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5 Employee Incentives That Actually Work

Pay raises and promotions are far from the only ways to motivate your team. Here are a few more creative approaches.

5 Employee Incentives That Actually Work
[Photo: Flickr user Dan DeLuca]

Entrepreneurs and business owners are constantly dealing with two big staffing issues: attracting top talent and retaining it. We all want a capable, well-rounded staff for our companies. No matter how specialized the role you’re hiring for, versatility still usually tops the list of qualifications. It’s also something employees themselves tend to value: if you don’t give your staff a variety of new challenges, they won’t grow professionally and may begin looking elsewhere. In order to push employees to do their best in every part of their job, organizations need to be proactive–creating opportunities for their team members to excel, and rewarding them for when they do. Here are five methods to keep employees motivated to do their best work.

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1. Offer an “Idea Bounty”

Employees love bonuses, which can come in many forms. Hannah Witten of GoFanbase recently told me about a great way to encourage discussion and give all team members an equal opportunity to contribute. Employees propose a fully fleshed out idea (with processes) that would help improve the business, Witten says. “Their fellow coworkers then vote on the concept. Once an idea is voted in, the founder approves it. Once implemented, the employee receives a $20 “idea bounty.”

To build this program into your company’s culture, you could create healthy competition by tracking how many “idea bounties” are awarded to a single employee within a certain period of time.

2. Switch Up The Work Day

Not everyone thrives in a nine-to-five environment. For hourly workers, try replacing the structured work day with an agenda of tasks to accomplish within a set window, then leave it to employees to figure out how best to accomplish them.

“I give my crews benchmarks to work towards instead of them punching the clock and working from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. regardless of what they get done,” Collin Hanks of Hanks Construction, LLC tells me. “The benchmarks let them know that if they work hard and get stuff done faster, they can go home early and are still paid as if they worked till 5 p.m.”

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Employees tend to work better when they feel a sense of accomplishment, and untimed daily to-do lists can help boost their efficiency as well as morale.

3. Blow Off Steam On-Site

While I was in school, I worked at a law firm that had a gym inside the building and offered free yoga classes. It was great! Plenty of companies now offer on-site yoga, but you can go further than that. Why not try teaching your employees some fun dance moves?

“Our team likes to keep fit [and] dance . . . so we hired a Beyoncé dance instructor to teach her moves in our office while projecting 20-foot-tall YouTube clips on the wall,” Will Nathan of HomePolish tells me. “In addition to bringing the team together, it’s come to embody our core value of ‘keeping it fun’ and helps potential recruits get a taste for our culture.”

Bringing extracurricular activities into the workplace helps break up the monotony and can create some really unique team-building opportunities.

4. Encourage Creative Time Off

Inspire your employees to try out some unique twists on using their paid time off. Dan Novaes of Nativ is an advocate of the unlimited vacation policies that are gaining steam in some quarters. He recently spoke to me about the creative freedom the approach encourages: “Our company offers unlimited paid time off and is performance-driven, so we believe in giving our team the tools to be creative and have freedom.”

Another unique option is to offer PTO specifically for volunteer service. “We’ve found it is a great benefit to offer employees paid time off to volunteer, because it demonstrates our commitment to the community,” Sarah Schupp of UniversityParent tells me. “Occasionally, the team will pick a project and work together on something to serve the community, such as organizing food for a food bank.”

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My own companies don’t institute strict PTO specifications. Instead we offer a combination of flexibility and accountability. That requires being very clear about what responsibilities and expectations we have for employees who utilize our flexible PTO policy. As long as everyone knows what they’re accountable for, taking time away from the office is something to be encouraged.

5. Offer Equity (But Not In The Way You Think)

Offering equity to exceptional employees is hardly a new concept, but many CEOs have found a way to put their own spin on it by offering equity that increases based on the valuation of the company.

“I have structured some employee agreements so that they get more equity vested when the company is valued higher, as opposed to passing-of-term, which is usually observed in the industry,” Sohin Shah of iFunding recently explained to me. “This incentivizes everyone to work harder on making the company worth more, and thus own a bigger chunk of it.”

As a business owner, I am an advocate of the build-and-sell model. We offer an ownership percentage to our key employees, which is activated upon sale of the company. Consider what your five-year plan is for your company and implement accordingly.

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The entrepreneurs cited above all know how to attract and retain top talent in meaningful and sustainable ways that don’t fit within the usual corporate norms. What’s more, the approaches they’ve taken to incentivize their employees are all specific to their own unique business needs and company cultures. The key is to find out what’s right for your staff and your company.

Lisa Song Sutton, J.D., is a serial entrepreneur that holds ownership interests in several companies in the real estate, retail, and food and beverage sectors. She is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization composed of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs.