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A Guide to Employee Incentive Programs

Among the universal truths of the workplace, one stands separate from the rest — employers and employees often feel the stagnation and dullness from a workplace bogged down with the daily grind.

While this may be a frustrating feeling, these situations are salvageable and are an opportunity to employ new methods to boost employee morale, satisfaction and overall engagement. The answer lies in employee incentive programs.

What Are Employee Incentive Programs?

Employee incentive programs are systems that enable employees to gain additional perks from the workplace. This is separate from their employment packages.

Incentive programs also positively reinforce the work employers would like to see during the workday. They also recognize employees for their hard work.

These incentive plans for employees can be anything from monetary prizes like bonuses, to non-monetary events like a dress-down day in the office. Both types of incentives have their place in any workplace.

Types of Incentives for Employees

Incentives can come in many different forms. Incentives can be physical objects or abstract concepts that nourish dedication, excitement and newness within an employee group.

Usually, these incentives fall into two categories:

  • Monetary 
  • Non-monetary

Understandably, some companies — notably small businesses or startups — might be unable to commit to monetary incentives. However, there are plenty of incentive structures that do not require fiscal value.

One of the most popular monetary incentives is bonuses. Employee monetary benefits include sign-on bonuses, referral bonuses and merit-based bonuses. These bonuses can instill a sense of value, worth and recognition in an employee.

Non-monetary incentives are just as appreciated by employees. With relaxed work environments becoming more common, many employees seek out employers that value dress-down days, one-on-one recognition and support skill development.

A 2013 study by Make Their Day, an employee motivation firm, found that 70% of employees reported that fiscal incentives are not mandatory to feel motivated in the workplace. This number jumped nearly 20% from the same survey conducted in 2007 (Source: PR Newswire).

Now, more than ever, incentives are a cornerstone of making employees feel valued, motivated and dedicated to fostering a more encouraging work environment — monetary or otherwise.

Incentives Versus Benefits

Employee benefits and incentives are two different concepts. While your employees’ benefits packages are contingent upon their work status, incentives are usually merit-based and do not touch sick time, insurance benefits or PTO.

Incentives work in tandem with employees’ benefits packages to create an enjoyable and appreciative environment worthy of their time and effort. By using compelling benefits, alongside exciting incentives, you can draw in dedicated employees willing to give their all.

You can view the difference between benefits packages and incentives like this:

  • Benefits packages attract employees from a pool of applicants by showing company advantages.
  • Incentives work to retain talent by maintaining their initial level of interest in the company (Source: Achievers).

By using your company’s offered benefits package in conjunction with fun, targeted incentives based on what your team enjoys most, you are on your way to developing a tight-knit, thriving work environment.

Perks of Employee Incentives

In a constantly forward-thinking and progressive world, employee health and emotional wellness are often at the forefront of employers’ minds. Thus, incentive programs align with overall well-being and employee life improvement.

The advantages of using an employee incentive program are vast and rooted in progress. The wide array of positives impacts everyone in the office, regardless of level. Here are just a few of the improvements to be had from getting started with incentive programs:

  • Enhanced productivity and effectiveness
  • Loyalty to the team and company vision
  • Improved collaboration between employees
  • Higher employee retention rates
  • Overall high morale among employees
  • Increased employee motivation to meet expectations, deadlines and pursue company opportunities
  • An established level of higher expectations and performance
  • An overall sense of belonging, fitting in and socialization (when appropriate)

These benefits will boost employee life, dedication and wellness — something that all employers are interested in enhancing. This will, in turn, foster cohesion and collaboration in the office and during work trips, while building connections.

Developing Your Incentives: A Simple Guide to Personalized Programs

Formulating your compensation programs to motivate employees can seem like an arduous task, but comes down to two steps — identifying your teams’ likes and dislikes and structuring an incentive plan.

Identify What Your Team Likes Most

This step is all about observing your employees’ most common likes, dislikes and values. If you are comfortable with your team, you may want to take note of conversations frequently had at lunch, their favorite shows or commonly discussed hobbies.

Knowing what your team likes helps in the construction of an incentive structure that works for your whole office. For example, you can implement a music break including your team’s favorite musical artists on days when tasks are completed ahead of time.

Another great example would be to offer your team a fun night out on the company tab, to reward them for a productive week or month.

Other incentives and bonuses can be anything from ordering take-out lunch for the team after a great work week, bringing in donuts for breakfast or having a small (and friendly) competition for an additional day off or a dress-down day.

Structure an Incentive Plan

The best incentive plans are ongoing and keep your team engaged and retained on staff. Coming up with incentives at foreseeable and predictable intervals helps your employees know when they are being rewarded or recognized.

When you have your incentive ready, you can choose your interval time. Weekly or monthly intervals are beneficial for keeping the incentives, rewards or recognition at the forefront of employee minds and keeping them motivated.

Reminders, like a weekly email or newsletter, can ensure that your employees are putting their best effort into work, and they are asking for assistance on projects, as needed.

A poster or whiteboard in the office can be used as a fun end-of-the-day activity. Your team can mark off the day and get closer to the incentive.

Tips to Prevent Getting Discouraged

Sometimes, things do not go according to plan — and that is okay! Incentive plans are about trial and error. You may need to cycle through a few incentives to find out exactly what your employees like the most.

Some employers may find that the promise of a pizza lunch day is enough to boost office morale, while others may require something more extravagant. The following tips can help you navigate the initial growing pains of implementing your incentive program.

Use Recognition Alongside Other Incentives

It may take some time to find incentives that your team likes, but recognition is easily given and only takes a few moments. Sit down and boost morale by telling your team they are genuinely appreciated.

Use a Suggestion Incentive

Let your employees tell you what they want from you and the company by taking their suggestions seriously. Not only will your employees feel valued, but they will also be more effective and productive when they see their changes being made (Source: VantageCircle).

Consider Offering Telecommuting

As the world changes, so does the workplace. As you find out which incentives will work the best for your team, telecommuting might be the answer to get some immediate productivity and motivation as you brainstorm other incentives.

Your team will likely appreciate your flexibility and trust. Consider implementing a hybrid telecommuting option for your high-performing employees and observe the office morale on- and offline.

Top Five Incentive Programs That Work

What are some examples of incentives? Here are the top five incentives from some of the biggest companies.

  1. Tuition Reimbursement Plans. Companies that offer tuition reimbursement motivate employees to pursue higher education, retain their talent and create their pool for new career opportunities, without resorting to external hires.
  2. Health and Wellness Classes. Even a quick breathwork or yoga course can improve overall mood in the office.
  3. Gas or Commuting Stipends. Filling up the tank on the company dime can make a whole day feel so much better and improve productivity.
  4. Paid Vacation or Time Off. Everyone needs a break — especially employees who consistently put their best into their work.
  5. Bonuses or Gift Cards. Nothing says a job well done like a free cup of coffee in the morning. Even a $25 gift card or small bonus can make an employee feel valued for their hard work.

While employee incentive programs may be challenging to brainstorm and implement, their effectiveness and impact have shown their worth and value. Evaluate your workplace to see where you can place incentives and which incentive structures fit your team the best.