5 Ways to Reward Employees When Raises Arent an Option
image credit: Wow-Gift-Baskets

Many workers are doing double duty these days because employers either can’t afford to hire more staff or are reluctant to do so in this still shaky economy. That makes it increasingly important to provide incentives -- or risk losing your most valued employees.

“A lot of companies, especially small businesses, have staffers that need a morale boost, maybe following a round of layoffs, or because the company simply can’t afford to give raises or bonuses that staff deserve,” says David Jacobson, founder of TrivWorks, a New York-based teambuilding company. “But I’ve seen some interesting and creative alternative forms of reward that work well.”

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While you may not be able to give every deserving employee a raise or bonus, here are five ideas for rewarding your staff in meaningful ways that don’t involve cash: 

1.Side projects
Some employees enjoy working on projects that don’t fall under their official job descriptions but could tap into a hobby or special interest. For instance, New York-based Employment Taxation Software Solutions recently began offering some employees “job mobility,” or the chance to spend some of their down time each week working on tasks in other departments such as marketing, video production or training.

“Most employees don't start their lives out looking to become sales reps or accountants,” says Cameron Keng, the firm’s founder. “Giving them the opportunity to continue their current responsibilities and take on additional work on the side or within the company in different departments of their interest is a great incentive. They're still doing what they're required, yet providing more value by helping other areas on their free time.” 

2.Job swaps 
JCD Repair, a small chain of electronics repair shops based in Seattle, offers employees a “job exchange” reward, letting them swap positions with another worker at another location. The employees pay for their own travel and lodging but get the chance to spend time in a new city -- a sort of working vacation.

“This means one of the guys from our Chicago shop can take a working vacation to Seattle and at the same time, one of our Seattle guys can come to Chicago,” says Matt McCormick, owner of JCD Repair. “The only thing we ask is that they inform our store managers and that no shifts are left uncovered at either location.” For many companies, such exchanges would be logistically difficult. But McCormick says they work well for JCD Repair because all of the company’s shops operate in basically the same way and employees don’t have to learn anything new to switch to a different location.

3.Training
Training and development programs can be a valuable incentive for employees of small businesses, who typically don’t enjoy the same access to such opportunities as workers at larger companies. At Sammis & Ochoa, LLC, a public relations firm in San Antonio, Texas, the co-owners pay for high-performing employees to attend two industry or personal development events each year within the state of Texas.

“For example, two of our coordinators successfully met their goals for the first quarter of 2012, so we are sending them to Dallas to attend a blogger conference that they selected,” says co-owner Mario Ochoa. “I like this reward because you can reward a team member and fulfill your goal of continuing education.”

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4.Happy hours
Most employees savor a chance to unwind and let loose after a stressful day at work. Give them something to look forward to by occasionally hosting your own company happy hour. Jacobson says his clients have done this successfully in a communal area of their offices, bringing in music, pizza and a beer keg, as well as at nearby bars or restaurants.

“It’s really a simple idea, but most companies don’t realize that if you approach a local bar or restaurant and let them know you intend to bring 30 or so people on an off night, such as Monday or Tuesday, the venue will bend over backwards to accommodate you,” Jacobson says. For instance, the establishment might waive a private room rental fee or offer discounted food and drink specials.

5. Personal perks 
Some entrepreneurs find that the best rewards vary based on an individual employee’s personality. “You just have to know your team,” says Jonathan Robinson, founder and CEO of FreeTextbooks.com, an online college bookstore that rewards loyal customers with free textbooks, based in Birmingham, Ala. “We're pretty small so I have to stay in tune with the preferences and pulse of our employees. It's my job to recognize when they need an extra bump or something to recharge on.”

Robinson says the company finds that for Generation Y, “the perks are in the details.” For instance, all new hires complete a questionnaire that includes items about their favorite candy, music and local restaurants, “which gives us some ammo when rewards come up,” he says. Recently, an avid golfer was rewarded with a free round at the best local course. Another employee received a $100 gift card to the restaurant of a local celebrity chef, and another, IMAX tickets to the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises.

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