This may come as no surprise: Business is highly competitive. Determining who comes out on top ultimately comes down to a game of margins.

That's why companies are getting more and more creative with what they offer to attract potential employers. Often, these efforts to attract top talent are met through a form of financial incentives. Whether it's incentive pay or sign-on bonuses, many employers are hoping the money will solve everything. 

While many would think that money would, in fact, solve everything, a Harvard study shows a much different result. Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Ashley V. Whillans found in her 2018 research that using cash isn't always the best solution. Specifically, she found that more than 80 percent of American employees say they don't feel recognized or rewarded--despite American companies spending more than a fifth of their budgets on wages.

That's why you need to start getting creative. If you're looking to attract, retain, and motivate your employees, include these three critical aspects.

1.Emphasize unique benefits.

Whillans and her team conducted of more than 92,000 job ads and found that the more benefits an employer described, the higher the application rates. When thinking about benefits that you're going to highlight, put a spotlight on the more unique ones.

For example, caregiving is a potential workplace crisis that is only going to expand as the population ages. Highlighting family leave policies or even stating how they will still be able to get paid while caregiving is something that will make a company stand out.

A second example: encouraging employees to exercise while on the clock and stay at home when sick. I'll steal a third example from Aetna, which uses the power of money in combination with a unique offer: offering employees money for consecutive nights of quality sleep consisting of seven hours or more.

Anything that makes you stand out from your competitors is valuable.

2. Offer your employees time and flexibility.

Whillans and her team conducted a Glassdoor survey with 115,000 employees and found that providing intangible non-cash benefits, like flexible work options or the ability to choose assignments, led to much stronger job satisfaction than straightforward cash rewards. 

An underrated area to look into is holidays. Not everyone celebrates Christmas, which is why companies like Spotify are allowing employees to work on a public holiday, and take that day off some other time.

While allowing an employee to work at home could certainly help with stress for a multitude of reasons, I see a bigger picture here: Money is infinite and time is finite.

3. Make your employees feel visible and appreciated.

Even though we're adults, I believe the little kid inside each of us never goes away. As children, being recognized and verbally appreciated rather by our parents or school teachers always felt good.

This reinforcement led to increased motivation and participation in whatever task was being executed at the moment. This same principle applies to your employees when at work.

I used to work at a gym, and once, I had a month where I fell short on my number of clients. Most bosses would run a guilt trip on you. However, I received the opposite. I was actually recognized and appreciated for the effort I put into generating new clients despite the shortcoming.

This happened because my boss was process oriented and understood that you can only control your actions, not external events such as customers buying. As an employee at the time, this lessens the stress because you're not constantly on pins and needles worrying about your job.

Creating some sort of recognition program inside your company where you show appreciation for employees who consistently show up and provide effort demonstrates that their value extends beyond metrics. Go the extra mile and even write hand-written letters instead of buying pre-made cards and templates.

Money is most certainly not useless to an employee. The key factor to keep in mind is to not overlook the small habits and gestures. Combine attention to detail over the small gestures plus money and you're going to create an unmistakable culture.

Published on: Feb 28, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.