It's time to put away the indoor slides, break-room kegs, and games. While these fun-focused distractions can be a great way to attract young talent, once the novelty wears off, these perks aren't retaining employees. They actually distract from what will really make the members of a team happy in the long term: feeling individually valued and respected by you. Here are a few ways small-business owners can deliver on this, without the need to bring in games or tap into much-needed funds.

1. Focus on wellness.

Larger companies spend big on wellness programs for employees; that's likely not sustainable for your small business. And with more questions than answers about whether these programs actually yield significant results, it's a tough spend to justify. But there are ways you can directly and cost-effectively address your employees' health.

For example, lack of hydration seems like something only athletes need to worry about, but when someone is even slightly dehydrated it affects their mood and mental performance. One study found that when dehydration reduces body mass by more than two percent, mood is influenced, fatigue is greater, and alertness is lower. Of course, specialty coffee drinks, soda, or sports drinks don't really help, and they're loaded with sugar.

What can you do? A company called Lavit created a cold still and sparkling flavored-water dispenser that uses 100 percent recyclable capsules. Employees get a perk and a healthy mood boost, while the company sends a positive message about the environmentally conscious nature of its culture.

Another low-cost wellness initiative is to establish a safe space where employees can destress, decompress, cry, or do whatever they need to do, privately, without fear of judgment. For something a little more active, consider creating activity paths outside the building for walking or biking. Supplying employees with a few colorful, retro community bikes to enjoy won't cost much either.

2. Change the office surroundings.

A workplace with natural light, good ventilation, and comfortable temperatures can reduce absenteeism--which costs companies roughly $2,650 to $3,600 per worker annually--up to four days a year. It's not just standard office settings that this concept applies to, though. For example, because a significant number of my employee base works in a 400,000- square-foot warehouse, I put a plan into action to ensure 100 percent compliance of a facility that is dust-free and has clean air.

For startups looking for a low-investment upgrade, adding plants to a workspace is manageable and effective. There are plants in our offices that I brought in when I started this business 20 years ago. Greenery adds an aesthetic component to the environment, it's naturally calming, improves air quality, and can increase attentiveness and raise productivity. Well-positioned plants have also proved to reduce noise levels in an open office setting.

3. Allow employees to personalize their space.

The average worker spends roughly 90,000 hours of his or her life at work. Being given control over an environment where they spend more time than anywhere else creates a happier, more productive, and loyal team. Especially if you're unable to make changes to your office infrastructure, allowing for personalization is an excellent alternative that shows employees you respect them as individuals.

Being able to customize temperature, control lighting, and regulate the sound in their workspace provides employees with some autonomy. Today, there are myriad ways to address these preferences at all cost levels, from white noise machines to smart home products like Nest, sound-absorbing wall panels, and more.

4. Offer flexible work schedules.

This is a no-cost benefit that offers employees more work-life balance. According to First Round State of Startups 2019--the industry's largest data set on what it's like to run a startup--41 percent of respondents said working from home boosts their productivity. And with 64 percent of companies reporting they have a work-from-home policy in place, this benefit is becoming more of a standardized part of any competitive offer.

Treating employees as professional, responsible adults by offering flexible paid time off has become a popular incentive, if you can make it work. When employees are away from the office, providing tangible benefits to enjoy during that free time is excellent for morale. If your company is in an industry that offers products or services you're able to pass along to your employees, consider doing so.

In the end, there is one foolproof trick to discovering what benefits will truly make your employees feel happy and valued: Ask them. You should be customizing perks to your business and employees. Finding good people can be hard, which is why talent acquisition has become so competitive, but retention is the long game. Challenge yourself to identify the perks that will attract and keep the best people.

Published on: Feb 19, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.