Your most important assets walk out the door every day at 5 p.m. The question is: What are you doing to bring them back each morning?

The job market is too cutthroat to let any part of your business be second-rate. Taking care of your employees is an obvious place to start, but it's not always easy. Keeping them happy involves more than an annual Christmas bonus--although that certainly doesn't hurt.

Zappos is a great example of a company that knows how to keep its employees happy and productive. The company utilizes an incentive program called the "Monthly Hero" program. Every month, each employee is given $50 to nominate whoever he or she thinks went above and beyond. Of the nominees, executives pick a "Monthly Hero," who's then presented with a $50 bonus, a mini-parade, a covered parking spot, a Zappos gift card, and a hero-appropriate cape.

Implementing a similar program in your business isn't difficult, and it doesn't have to involve a lot of money. In fact, research suggests that employees actually prefer tangible incentives (like gift cards) to cash. The key is pinpointing what motivates your employees.

Boost Your Productivity With Incentives

An incentive program that keeps your employees satisfied, challenged, and rewarded for their hard work doesn't have to cost you money--it simply needs to cater to their needs. Done well, you can reap huge rewards.

A well-structured program represents your commitment to employees' health and wellness. And psychologically, incentives are incredibly powerful. They act as positive reinforcements for employees--motivating them to perform well with the prospect of an external reward.

What's more, incentives can reduce employee turnover. Employees who feel valued and appreciated tend to stick around and perform better. Research shows that financial or tangible awards increase performance by an average of 22 percent, and team incentives can increase performance by as much as 44 percent.

They can also make interesting fodder when competing for the best talent. Organizations that offer incentive programs actually attract and retain higher quality workers than organizations that don't.

Look Past the Paycheck

To feel these positive effects, you must structure the program with your employees in mind. It's not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, so it's important to choose certain incentives based on your employees' unique wants and needs. Luckily, there are plenty of incentive opportunities that look beyond cash. Here are four suggestions:

  1. Foster professional development. Provide a stipend to enable employees to widen their skill sets and strengthen their professional development through classes, conferences, and programs. Offering partial tuition reimbursement for formal education and ongoing training opportunities is also a great way to inspire your employees to grow and improve.
  1. Encourage personal development. Healthier employees are happier employees. They miss less work and are more focused and engaged, so encourage your employees to value their well-being. At my company, we reward employees for physical activity and provide fitness wristbands. Their exercise is tracked through an app, and they can redeem earned points for gift cards.
  1. Build a sense of community. Use the prospect of a catered lunch as a motivator for employees to reach company goals. In-office dinners and happy hours can also help your employees become comfortable working across teams and exchanging ideas openly, which will ultimately bolster your company culture.
  1. Give your employees flexibility. Giving your employees time off and dress-down days can go a long way toward showing them that you're dedicated to their happiness. Furthermore, you can offer flexible hours and the option to telecommute. Not only are these kinds of rewards valuable, but they also don't cost you a thing.

By motivating your employees through incentive programs, you can increase your company morale, boost productivity, and even move your bottom line. But don't focus on the cold, hard cash; rather, create a program that suits your business's goals and your employees' needs, and you'll see your business grow.

Published on: Nov 3, 2014