What you can do to reward & motivate employees in a startup environment when you have (almost) no budget

There is a reason why Google receives 75,000 job applications a week – everyone loves a free massage and complimentary gourmet food within 150 feet of their whereabouts. But let’s be honest, Google wasn’t built in a day. Steve Jobs rewarded his first employees at Apple with “90 hours a week and loving it” t-shirts, while they made $3.35 an hour. Clearly, motivating employees in a startup environment does not have to be inextricably linked to money.

After a baseline salary that allows employees to cover their basic needs and a few indulgent pleasures, money has little to do with motivating a human being, a relief for many startups. People want fulfilling, challenging and rewarding work that gives them the space and time to actualize their goals. The most important task of a leader is creating this space, a place employees feel they want to come and work, not because they have to but because it makes them happy.

Keeping people motivated in a work environment comes down to three basic things: being a good leader, creating a home-like space for close-knit relationships and empowering employees to perform to their highest ability. Although it may be surprises and rewards that spike short-term motivation, it is commitment and a belief in the work environment that keep employees engaged year after year.

Here are some recommendations for how to actualize these ideas in your workplace:


Giving people the liberty to choose how, when and under what circumstances they work is a free way to encourage employees to thrive. These are some examples of ways you can motivate employees by give them space to decide how to work:

  • Allow flexible schedules. If your business allows it, give employees the freedom to make their own hours. Some may love to exercise in the morning or want to pick their kids up from school. Give them the freedom to take breaks or start and finish at the time they choose, as long as they bank their hours.
  • Trust your employees by giving them independence and access to resources. There is no better way to demonstrate your belief in their value and cultivate an honest relationship.
  • Allow for telecommuting. If tasks are project based or do not necessitate the employee to be in the office for meetings, give them the option to work from home or while they are travelling.
  • Work swap. Allow employees to swap projects or tasks with other members of the organization. This is an interesting way to foster cross-organizational relationships, increase learning opportunities and decrease the monotony of everyday work. Your team could designate 5 hours per week or 20 hours per month to this type of program.
  • Conduct challenges for days off. In the summer, give employees the possibility to “win” extra days off or bank an extra week by finishing their tasks early. Or, organize an on-going competition that recognizes good work by tracking an important metric in your business. For example, if your business is sales based, reward those who make the most sales with a 4 day weekend the following month.
  • Remove the project manager. Give people the flexibility to decide the parameters of the project and how it will be carried out. Allow them to choose a method of checking in with management, but the liberty to work day-to-day on their tasks as they deem fit.
  • Provide training. Give employees a specified number of hours per week and a monthly budget to invest in their ongoing education.

Engaged Leadership

One of the most important parts of motivating a team is appearing as a strong, capable leader whose boldness and inspiration will lead the team to complete a great cause. Additionally, a great leader must involve his or her team to enhance company performance. Here are some ways to engage your team in the leadership process:

  • Hold a workshop for employees to acknowledge and write down their career goals. It is extremely valuable for both you and your employees to be aware of their aspirations for the future. This will allow you to work together towards them. As a boss, providing opportunities for employees to realize these benchmarks will not go unnoticed and will generate a higher level of commitment.
  • Offer mentorship opportunities, create connections across organization-levels and with suppliers, and try to flatten your organization by inviting “subordinates” to join meetings that are important to your business. Vocalizing a desire for employees to grow in the organization and providing learning opportunities on a day-to-day basis will keep employees engaged and encouraged as they recognize future possibilities for their careers.
  • Set up Q&A boxes that allow employees to anonymously ask for advice without feeling like they are inadequate. Many times, important and insightful questions will go unasked because employees feel it might reflect badly on their reputation. However, this can be an opportunity for open sharing of knowledge and powerful discussions.
  • Show employees how their specific work made an impact for the company by carefully explaining who is benefiting from their work. Sometimes work can get monotonous and morale can suffer. Even passing along an off-handed compliment from a supplier or buyer can be a powerful motivator to keep up the good work.
  • Provide little rewards that are personalized to employee tastes. Rewards don’t have to be costly; they could simply be passes to a movie they mentioned they wanted to see or a book you thought they might like. Little things that remind people you are listening and thinking of them never go unnoticed.
  • Involve your employees in decision-making processes, be honest in meetings and don’t shut down people’s ideas. Employees become excited and more engaged when they feel they are contributing to the organization’s growth.

Home-Like Space

Make your workplace a space where people want to be. Create a space for socializing, working, collaborating and simply being comfortable throughout the day. Here are a few tips:

  • Create a homey workspace. Encourage employees to stay relaxed in your workplace by socializing, cooking lunches together and decorating your place of business with meaning. Make it into a place where people want to spend time.
  • Celebrate milestones. Treat everyone like a family and be inclusive and interested in the everyday occasions that your staff takes pride in.
  • Create an area for sticky notes or a whiteboard to leave compliments and advice
  • Stock your fridge with items your employees love to put on their food, but regularly forget. Splurge on those nice coffee creamers, artisan mustards, salad dressings and hot sauces.
  • Encourage socializing and taking much-needed breaks throughout the workday. You can provide your employees with board or card games, which creates a fun outlet for teambuilding and healthy competition.
  • Support a relaxed dress code. If people in your industry aren’t expected to wear suits and ties, allow your employees to dress how they feel comfortable.

Motivating employees without breaking your budget comes down to creating an environment conducive to happiness. Make them feel happy that they work with the people, in the space and on the projects that they do and productivity will follow.

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