5 Low-Cost Ways to Make Employees Happy

Last Updated Jul 18, 2011 2:01 PM EDT

By Kira Gould
Is there an upside to not being able to afford big bonuses and generous benefits? Bob Nelson, a business consultant in San Diego and author of "1001 Ways to Reward Employees," thinks so: Your small business actually has a great deal more freedom than a larger one to be creative and cost-effective in how you show appreciation for staff members. "Small businesses are ideally suited to provide motivation to employees in that they aren't constrained by a large policy manual or multiple levels of required approvals," Nelson says.

With that in mind, check out these five ideas for making your employees happier:

1. Offer something special
You want the product or service your business offers to stand out in the marketplace. So it makes sense to think of your workplace in the same way by making it special and ensuring that it stands out from those of your competitors.

Don't go crazy here, just think of simple ways to create a friendly environment. For instance, if long hours are part of your workplace, think about making sure people have ergonomic chairs and good task lighting. Providing snacks on Fridays, or a ping-pong table for break time might be just the ticket to helping your employees understand that you appreciate their efforts.

2. Share control
Time is a precious resource these days. Studies have shown that people in all sorts of situations respond positively to having a little control over their environment, their schedule, and more. Take a look at your workforce and your schedule and introduce some flexibility if there's room for it. You don't have to give everyone every Friday off (most businesses can't go that far) but most workers will warmly welcome occasional, seasonal, or permanent flexibility options.
Nelson notes in his research from consulting with hundreds of companies that people who feel they are helping to shape their workplace and their time, rather than just being a voiceless cog in the wheel, are likely to be happier and more productive.

3. Share the load
Along the same lines, it's important to remember that most people value and thrive on meaningful engagement. Employees crave involvement and autonomy, which can help your business in many ways. Let them engage in defining their jobs and helping make decisions about company resources and more. That sense of ownership will not only boost their morale, but it may help boost their productivity as well. "It's common sense," Nelson says. "We all want to be valued and when workers feel that their contribution is honored, they will honor that as well."

4. Offer no-interest loans
Looking for benefits that are low-risk for you and high-boost for them? Consider offering small, no-interest loans to employees. Talk to your accountant about how to administer such a program and be sure to cap these as "micro" loans that will just help people on small purchases. It's a supportive gesture that will not go unnoticed.

5. Show your appreciation
As Julia McGovern and Susan Shelly note in "The Happy Employee: 101 Ways for Mangers to Attract, Retain, & Inspire the Best and Brightest," one of the most basic morale-boosters is simply recognizing good work. People at all levels appreciate being appreciated, but it doesn't have to come in the form of a fat check. Many people respond to a simple -- and specific -- "thank you" from their managers.

Nelson agrees: "Recognition is the top driver of human performance," he says. "You get what you reward."

Flickr photo courtesy of rabanito, CC 2.0. (smiley face)
Flickr photo courtesy of Kare_Products, CC 2.0. (chair)