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Easy and inexpensive employee perks to motivate your staff

Employees and guests in a coffee and bakery shop

The personal mantra of CEO, author, and renowned coach Camille Preston is one we can all aspire to: “I want to do work that I love, from places I love, and with people I enjoy.” For business owners and managers, the question is: How does your work environment stack up with that aspiration—for yourself and for your employees? 

While no workplace is happy 100 percent of the time, there are simple and impactful employee perks you can offer to keep your staff motivated and happy without breaking the bank.

The gift of time

Long hours are a given in many industries: working overtime to meet a deadline or squeezing in one more appointment. But on the quieter days and during slow seasons, letting your employees go home a little early can go a long way. Employees appreciate getting a few hours back to spend with family or friends, relax, or even get personal errands done. 

When possible, allowing flexible hours or giving employees some input into their schedules shows that you respect their time and helps provide a sense of work/life balance that can be otherwise hard to achieve. Employees who regularly put in strong effort and hard work should earn the ability to take off early for a child’s dance recital or request a schedule change for a special date night.

Denise Devereaux, VP of human resources at a Wisconsin manufacturer, tells the Journal Sentinel that offering flexible hours can even boost work output: “It has become one of the most valuable arrangements or benefits that we offer folks… We don’t see a drop in productivity. In fact, I think the exact opposite occurs. People are so excited about being able to have that half day off… they’re extremely focused in their regular hours.”

Onsite work perks

Most workplaces can’t offer ping pong tables and free meals, but you can make coming into work just a smidge more exciting with simple upgrades or employee perks.

  • Trade the drip coffee pot for a cappuccino machine.
  • For a special treat after a busy season, bring in a chair massage service for 15-minute sessions. 
  • Invite your employees and their families to a potluck picnic or park barbecue where you provide the main dishes.
  • Partner with neighboring businesses to exchange your own products or services as perks—maybe every month the car wash gives half-off coupons in exchange for free appetizer vouchers at the cafe, or an electrician and plumber give each other’s employees 20 percent off.
  • Provide educational opportunities with workshops, industry expert chats, and career coaching or shadowing.
  • Offer a regular themed treat, like Bagel Mondays or Final Friday Donuts.
  • Try a perks program, like Fond or PerkSpot, that offers employee discounts, rewards, and freebies.
  • Everybody loves swag. Giving your employees company-branded items not only makes them feel appreciated and proud, but these logo-boasting goods also serve as a walking advertisement for your business. Be sure they’re creative and useful (avoid generic or cheesy items). Some swag favorites are water bottles, tech accessories, fitness gear, and eco-friendly products.

Start small and see what makes sense for your business. A little goes a long way—plus you don’t want to roll out perks that are so expensive or cumbersome to maintain that you end up taking them away.

Casual dress code

Don’t underestimate the impact of the dress code. If casual Fridays are appropriate for your industry, simply letting people dress down a bit in their favorite jeans can be a morale boost. If your employees regularly wear a uniform, consider occasional theme days, like Sports Team Sunday or Hawaiian Day.

Small Business Chronicle suggests that casual days give employees “flexibility and the opportunity to express a personal style. It can boost morale, which in turn aids productivity and creativity.” 

At Northwestern University in Illinois, employees in the alumni relations and development office follow a “dress for your day” policy. Senior Development Writer Anne Guettler says, “I like the flexibility because it allows me to put more thought than I normally would into what I wear to work everyday. I feel more professional and polished if I’m dressed up for meetings, since it gives me an extra confidence boost. On the other hand, if I see that I have no meetings on my calendar that day, or it’s a Friday, I’m definitely going to take that opportunity to dress more casual and comfortable. I don’t want to be uncomfortable sitting at my desk all day!” The university also says that Northwestern purple, the school’s official color, is always acceptable and encouraged.

An open and positive work environment

In corporate America, it’s a badge of honor to rank on a “best places to work” list, like Glassdoor’s 2020 lineup. What’s the secret behind creating that enviable work culture? Glassdoor President and COO Christian Sutherland-Wong says that these businesses stand out in part for “promoting transparency with others… and providing work driven by impact and purpose.” For the top small and medium businesses specifically, employee reviews mention “incredible culture” and “culture that emphasizes core values.”

