9 Employee Incentive Ideas for Small Business


Shelly Cochran

Jun 17, 2024


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Human Resources

Employee incentive programs boost motivation, productivity, and job satisfaction. Typical programs include bonuses, special recognition, and career development opportunities. Employers understand that this tactic aligns employees' goals with stated organizational objectives. Some companies devise highly inventive – and expensive – employee incentive ideas.

A business creates a competitive yet collaborative environment by rewarding top performance and innovation. Because employees feel valued and appreciated, these businesses experience improved morale and reduced turnover. From a hiring point of view, incentive programs tend to attract top talent, giving companies a competitive edge in the job market.

How can a small business use this tool to enhance employee engagement and drive business success? Larger prizes and monetary rewards are generally unsustainable for a smaller company. We have ideas.

1. Office Plants are a Low-Cost Incentive

Office Plant

Among low-cost employee incentives, giving office plants ranks at the top. It is a unique and thoughtful approach that promotes well-being and environmental consciousness. Pair a certificate of recognition with an attractive office plant that turns any space into a healthier and more pleasant environment.

Plants are known to reduce stress and improve air quality. When choosing plants to give as incentives, pick varieties that are easy to care for and suitable for indoor office environments.

  1. Snake plant (Sansevieria). Known for its air-purifying qualities, the low-maintenance snake plant thrives in low-light conditions.
  2. Pothos (Epipremnum aureum). This hardy plant is resilient, grows quickly, and can tolerate low light, making it perfect for office settings.
  3. Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum). This plant is an excellent air purifier, is easy to grow, and thrives in various light conditions.

2. Branded Gear Combines Advertising with Employee Recognition

Known in the trade as swag, branded gear includes everything from pencils to messenger bags displaying your corporate logo and business name. Businesses buy these items in bulk, which saves a lot of money, and use them for giveaways and customer loyalty programs. Why not also use them when recognizing your employees?

Take it a step further and create tiered swag. For example, order T-shirts in a variety of colors, with each one denoting a special recognition. Red for perfect attendance, yellow for innovations, blue for meeting profit goals, etc. Besides the free advertising, you also create a competitive team atmosphere, which is excellent for smaller companies.

3. A Lazy Monday Event Doesn’t Have to Cost Anything

Woman chilling while working

Implementing a Lazy Monday event as an employee incentive boosts morale and productivity by easing the transition into the workweek. Designate the first Monday of every month to let employees start their week in a relaxed, low-pressure environment. Comfortable seating, soothing music, and casual dress codes are some ideas for this employee incentive. Casual team-building games promote relaxation and camaraderie.

Offer flexible work hours on Lazy Mondays to let individual employees come in a bit later or leave earlier. This program works if you communicate its role in promoting well-being and productivity. Make adjustments to your Lazy Monday event based on employee feedback. Because this event is so flexible, it is easy to put in place by companies of all sizes.

And, since this setup proves that you value your employees' mental health and work-life balance, they will likely work hard to qualify for this special day. Besides that, it fosters increased job satisfaction, reduced burnout, and a more positive workplace culture.

4. Paid Volunteer Time for Individual Employees or Teams Comes with Free Advertising

If you have little money to fund your employee incentive ideas, consider offering paid volunteer time off. For example, if an employee meets specific goals, they can spend part of a day volunteering at their preferred charity and get paid for it.

If you are already partnering with a local charity, boost this connection by letting qualifying teams or individuals do their volunteer work there. This is an excellent advertising and public relations tool, in addition to making your employees feel good about working for you.

Depending on your business type, you might also offer your workers to support their favorite charity by using your printers and other office equipment to make posters and similar advertising items. Smaller charities frequently name office supplies as a major need, and by letting your workers meet this need on the job, you do a fantastic job of incorporating an important balance between work and life.

5. Combine a Personal Employer Visit with a LinkedIn Recommendation for Zero Dollars

Your business is probably on LinkedIn. If it is not, you might want to reconsider. Individually, quite a few or even all your workers are active on this platform. As a way of saying thank you to an employee who goes above and beyond, let the boss come in and personally shake hands with the worker. In addition, let the boss – personally – write a recommendation for the employee on LinkedIn.

