Ask Addi P.: 4 Fun, Cost-Effective Ways to Motivate Employees

ways to motivate employees

Dear Addi,

As we grow, we are investing our earnings to finance growth. So we're somewhat cash constrained. However, we appreciate our employees and know that we need them to continue to work as diligently, or even more so, to help us achieve our goals. We're looking for low-cost ways to motivate employees and show appreciation. Any suggestions you have would be wonderful!

-Growing in Gaston

Dear Growing,

Leaders often assume money is the primary means to motivate people. But non-monetary rewards can be just as effective. There are a number of ways to motivate employees and many can offer highest impact without a lot of expense.

Offer Time Off

According to the Wall Street Journal, employees often prefer rewards that provide greater balance in their lives, such as time off. Giving people extra time off may seem counter-intuitive, in the long run, the time off can increase productivity because your employees will feel renewed and appreciated. Look at your overtime and see if you can help balance hours so that people are not burning out. And remember to check wage hour laws. In some states, organizations can offer time off in lieu of overtime pay, but in many places this is not permitted.

Offer Meals or Hotel Stays

If your firm uses corporate credit cards that accrue rewards points for the company, you may have additional non-cash options. Use some of the points to provide meals at a high-end restaurant, hotel stays or airplane tickets. Consider encouraging top performers to take their spouse or friend for a long weekend trip and use points for the companion ticket. You can also use points for gifts, tickets, or other entertainment. Encourage your managers to pay attention to what their direct reports like and enjoy so the reward feels personal and carefully chosen.


Recognition is another inexpensive option that is often overlooked. People love to be recognized in front of their peers. To be effective, point to specific action and why it made a difference. A general, "Thank you, Jennifer, for your work. Great job!" just does not have the same effect as, "Thank you, Jennifer, for the excellent creative design work and branding vision on the ABC marketing project. The client loved everything about it and has signed up for additional work." The former is generic and can come across as trite and insincere, whereas the latter shows the manager was paying attention and is truly appreciative.

Consider adding a gift card to a restaurant, store, or for a service you know the employee will enjoy. You can also have tiers of recognition. For example, the employee of the month gets a notable mention in the company newsletter, and the employee of the year gets a picture with the company president and a notable mention in a marketing brochure.

Be creative with your recognition. Be mindful that consistent, periodic and sincere recognition to outstanding members of a team or department can motivate the entire group.

Growth Opportunities

Most people love to be challenged and grow. Providing opportunities that support this growth will motivate those employees. You could offer an employee the opportunity to work on a committee tied to a major firm initiative, or nominate an employee for a external leadership development program. People who achieve goals by overcoming challenges experience a sense of pride that increases their confidence and, hence, their motivation. But be careful not to overload with extra work if the employee is already working long hours.

Money is only one of the ways to motivate employees. With creative brainstorming and focus, or by simply asking your employees what kind of incentives or rewards they would like, you can create meaningful inexpensive gestures that enhance employee morale, engagement, satisfaction and motivation.