From cash to iPhones and signing bonuses to free pizza, big and small employers are exploiting whatever incentives they can to find workers. Small-business employers say staffing remains one of the biggest challenges in their recovery from the pandemic, according to a July survey by the National Federation of Independent Business, an advocacy group. 

While raising wages is perhaps the simplest, if most expensive, way to attract employees, some business owners are increasingly adopting more creative incentives -- ones that don't break the bank. 

In particular, Ravin Jesuthasan, a benefits expert at Mercer Consulting, says companies are offering recognition reward programs to their employees from Day 1. These programs give people a chance to experience something they wouldn't normally do -- like skydiving or cooking classes. And they can be cost-effective, even for small businesses, Jesuthasan says.

For many businesses, simply throwing cash -- by way of signing bonuses or higher hourly wages -- at reluctant workers isn't necessarily a good idea. For some, a return on the investment can be difficult to ascertain, while others would be locking in a wage increase for the long haul.

Creating an experience incentive -- say, offering massage gift certificates or weekend getaways -- is both eye catching and cheaper, says Jesuthasan. Further, he suggests you can create even more value by, say, giving an employee a Friday afternoon off to go skydiving or surfing. Particularly in roles with higher turnover, rewarding workers for their loyalty and tenure through experiences is "perhaps a more attractive way of delivering a sign-on bonus or  retention bonus," says Jesuthasan. Better yet, the perceived value of these experiences -- having fun on the company's dime -- may be much higher than the actual cost of providing them.