Low Cost Employee Motivation Tips

Retaining employees and motivating them to perform their best is a constant challenge for small businesses. These simple, low-cost motivation techniques can reduce turnover and energize your staff.

Praise be to praise. It doesn’t cost a dime and yet when you pat employees on the back for their good work, they feel like a million bucks.

A heart-felt thank you often motivates employees to perform better and work harder than any other kind of incentive, even very costly ones. It may well be the best business investment a small business operator can make, because the payback can be enormous.

In this climate of corporate layoffs, outsourcing and steep disparities between executives’ and frontline employees’ salaries, it is no wonder rank-and-file workers increasingly question their loyalty to companies. Which means retaining and motivating employees is a constant challenge. Fortunately for budget-minded small enterprises, there are still cost-effective ways to energize their work force.

Start with thanking them. It sounds impossibly obvious, but it’s surprising how many managers neglect this simple action. In many cases, there’s a discrepancy between what employees perceive as praise and managers’ belief that they have dished out plaudits.

Praise can come in many forms, but it should always be genuine, clear, sincere and offered for specific performances. A Wichita State University professor reported that employees prefer instant and personalized recognition from their immediate boss more than any other kind of workplace motivation. Ironically, the professor’s studies showed that manager-initiated praise, whether delivered in person, a handwritten note or electronically, was the least common form of recognition. Too often an employee’s individual accomplishments are folded into or overshadowed by department- or company-wide tributes. Since singling out employees is so important, managers may find it fruitful to formalize programs whereby they regularly hand out commendations.

Related: 5 Tips to Attract, Keep and Motivate Your Employees

Public acknowledgement of exemplary work is also ranked as one of the top ways to honor employees, according to research done by Bob Nelson, Ph.D, author of 1,001 Ways to Reward Employees. Many employees are jazzed by the public recognition, whether it appears on a bulletin board or outdoor billboard, in company-wide emails, newsletters and meetings, or at awards banquets or other mediums. Some firms supplement this overt gratitude with holiday bonuses, inexpensive gift certificates, movie tickets or other informal tokens of appreciation. An idea: Give employees a say in how they would like to be publicly rewarded.

Employees are also more likely to become engaged in their work if they know their bosses are listening to them. In today’s hurly-burly, get-it-done-yesterday business world, harried managers might be excused for not spending more time hearing the on- and off-the-job gripes, challenges and successes of the rank and file. But workers notice and appreciate this personal connection. It demonstrates a caring and concern many require for a fulfilling job.

A bonus: Workers whose bosses actively listen are more likely to produce suggestions benefiting the company. Unfortunately, according to author Nelson, the average American employee offers only about one suggestion annually, one of the lowest rates among industrialized countries. It’s ironic that many companies pride themselves on their sophisticated customer feedback systems but have flawed mechanisms for listening to their own employees.

Soliciting suggestions, including from brainstorming sessions, is an equalizer of sorts, underscoring to all workers their ideas are valued. And the more valued they feel, the more likely they will energetically plunge into projects and freely contribute their time and effort. A caveat: If you do invite employee suggestions, ensure they are all reviewed. Respond to the recommendations quickly, try to use as many as possible, and thank and personally or publicly recognize the submittees (if names are furnished).

Related: Why You Need to Ask for Feedback

In tandem with listening, small companies should frequently communicate with their employees. Regular correspondence helps workers better understand department- and company-wide actions, increasing efficiency and encouraging team building. When there’s little or sporadic communication, employees tend to fill in the blanks, often assuming the worst. The result: Damaged morale.

Ideally, managers should regularly escape from behind their desks and chat with employees. That personal interaction could be supplemented with other communications transmitted via emails, newsletters, small- and large-group meetings, videotapes and audiotapes, “snail mail,” bulletin boards, white boards, and so on. Whatever medium is chosen, the most effective messages are straight-forward, sincere and succinct.

Related: 5 Steps to Better Employee Communication

Another cost-effective way to energize employees is offering them lots of autonomy and authority. This freedom fosters creativity, resourcefulness and a sense of ownership, and it establishes a foundation of trust and respect that many workers treasure. Managers who offer this latitude must be very clear about job assignments and their expectations, while also being open and flexible as to how workers achieve results.

For many employees, that independence extends to a flexible work schedule. If you can swing it, consider offering staggered hours, work-at-home opportunities, compressed work weeks (for example, four 10-hour days), and other options. Of course, it’s easier to make such accommodations for your high-performing employees.

Finally, small employers have learned that formalizing fun frequently enhances morale. Inexpensive fun activities — for instance, creating friendly competitions between employees and departments, joke breaks, Bring Your Pet to Work Day, and interactive, get-to-know-your-colleague exercises — enable workers to tap into their inner playfulness. The upshot: A more relaxed and comfortable workplace, which often translates into increased esprit de corps and productivity.

Related: What Really Motivates People

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