Your business is only as good as the people who work for you. No matter how good your product, how necessary your service, how innovative your technology, it's the people in your company that ultimately determine your success. That's why it's important to nurture and reward your employees.

But in these days of tight budgets, many businesses don't have a lot of extra money to spend on employee benefits. Nevertheless, there are many things you can do to make your employees feel appreciated -- and keep them motivated and working hard -- that don't cost a lot.

In my business, I've had fun improvising with more creative employee perks. We've established a few that seem to be effective:

  • Well days: I've got a confession to make. Years ago, when I was a young employee and needed a day off but didn't want to use up my vacation time, once or twice I called in "sick." You know what happened? The guilt from lying to my boss always made me actually feel sick. So I decided that when I became a boss, I wouldn't make my employees lie to me about wanting a day off. So my employees get "well days." In other words, if something is going right in their lives -- they've just fallen in love, their child is receiving an award, their best friend is visiting from out-of-town -- they can call in "well." Sure, this isn't really different from having a floating personal leave day, but it recognizes that employees' lives outside of work are important.
  • Birthdays: I've always thought birthdays are special, so in my company, employees get their birthdays as a paid day off. Be careful about this benefit, however. Some people would rather work on their birthday than be alone. Instead, do something to recognize the employee. You don't have to make a big fuss, and don't ask other employees to bring gifts or chip in money for gifts, but a birthday card and a balloon or flower might be nice.
  • Awards: About a year ago, one of my employees did something exceptional. Light-heartedly, I sent out an e-mail to everyone naming him "Employee of the Week." It was funny because we're a really small company; it's not like we have hundreds of employees and the employee of the week gets the best parking space in the lot. But the idea caught on. Every once in a while, someone will nominate another employee as "Employee of the Week" or I'll give someone that award. All they get is an e-mail and a round of applause, but they really appreciate it. Oh yes, I e-mail their spouse or parent, too!
  • Food: It's amazing how much people like food. I remember talking to employees who've just been hired by a new company, and one of the things they'll mention excitedly is the free soft drinks in the vending machine or free bagels or donuts. You don't have to provide free food regularly, but when anything special has happened, an easy, inexpensive way to celebrate is to bring in food or take the staff to lunch.
  • Flexibility: Few things are as greatly appreciated by employees as having the ability to adapt certain things to their own needs. Typically, the most important area in which flexibility is valued is in their schedule -- whether it's starting work a half hour later to get a child to school or leaving work a little early occasionally for other needs. Giving some employees a reasonable amount of flexibility will often engender a great deal of loyalty.
  • Saying thank you: The least expensive thing you can do is to remember to thank your employees. I'm always surprised at how few bosses say "thanks" to their employees. Everyone, including you and me, appreciates being appreciated.

Of course, you always have to consider the effect any benefit will have on your business and act accordingly. For instance, this year, the birthday of one of my employees falls during an important trade show, and he won't get the day off. But he understands the business need. Instead, we'll buy him a nice dinner, sing happy birthday, and give him a day off some other time.

Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2003

Rhonda Abrams is the author of The Successful Business Organizer, Wear Clean Underwear, and The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies. To receive Rhonda's free business tips newsletter, register at