It makes the employee stand out and signals that you are running a business where employee contributions are valued, recognized, and rewarded. When it comes to retaining employees or recruiting more, plenty of qualified candidates will want to come in and interview.

6. Project Selection Doesn’t Cost Anything and Lets Employees Align Skills and Interests with Work Tasks

Two employees working on a project

Using project selection as an employee incentive program can be a great way to get worker buy-in for meeting goals. Let employees choose projects that align with their interests and strengths. This creates a sense of ownership, which leads to higher job satisfaction and productivity.

  1. Create a diverse portfolio of projects.
  2. Regularly update this project list and communicate available options.
  3. Managers guide employees toward projects.

Balancing employee preferences with organizational needs makes sure that critical projects get done. But it also emphasizes that employees feel valued and motivated. While offering this incentive, do not be surprised when you identify new talents and create a continuous learning and development culture.

7. Preferred Parking and the Comfy Chair

Do you have parking spaces assigned to your business? Label one of them as “Parking for Employee of the Week,” or month, or quarter. When you recognize an employee, they get front and center parking access at your company. Work with a local sign shop to have a designed parking sign installed.

In addition to the parking spot – or instead of it – let the worker have a day or week in a comfy chair. This could be an outrageously comfortable upholstered chair you can get for a song at the local thrift store or the high-tech massage chair you ordered for your office.

In a team setting, use a symbol of achievement that identifies the group receiving the award. Some businesses have a painted football or soccer ball, and earning the right to display it prominently on the desk becomes an issue of pride. Teams will work harder for the shared privilege. And, as public recognition goes, nothing is more obvious. At the end of the reward period, teams may either hold on to their award (if they qualify) or they have to hand it off to the next winning team.

8. Limited Flextime Depending on Your Company’s Needs

The eight-to-five workday does not work for some people. They make it happen, but it can be a hassle. How about making it a little easier on the top performers? Flexible hours give them an extra half hour in the morning to come in later and let them leave a half hour earlier in the afternoon. For a parent with a child in daycare, this is a godsend.

For the employee with a long drive home, beating rush hour is a huge bonus. You have to decide how you can incorporate flexible hours into your workload. Another thing, if the incentive recipient does not need the award, let them gift it to a colleague. What a great way to build your teams!

By the way, if your business is such that starting later or leaving earlier is unrealistic, consider offering a longer lunch or break. An extra 15 minutes to walk around the blog or read a few more pages in a good book can be a great way to encourage employee performance and show appreciation.

9. The Bottom Line: At the End of the Day, Money Talks

Man giving a check to his employee

Your employees like money. If your company has the funds, consider investing in employee incentive programs. Examples include tuition reimbursement, free industry-specific training and certifications for excelling staff members, and bonus checks at the end of a project. For smaller businesses, this may not always be an option. However, you can still reimburse for a percentage of tuition or let an employee have the time off to attend training in another department.

If you do not want to give money, consider public recognition, gym memberships, gift cards to local restaurants, or anything else that promotes work-life balance.

Avoid Common Errors When Rewarding Employees

There are several mistakes with incentive programs that will undermine their effectiveness. One common mistake is designing one-size-fits-all incentives. Your employees have diverse motivations. What works for one may not work for another. Tailor incentives to individual preferences and roles.

Another mistake is setting unrealistic targets. Incentive programs that establish impossible goals are frustrating. Set achievable, clear, and measurable objectives to keep employees motivated and focused. Inconsistent implementation will be problematic. If incentive programs are not applied uniformly or rewards are sporadic, employees feel undervalued or overlooked, leading to resentment and decreased morale.

Last but not least, tailor your recognition program to the employee demographic. Gen Z workers may not appreciate wearing a pin identifying them as top workers. Gen X workers, on the other hand, will likely welcome the pin. Millennials are big on taking a bit of a chance, such as with raffles or lottery tickets.

If you need help brainstorming employee incentive ideas, your employees are sure to appreciate and connect with our small business websites team.

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