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What’s the best way to incentivise staff in tough times?

Great staff are hard to find and even harder to replace. How do you keep them happy when you can’t really afford to give them more money? If you’re struggling to think of some creative ways to reward your staff, read on.

A couple of years ago, one of my businesses was going through a tough stage. We had plenty of clients who were loyal fans of our company, but with no money to spend. I knew it was just a turn in the business cycle and that if we could hang in there the business cycle would change and these clients would be ready to spend again.

It was a case of batten down the hatches and contain costs wherever I could. Our highest cost centre was our payroll. We had a great team that we had spent years putting together and they were very well paid. I didn’t want to lose any of the great staff I had but could not afford to give them a pay rise as they had come to traditionally expect.

Great staff are hard to find and even harder to replace. How do you keep them happy when you can’t really afford to give them more money? After racking my brain for a few weeks I devised some great ideas.

I came up with some simple ways to add value to their employment conditions without costing me a fortune. These things cost me money, but nowhere near as much as direct pay rises would have.

I flagged early on that there would be no pay rises and why. So they didn’t get to the time of the year when a pay rise would normally occur and be disappointed. Just in this process, I learned so much, most of the staff had made plans about the extra money they were going to get, how they would use it, pay some more off the mortgage, go on a holiday, upgrade their car. There is a lesson here on its own, make any rewards random so they don’t become expected. So rather than an, “I am owed this” mentality, it’s a “how nice was that” bonus to what they already get.

In replacement of a pay rise, I did the following:

  • I opened up a coffee account with the best coffee shop in town, so that all the coffee addicts and juice junkies could get a coffee or juice on my account. This saved them about $5 a day of their own money, about $25 a week (that equates to a $40 pay benefit) and I negotiated a good deal with the coffee shop, so it actually cost me half that.
  • I switched their business mobile phone plans to call or text anyone anywhere anytime and told them it was ok to use the mobile for personal calls outside of works hours. This meant that they either didn’t need a second phone of their own or could at least have a nice long chat with their friends or family without worrying about the cost. The value to them was about $50 a week or an ($80) pay benefit. It cost me about $60 a month total across the whole account.
  • I bought a corporate gym membership at a nearby gym that cost me $1500 for the year for the whole company but was worth about $500 a year to each of my staff. This paid off in two ways. They got a benefit and became a little healthier and more productive as well.

The result – they were all happy, they stuck with us through the tough times and most are still with us today. I have now become really creative about bonuses, incentives and pay rises.

Understanding that there are things more important to your staff than money and that rewards need to be random rather than expected has made a huge difference to the way we operate and the culture we operate within.