10 inexpensive ways to reward your employees

by Matt Warnock
A talk with the boss

The pandemic has been hard in many ways for businesses and their employees. As the economy continues to move slowly, keeping a healthy cash flow to weather the storm is top of mind for many companies.

Your employees are still working hard and doing everything they can to help the organization move forward. You will want to acknowledge their dedication and performance, but, to be fiscally responsible, you might not be able to offer financial incentives like raises or bonuses in the foreseeable future.

You are now challenged with keeping morale up and investing in their well-being with little to no money. So how can you reward these employees who deserve a raise?  

We’ve talked to businesses and compiled some unique ideas of how you can empower and uplift your employees in place of giving out financial raises. But before you try any of these ideas, the most important thing is that you are transparent and communicate how the company is doing. Setting the right expectations will increase the level of appreciation when you do offer something.

Here are ten ways to reward your employees and let them know that they are valued.

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1. Profit-sharing plan

While offering stock options might not be possible for most companies, a creative alternative is implementing a profit-sharing program. Instead of giving equity over time, you can provide employees with a percentage of the net income created each year. You can have employees earn a percentage over time or give out points for specific achievements or milestones. Profit-sharing can be a powerful way to motivate people to put the company first and all work toward a single goal.

2. Gift your product or service

When money is tight, another valuable asset to reward your employees is the product or service you offer. Allow your team to give away your product to their friends, family, or a worthy cause. For example, the SaaS email marketing tool MailerLite allows every employee to give five premium accounts away for free to the non-profits of their choice. It helps people in the company feel good about sharing what they do with others and gives them a chance to make a difference in other people’s lives.

3. A meal with the boss

Sometimes small gestures can go a long way. Invite each team member to a lunch or dinner and give them valuable one-on-one time with the boss. They will have the opportunity to share their thoughts, ask questions, and build a stronger personal relationship. Most people love a tasty, free meal. Not to mention, making them feel unique and like a valuable part of the company will have long-lasting, positive effects that a paycheck can’t provide.

4. Professional development budget

A relatively inexpensive way to reward employees is to give them opportunities to develop professionally. Things like training courses, books, or memberships to professional communities will help people invest in their careers. By establishing a set budget for each employee, they can search for opportunities that are right for them and have the freedom to use the budget without hesitation. If money is really tight, offer them a one-on-one mentorship program with your more experienced leaders. As you invest in their development, your employees will feel empowered because you value them and see their potential.

5. Give an extra week off

Rewarding people with time off is as straightforward as you can get. If you are concerned about your cash flow, paid time off is an easy and tangible way to give your employees a “bonus” that is not money. Announce that everyone is receiving an extra week of paid time off since money is tight for bonuses and chances are your team will understand and be happy at the same time. They will also come back from that week off refreshed, reenergized, and more productive. 

6. Passion passes

If giving an extra full week off is not possible for your business, another option is to give people “passion passes”. Most people don’t have time after work or on the weekends to pursue their passions. Why not give them a few hours per week during work hours to pursue what they love. That could be anything from playing video games to taking an online course or going to yoga. And everyone can share their passions, which will strengthen team camaraderie and show people that leadership cares about them as unique individuals, not just staff members. 

7. Introduce a new benefit

Spice up your employee benefits with something unique like flexible sports and wellness benefits, a budget to set up a home office, or offering counseling services. Most of these benefits are tax-deductible, so they will cost you less in the long-term. If your budget does not allow for a larger benefit, get creative, and offer smaller perks like upgraded coffee and snacks or a free Spotify membership for all employees. Whatever you decide, just be transparent about why you are offering it instead of salary increases.

8. Give high performers a new job title

For many people, their career goals are not just about the salary. Receiving promotions and moving up in their career is extremely important to long-term success. One way you can reward people’s hard work is by giving them a better job title. Another direction is to let people change their titles to something more reflective of their talents. This study from the Harvard Business Review explains how job titles can empower people when they feel ownership and like the title fits them.

9. Host an awards ceremony and after-party

Actors have the Golden Globes and Oscars. Musicians win Grammys. Why not praise your employees by giving them an award? You can make people feel special by hosting a party and setting up an Oscar-like ceremony where people are nominated and win awards. You can go all out by setting up a red carpet and hiring a photographer to take professional photos. This is a fun way to honor people and strengthen the team’s morale with lasting memories.

10. Write a handwritten personal note

Most of the ideas that we mentioned still have costs associated with them. If your budget is zero, there is always something you can do that might be more impactful than all the other ideas. A personal thank you note from the boss can be a profoundly touching reward – especially when it touches on specific insights that show the employee that the boss knows them as a person, not just an employee. Don’t underestimate the power of a simple note acknowledging and praising someone for their hard work and dedication.


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