The beauty of this approach is that it’s free. You can start by encouraging open and approachable communication between managers and employees. Shawna Clark, founder and executive coach at Clark Executive Coaching, tells the Workest blog, “People leave or stay for their managers, not jobs or companies.” If an open dialogue is difficult, you can create an anonymous survey that allows employees to feel more secure in sharing their honest feedback.

"People leave or stay for their managers, not jobs or companies." - Shawna Clark
Photo by Roman Kraft

Another way to foster a positive work environment is to ensure that employees’ everyday job duties sync up with the company’s mission. The overall success of a company relies on contributors feeling like they’re working toward a shared vision. LinkedIn reports that the 62,000 small business employees who participated in a 2018 survey said they care a great deal about their company’s purpose and the ways in which their individual role impacts that purpose. It’s a good reminder to consistently talk to your staff about how the work they’re doing impacts the overall success of the business.

Think about a company like Starbucks. While it’s a huge corporation, it also has to ensure its mission is reflected in each and every store. Starbucks’s mission statement is: To inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time. As Insperity points out: “Its mission isn’t to sell the most coffee or even to make the best coffee—it’s more ambitious than that. Instead, its mission is to develop a human connection with customers through coffee. And that’s something that its employees can get behind.”

Self-care and the greater good

Encourage your teams to take care of themselves as well as others. Mercer’s 2018 Global Talent Trends study notes three top factors in employee satisfaction, one being a commitment to health and well-being. Meditation sessions, gym discounts, healthy snacks, fitness challenges, and other wellness initiatives help promote a healthy workplace. 

Top 3 things employees are looking for in a company

Team fundraising and volunteering programs are employee perks that not only do great for the communities around you but also show your employees that giving back is a priority, increasing pride in their workplace. Try an initiative like STEPtember, which teams up employees to track their steps throughout September and raise money for cerebral palsy research. H.E.L.P. (Helping Everyone Live Purposefully) is a volunteer platform that sources nearby places to volunteer that fit specific schedules and interests, with categories like beach clean-up and animal shelters. 

Simple recognition

In his book Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations, Dan Ariely concludes: “When we are acknowledged for our work, we are willing to work harder for less pay, and when we are not acknowledged, we lose much of our motivation.”

Celebrate the little things and do it publicly. Birthdays and work anniversaries are the perfect place to start. Build an excellence program or a bingo board game that contain tasks that contribute to the company mission, and when employees achieve milestones, reward them with small gifts, like a gift card to a local coffee shop.

When you get in-person feedback or an online review that celebrates a specific staff member, share that praise with him or her or with the group at your next team meeting. Jim Maser, owner of the restaurant Picante in Berkeley, California, sets a reminder to check his Yelp reviews every Monday: “I love it when a reviewer specifically speaks of someone, and I read those directly to those people.”

Yelp review of great customer service at Picante restaurant

The power of please and thank you

Even a simple “thank you” can be hugely impactful. In a survey of 2,000 Americans on the topic of gratitude, author and journalist Janice Kaplan found that 70 percent of people reported that they would feel better about themselves and their efforts if their boss thanked them more regularly. 

7 out of 10 people reported that they would feel better about themselves and their efforts if their boss thanked them more regularly

Communications strategist and former food truck owner Kianta Key recalls when she was a teenager, “My mother gave me a small sheet of paper that said: ‘A smile and a thank you won’t cost you a dime, but not doing either may cost you later.’” 

Set an example in your workplace with simple acts and phrases of kindness. Consider starting a random acts of kindness program or a peer gratitude program where employees can give “points” to others for nice and helpful gestures. Here at Yelp, “Yelp Love” is an internal tool that employees can use to send notes of appreciation to each other—either privately or for all employees to see—whether it’s for helping with a deadline or just refilling the empty coffee pot. You can even build a similar tool for your own company using the Google App Engine.

Do you have a favorite employee perk? Want to contribute your own business tips? Interested in another topic? 

Let us know! Tweet us at @yelpforbusiness.