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It’s not all about bonuses: how to motivate employees for free

By 20/10/2016April 9th, 2022Motivation

Getting lost in the assumption that bonuses and additional pay are the only ways to make workers more productive is an expensive business.

Bonus schemes on top of bonus schemes and a payroll that is as unwieldy as it is inconsistent are two indicators that an organisation has fallen into the trap of assuming employees are only motivated by one thing – money.

We all go to work, ultimately, to get paid. But a career is so much more than that; it’s about learning, developing one’s interpersonal skills and realising ambitions. Wonderful things can be achieved in business, but there are very few people who don’t require some form of encouragement to do their best work.

Bonuses, while nice and often unexpected, are quickly swallowed up by the tax man. They’re cashed, spent and quickly forgotten. Their legacy, therefore, is incredibly short lived. Good news: there are other ways of motivating people that have a far bigger impact and offer greater longevity than money.

In this post, we’re going to look at some of the ways you can motivate employees without spending a penny.

Private recognition

If you’ve ever received unexpected praise from your boss, you’ll know what a great motivator it can be. By pulling a member of staff to one side and saying “thank you”, bosses can demonstrate that they’re taking an active interest in the performance of employees.

The introverts among your staff base may feel uncomfortable if their achievements are recognised publicly, which is why a pat on the shoulder behind closed doors or while making coffee in the kitchen can be far more powerful than pointing the spotlight on them during a company meeting.

Public recognition

You’ll have to follow your nose with this one, given the previous note on private recognition. The last thing you want to do is embarrass someone (that isn’t particularly motivational, whichever way you swing it), but by publicly recognising an employee’s achievements, you can make them feel like a superstar in a way that no bonus can.

It’s all about picking your moment and avoiding the temptation to overdo the praise. A simple nod to Jane at the next company gathering for the work she did in retaining client X will work wonders. Just a sentence and smile in her direction will leave a lasting impression not just on Jane, but on the whole room, as others will yearn for the same degree of recognition.

Embrace BYOD

The bring your own device (BYOD) phenomena has caught many companies unawares and, as a result, has prompted some rather hasty rule setting that is likely to do more damage than good.

By 2020, there are expected to be 6.1 billion smartphones in use across the globe. Whichever way you look at it, that’s a colossal number of people and proof that such technology is now an intrinsic part of everyday life.

With that in mind, why shouldn’t staff be allowed to bring in their own smartphones, tablets or laptops if they feel it helps them get the job done more efficiently?

Embrace BYOD. You can put controls and a policy in place for those bringing in their own devices, but by allowing them to do so, you’ll demonstrate trust. That trust will be repaid with greater productivity.

A surprise day off

But this one will cost, surely? Technically, yes – you’re losing a day of someone’s time, but if there’s enough cover and an employee has done something that deserves a huge pat on the back, give them a free, unexpected day off. It won’t be forgotten.

More responsibility

Extra money is the briefest way to say “thank you”. It comes and goes incredibly quickly, but additional responsibility offers far more longevity when it comes to employee motivation and retention.

Not everyone wants more responsibility, but those that yearn for it should be noticeable within a crowd. They’ll regularly step outside of their comfort zone and won’t hesitate to put their hand up when an opportunity to impress arises.

Give the top performers in your business more responsibility rather than more money. The latter will come in the form of salary as they move up the company ladder, but that shouldn’t be seen as a cost – it’s an investment in the future success of the business.


Career progression is more important than ad-hoc bonuses, and training has long been a way to increase skill sets, bolster knowledge and provide opportunities to climb the company ladder.

People will generally value the addition of new skills and knowledge far higher than an extra bit of cash, so provide training as often as the budget allows.

You don’t have to look externally for tutoring, either; training sessions can be carried out by experienced employees and those who have been with the company for a considerable amount of time. Being given the opportunity to learn from the best at close quarters will be devoured by most employees.

A clear career path

People often get stuck in a rut at work if they can’t see a clear path ahead. Why go beyond the call of duty if you can jump no higher than the low ceiling above your head?

Show each and every staff member that they can progress their careers by providing a clear career path. The carrot on the end of the stick doesn’t have to be money – people will respond far better if it acts as a beacon for where they could be in three years’ time.


Some of the world’s largest and most successful companies favour stock options over large pay packets, and it’s a cunning tactic.

In one motion, you can keep overheads down while retaining the focus and long-term commitment of employees. If they have stock, they’ll literally have an invested interest in the business, and owning a part of the whole can be one of the greatest motivators of all.

Send a letter

Stop laughing at the back! Think about how many letters you receive in the digital age – they’re few and far between. Yet, when one drops on your doormat or desk which has clearly been hand-written and sent with purpose, it’s rather wonderful.

When you want to offer a heart-felt “thank you”, write the employee in question a letter. By expressing your gratitude for their effort in this traditional manner, they’ll end up with a keepsake related to their achievements that will stay with them for years to come. Pen and paper still exist for a reason.

Lunch with a critical partner

Critical partnerships are incredibly valuable to businesses, but they often sit within the confines of the boardroom and buried deep within products and services. The personalities behind those partnerships can be incredibly inspiring, so why shouldn’t staff on all branches of the company tree get the opportunity to meet them?

Set up lunch with a representative from a critical partner and take along a member of staff who has performed particularly well recently. It’ll be an opportunity they’ll relish and will give them an inspiring insight into the inner workings of the business.

Wrapping up

Employees are only human; money will only drive them so far before they become complacent. The motivational tactics we’ve listed in this blog post offer longevity and a real, tangible sense of reward. They’ll raise spirits, increase productivity and prove that the business cares in ways bonuses could only dream of.