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9 unusual incentives that will lift employee morale


Employee incentives are a tried-and-true method for boosting employee morale and motivating your workforce. They’re a great way to encourage employees to consistently learn, grow and improve their performance.

But, if your idea of an employee incentive involves a fruitcake or a new widget for their desk, it may be time to give your approach an overhaul. While over-the-top incentive programs often make the news, the fact is you don’t always have to spend a ton of money to get results. In fact, some of the most popular employee incentives may cost nothing, or close to nothing.

You want to send the signal that the company recognizes how hard people work and appreciates their efforts. That means your incentive program needs to be both creative, consistent and in line with your company’s culture.

Don’t overthink your employee morale

The first step to coming up with perks that make employees smile is deceptively simple: Ask them what incentives would be most meaningful.

You can make this exercise open-ended, provide a few choices, or put parameters on your request to ensure suggestions remain realistic. It’s okay to say, “We don’t have the budget for anything costly, but what’s something free or low-cost we could do to make your life at work more enjoyable?”

When your employees feel valued, they’re more likely to enjoy their work and perform better. Here are nine unconventional – and inexpensive – ideas for employee incentives that can help create a positive atmosphere and position your business as an employer of choice.

1. Cubicle coffee shop

If you’ve got a coffee-loving office culture, here’s an incentive sure to boost employee morale: Consider bringing in a barista once a week, month or quarter for a couple of hours in the morning. Even if employees have to pay for their own lattes and macchiatos, it’s more convenient than walking to the coffee shop on the corner. Plus, it creates a festive environment and shows your hard-working team that you want to do something for them that goes above and beyond the regular, self-serve coffee maker.

2. Concierge services

Perennial favorites for incentives are ones that relieve employee stress. This is where asking what employees want will help narrow the field.

The answers may surprise you.

They may want onsite pickup for dry cleaning, or car washes in the parking garage. Maybe they’d prefer discounts on identity theft protection, onsite food trucks on Fridays, or a couple of small, phone-booth style rooms to make personal calls. As businesses become increasingly more open and collaborative, having dedicated space for private conversations can make a big difference in employee morale.

Some companies are signing up for telemedicine programs that allow employees to get basic medical care handled without having to leave the office. Bringing in a healthcare professional to provide vaccines, like the flu shot, once a year can also save employees time and keep everyone healthier.

3. Office petting zoo

People are crazy about their pets these days. Although pet-friendly workplaces are becoming more common, it’s important to think through the ins and outs of having pets in the office. You have to consider things like people’s allergies, where the animals will relieve themselves, and how to handle pets that don’t get along.

If bringing pets into your office or shop simply isn’t practical, or you want to minimize potential liabilities altogether, you could hire a portable petting zoo. Some animal shelters, pet stores and farms rent out their services for local events. They can bring a variety of animals to a designated area of your office space and set up camp for an hour or two.

When it comes to lifting employee morale, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything better than puppies. Or piglets, or calves, or ducklings – basically any baby animals.

4. Discounted company services

Large hotel chains often extend a heavily discounted rate to their employees for lodging at any of their properties. The airlines are famous for the discounts they offer their employees (and even employees’ family members).

So, what if you’re not a mega-corporation with billions in annual revenue to provide this type of incentive? It doesn’t matter. You can still take the idea and adapt it to your business in order to lift employee morale.

For example, if you run a chain of auto repair shops, you could offer free oil changes year-round to all employees for one vehicle. If your business is a financial firm, you could offer one hour of complimentary financial counseling each year to every employee. A fruit wholesaler could send every employee home with a basket of seasonal fruit once a month (or quarter – whatever time frame works best for your business).

You can make such freebies pay for themselves by soliciting feedback from your employees, as well as their family members who participate. If possible, keep the process anonymous to encourage more honest opinions and insight. Whether you use a short online survey or some other method, think of it as a built-in focus group.

5. Commuter perks

If many of your workers have long commutes, consider partnering with a company that provides audio books to provide full membership or a discount. Listening to interesting content while driving can be entertaining and educational – and serve as a stress reliever in traffic. Or, you might give your commuters a little help with bus fare, fuel or tolls by subsidizing a certain amount of their monthly costs.

6. Team spirit day

Host a “team day” where everyone wears their favorite team’s colors and brings a favorite stadium or ballpark snack to share. If you can, schedule it for a day when there’s actually a televised sporting event taking place. Set everything up in the break room, and keep the television tuned to the big game throughout the day. That way, everybody can come and go as they please. If your budget allows, you could provide the snacks, rather than have employees bring them.

7. On-the-job volunteer opportunities

Give employees a certain number of hours to volunteer in the community during a specified workday (or days) – with pay. This could be something you offer as a one-time thing – or monthly or quarterly, depending on your business. Today’s workforce wants more than a paycheck. They want to belong to something bigger than their job and feel a sense of purpose. Having an employer who gives them the opportunity to give back can go a long way toward boosting employee morale.

8. Co-worker clubs and affinity groups

If a large portion of your workers are moms with children, host a lunch-and-learn with a chef who specializes in 30-minute meal preparation. You can send everyone home with a trove of recipes to try. Better yet, coordinate with the chef to provide a list of ingredients for everyone to bring – and allow them to actually make meals onsite that they can take home and share. You can also expand this concept and organize special interest groups among employees.

Wouldn’t book lovers welcome an office book club that meets monthly to discuss their latest page-turner? Or, what about language and culture enthusiasts? Speakers of different languages could have their own club dedicated to learning and sharing their native language and culture. And, foodies could plan monthly outings together to try new restaurants. The possibilities are endless.

9. Old-school gratitude

One of the most appreciated employee incentives is also among the most old-fashioned: the handwritten note. Ask the CEO or other company leaders to hand write thank-you notes and birthday cards.

Can you imagine how happy your employees will be to know that the head of the company took the time to personally thank them for their extra effort? Or, that the senior vice president of marketing remembered their birthday? This simple gesture of workplace gratitude stands the test of time.

Keep in mind – the point of this incentive is to stay old-school. Email won’t do. And, if the CEO’s handwriting is truly awful, a typed note on special stationery can give the same oomph if it includes a personal signature.

Anything is better than nothing

Regardless of how you choose to reward your employees, you want to create incentives that can be enjoyed by everyone. So, variety is key. A team-building happy hour may be appreciated by young, single employees, but it probably won’t mean much to those who have to get home to their children.

Want to learn more about motivating your workforce? Download our free e-book, How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.