It’s been a rough year. A lot of companies have had to let people go or close their doors entirely. Those of us still operating are on a shoestring budget and owe a huge debt of gratitude to the team members who stuck with us through this unprecedented time.
Which leads to a big problem: How can a company with a razor-thin margin appropriately reward a team that went the extra mile? Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to tell your team you love them without spending any money at all. Here are 50 of our favorites, in no particular order.
50 Free Employee Appreciation Benefits
- Make work schedules as flexible as possible, given the demands of the job. This is easier for a software company than a restaurant, but whatever you can do shows your staff respect.
- Call out small accomplishments regularly. Make a private note for yourself when setting any meeting agenda. Rotate through your staff so everybody gets praise at least once a week.
- Show your team how they can personally impact their work assignments. Work with them directly, and have accessible resources to demonstrate their potential career path and how they can move toward their goals.
- Choose a metric the team does well on and post their progress somewhere public. Just seeing evidence of an area they excel in can be very encouraging for employees.
- Put boardgames, magazines, and puzzle books in the break room or common area. It’s a small amenity you can pull from your home library that means more than you might think.
- Give half-days before holiday weekends. Nobody’s going to get much done anyway, and Friday-morning productivity will often make up for it.
- When handing out rewards, tailor them to your team’s interests. If your standard incentive is a $50 Outback Steakhouse gift card, find something for the vegetarian in your group. Get as detailed as you can, showing that you not only appreciate your team but know them as individuals. (Note: This costs money, but it doesn’t cost more money if you were already giving out such rewards).
- Go classic with an employee-of-the-month program. Offer meaningful but free rewards like letting them work from home for a certain amount of time or convenient parking.
- Find or scrounge up a trophy and award it to somebody for whatever you think would be most appreciated and fun. Give the recipient the assignment of awarding it to somebody else next month. Keep it going.
- Reach out to local companies for an employee discount. This costs you nothing, rewards your employees, and boosts foot traffic for local businesses. Everybody wins.
- Put employee profiles on the company website. Most show only the top-level management and department leaders, but team member photos with bios show you’re proud of everybody.
- Create a way for staff to show appreciation for one another publicly. A bulletin board, memo box, or online group or page are all excellent examples.
- Celebrate the anniversary of each employee joining your company. Mention it publicly, and have it accompanied by face time with the highest-level person you can get to do it.
- Invent a holiday. Set some random date on the calendar as “staff appreciation day” and pull out all the stops with decorations made from stuff you have on site, speeches by company leadership, and games and activities. Nobody gets the day off (although it might be a half-day), but nobody will want to because of all the neat stuff you have in store for them.
- Learn to love the suggestion box. It’s a classic for a reason.
- Hold a company potluck for a relaxed afternoon, and have your employees assign what you have to try and cook.
- Invite in members of your local community who rely on your company. Introduce them to a critical member of the team that serves them and let them show their appreciation.
- Make it easy for team members to take time off and volunteer for organizations and causes they find meaningful.
- If possible and safe, make your office a pet-friendly zone. Do it for a day, a specific day each month, or as an ongoing part of company policy.
- Invite a food truck to come park in the lot during lunch for a day. It costs you nothing, nets them business, and creates an air of celebration during mealtime.
- Don’t stop with the truck for one day. Find a rotation of 10 to 14 trucks so there’s something nice in the parking lot all the time.
- Remember the basics: Say please, and thank you.
- Give out fun awards, complete with printed certificates, for a team’s non-work contribution. Think things like “Prettiest Desk,” “Best Cat Stories,” and “Most Polite Parking.”
- Send physical thank-you and congratulations cards for outstanding contributions and moments.
- Create an online feed for company thank-yous. Have one for interoffice communications and one where the public sends their thanks.
- Hold a company-wide town hall-style meeting once a quarter, where people can celebrate successes, solve problems, and give constructive criticism together.
- Start a mentoring program, where you take time each week to help your team move forward with their careers.
- Add an extra 30 minutes to lunch breaks or an extra 15-minute break during strategic shifts.
- Encourage continuing education. Paying for classes isn’t free (though it frequently pays for itself), but you can offer more flexible hours, find co-workers to tutor, and allow work time to be spent studying and preparing for exams.
- Find out if anybody on your team is qualified to lead yoga, tai chi, meditation, or a similar wellness class. Allow everybody to participate on company time.
- Do the same for hobbies like knitting, bike repair, or scrapbooking. Even half an hour a week can improve productivity and show your employees how much you care about them aside from their job duties.
- Let everybody leave an hour early on a random day for no reason.
- Allow people to come in to work an hour late on Monday, or give them the day off after their birthday so they can celebrate in style.
- Make time to give thank-yous in person rather than on the phone or via email. This simple change costs nothing but makes an enormous difference in how the appreciation is received.
- Allow extra time off at lunch if your employees go to the gym. This one’s sneaky because studies show their productivity after a workout will more than makeup for the time spent away.
- Form a team for a local fun run, charity walk, or similar event. Allow some on-the-clock time for preparation and organizing.
- Give credit when your team’s ideas get recognition up the ladder. Even if it was mostly your idea, mention the people who helped you brainstorm it. If possible, get the higher-ups to send a thank-you email to your staff.
- Set up a nap room with comfortable chairs or couches. A 20-minute power nap improves health, boosts productivity, and makes for a genuinely brag-worthy employee perk.
- Gamify the workspace. Set metrics associated with quality, extra effort, and a few things that are just fun. Whether prizes are actual, physical objects or simple bragging rights, it’s surprising how well this motivates people.
- Ask your team how they would best like to be recognized. Ask individually and as a group, and remember who told you what.
- Make a company yearbook online, with photos and quotes from the year’s most memorable achievements, events, parties, and in-jokes. Show a slideshow of it on the last day before most people leave for the holidays.
- Allow customizable workspaces. You don't have to spend money to allow each team member to fine-tune their station. Make it even more fun by holding a contest for the best-decorated workspaces.
- Write a letter of recommendation and post it to their LinkedIn page. Sure, this might make it easier for them to get a job elsewhere — but if you do it right, they’re less likely to want to leave.
- Invite a team member to sit at the “big kids table” at lunch so they have some time with higher-ranking leaders in the company.
- Announce and congratulate your social media page’s benchmark achievements, bragging about your staff for all to see.
- Hold walking meetings outside for individuals or small groups. It feels more personable, encourages wellness, and can make for an appreciated change of pace.
- Create a role shadowing program, where your employees can spend a day following somebody who does the job they want to better prepare them for moving into that job someday.
- Add employee birthdays and work anniversaries to your calendar, and offer your best wishes in person.
- Do the same for out-of-office accomplishments like finishing a degree, earning a black belt, or getting a poem published.
- Last, but not least (and possibly the best): Ask your employees how you can make their jobs easier, better, and more fulfilling. Listen when they answer, then implement the suggestions with enthusiasm and good faith.
This isn’t even close to an exhaustive list. The variety of free ways to connect with, encourage, and show appreciation for your employees is infinite. Use your favorites from this list and change them to suit your team, or choose a variation. The important part is to make it personal, heartfelt, and valuable. Let them know you care.
Michael Keenan was an HR executive for 10 years and now provides consulting services to companies.