t pay the bills. Strategies like these will get you through tough times, but if hiring picks up, many small companies will have to reinstate traditional raises—or will find themselves with empty desks to fill.

Here are a whopping 51 things you can give your employees that don’t include cutting them a check:

1. Let the employee dump the one project they like least to you.

2. Use of the president’s office for a day.

3. The front parking spot.

4. A handwritten thank you note.

5. Name the conference room or lounge after them.

6. Inviting their spouse in for a lunch on the company.

7. A reserved parking spot.

8. A video game for the employee to give to their child.

9. A vacation day.

10. Brand-new desk, chair, or other piece of office furniture.

11. Bouquet of flowers.

12. Prepare a short video montage that celebrates the employee’s accomplishments.

13. A public thank you.

14. Send a birthday card to them at their home address.

15. Pay for them to take a fun class, such as cooking or skydiving.

16. Find something they like to collect, such as stamps or coins, and give them one for their collection.

17. Let them suggest a way they would like to be recognized.

18. Write a note to their family, sharing how important the person’s contribution to the company has been.

19. Keep the break room stocked with their favorite drink or snack.

20. Buy them tickets to a concert, show or other event.

21. Give them a small gift card from their favorite store.

22. Pick up a book or CD for them by their favorite author or artist.

23. Pick up the tab for them to have a family portrait taken.

24. Pay for their child to go to camp.

25. Buy a few extra boxes of Girl Scout Cookies from their daughter.

26. Give them a pair of movie tickets.

27. Help them with gas prices by giving them a gas card.

28. Provide them with a formal letter of appreciation for their personal file.

29. Create a “day pass” that they can turn in to take any day off, no questions asked.

30. Find a deal on a couple of three-day cruise tickets and set them up with a short vacation.

31. Allow them to be flexible with their hours.

32. Let them choose one day a week to work from home.

33. Have a birthday cake delivered to the office on their birthday.

34. Get each employee to write something positive about the person on a piece of paper, and give them the box of collected sayings, or frame them for the employee.

35. Start a company “Wall of Fame” and add them to it.

36. Find out what they are passionate about and give them a gift that relates to it.

37. Create and give them an award that they can keep and frame for a job well done.

38. Surprise them with an outdoor catered picnic.

39. Have a mobile car wash come to the business and clean their vehicle.

40. Get them a subscription to their favorite magazine.

41. Pay for a membership in a trade association of their choice.

42. Have a staff appreciation day once a month to provide them with a catered lunch.

43. Give them and their colleagues a catered breakfast.

44. Give them a new, improved job title.

45. Provide them with some one-on-one mentoring.

46. Institute a “playtime,” where employees can play games or shoot some baskets.

47. Host an annual award ceremony and give awards to employees for their contributions.

48. Celebrate the anniversary of their joining the company.

49. Allow them to dress casually on Fridays.

50. Have a massage therapist come to the office once a month and give a massage.

51. Create a relaxation room, where the employee (and other people you are rewarding) can go during the day, to read or even play a video game on their break.

By: Mike Michalowicz and Bianca Male of BUSINESS INSIDER


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