12 Ways to Motivate Employees When You Can't Pay Them More
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12 Ways to Motivate Employees When You Can’t Pay Them More

Rose Keefe Rose Keefe Last Updated:

In February 2017, Gallup released its report, State of the American Workplace. It consisted of data collected from over 350,000 respondents and did not contain good news for U.S. employers.

The report’s findings indicated that 70% of American workers were either ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ at work, resulting in reduced productivity and emotional disconnection from their jobs. Gallup estimated that this trend was costing U.S. companies up to $550 billion per year in lost productivity, and that disengaged employees were more likely to alienate customers, miss time at work, lower morale among their co-workers, and even steal.

It’s tempting to assume that the only way to motivate employees is to offer them more money. Isn’t it only natural for high-performing personnel to want their contributions recognized with a substantial raise? And if a salary increase is not an option due to budget constraints, does it mean that you can expect diminished interest and productivity until they finally join a competitor?

Not quite. When you want to motivate your employees but can’t afford to pay them more, there are cost-effective ways that you can increase their engagement and sense of job satisfaction. Let’s take a closer look at 12 of them.

Sure, money can motivate your employees, but sometimes you can't afford to pay people more or offer huge bonuses. Here are 12 other ways you can motivate employees. Some of them are even more effective than money!

1. Strengthen Workplace Culture

Research suggests that work culture plays a large role in employee satisfaction. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers report that their companies lack a strong, identifiable, and cohesive culture, which is concerning given that strong work cultures have a positive impact on financial performance.

If your company culture needs work, start by eliminating visible hierarchies. When managers and executives are behind closed doors in their corner offices while everyone else is in a cubicle, it can create an atmosphere of “us vs. them” and close off the free flow of ideas that could make a difference in the company’s bottom line.

How to motivate empolyees: Improve workplace culture

Another way to build a stronger work culture is to have everyone on the same page and following the same guidelines. Having one standard for upper management and another for regular employees defeats the purpose. For example, if your company promotes a flexible work environment but only senior managers can work from home, it will create the dissatisfaction you are trying to avoid.

2. Improve Supervisor-Employee Relations

Another Gallup survey indicated that poor relations with a manager or supervisor account for 75% of the reasons why people dislike and eventually quit their jobs. Poor communication, limited interactions with employees, and lack of knowledge all contribute to toxic supervisor-employee relationships. Forbes addressed this problem with the aptly titled article (The) Majority Of Americans Would Rather Fire their Boss Than Get A Raise.

Fortunately, you can improve and energize the atmosphere in the office by improving the ways that managers and their direct reports work together. If supervisors practice positive emotional connections with employees, honor their promises and commitments, and show a willingness to mentor others, it will foster and sustain an atmosphere of trust and respect that employees may value more than money.

3. Provide Mentorship and Training Opportunities

When an employee doesn’t see any opportunity for growth in their current role or the company itself, they’re more likely to feel uncertain about their future there and leave. Even if you can’t afford to pay them more, presenting them with mentorship and training opportunities can provide them with professional encouragement and make it easier for them to envision a future at the company. Mentorship also benefits the organization by increasing retention and employee satisfaction.

4. Give Employees the Tools to Succeed

Many employees are unhappy with their jobs because they don’t believe that they have the tools to enjoy success. Whether it’s a lack of resources or limited training opportunities, they don’t feel that they have what they need to excel. Over time, this dissatisfaction can motivate them to leave.

Tools for success can be job-specific, employee-specific, or both. Does your logo designer need the latest version of her design software to produce industry-leading results? Does your accounts receivable person need a quieter workspace so he can focus on his numbers? If you’ve been wondering how to motivate employees, these tools and concessions can cost little but make a huge difference in how they view their contributions.

5. Recognize a Job Well Done

Many companies operate on the premise that everyone is replaceable. While this may make the senior management team feel confident about the company’s ability to survive turnover, it does little or nothing to prevent the demotivation that inspires turnover in the first place.

Appreciation and recognition make employees feel valued. Instead of taking the attitude that doing a good job is simply what you’re paying them for, offer sincere praise when an employee exceeds expectations. You could:

  • Acknowledge them at an important staff meeting
  • Offer a small but valued perk like an afternoon off
  • Offer sincere thanks to them directly

With the emphasis that today’s workforce places on being recognized and valued, honest praise is a big motivator.

6. Encourage Workplace Camaraderie

When employees go the extra mile, they are usually doing so for their colleagues. While the salary may motivate them to accept a job offer, camaraderie with co-workers encourages them to stay even when financial rewards are not possible at the moment.

You can maintain this important feeling of unity and connection by evaluating each new hire for their skills and their likely cultural fit within your company. As you interview them, confirm that they enjoy teamwork, are open communicators, and can both accept accountability and share praise. If you can see them working well with your existing staff, move their resume to the top of the pile.

7. Distribute Workload Evenly

Nothing is more demoralizing than being one of the only people on the team who is overburdened with work while everyone else has the time and availability to complete their tasks on schedule. They won’t always say anything to you about it either, worried about being perceived as a complainer. Your first clue that there is a problem is usually when they leave.

To protect your best performers from burnout, invest in a business planning software with a shareable calendar. One of the more popular planning tools is Toggl Plan, which is web-based and can be accessed from anywhere by anyone with an internet-enabled device. The Toggl Plan calendar allows you to see what your employees are working on at any given time, so you don’t inadvertently add to the someone’s already-significant workload.

As an added bonus, the Toggl Plan calendar can foster a sense of team spirit and project ownership. Your employees are able to see the timeline change as progress is made and encourage each other to bring the project to a successful conclusion.

8. Provide Energizing Challenges

While a promotion and raise probably ranks at the top, chances are that they’re not the only items on your employees’ wish lists. If you’re unable to reward them financially, is there something else you could offer?

High-performing employees in particular love challenges that help them excel at their job and make further inroads into their career. Sit down with them and find out what they want to learn or what special tasks they might be interested in. If your sales representative loves to write, can you ask him to produce content for the company newsletter or website? If the receptionist is a ‘people person’, why not task her with introducing new hires around the department?

9. Make It Possible to Learn New Skills

When an employee does the same tasks every single day, a sense of monotony will eventually set in and open the door to low motivation levels, job dissatisfaction, and other negative outcomes. Eventually they will see little reason to remain and start sending out resumes and interviewing on their lunch breaks.

You can prevent that slide into boredom and need for change by rewarding your employees with professional development opportunities to be undertaken during the workday, so they don’t have to sacrifice personal time. These opportunities could include:

  • Opportunity to attend an industry conference
  • An online learning course
  • Seminars

Not only will their job satisfaction be enhanced, but they can use their new skills and abilities to improve the company.

10. Provide Added Perks

Perks don’t always have to be financial in scope. Employees today value a healthy work-life balance and when you make that possible, they’ll find their workdays more enjoyable and rewarding. You could offer flexible schedules or opportunities to work from home one or two days a week. If this isn’t feasible, other viable perks include:

  • Longer lunch breaks
  • Working a half-day on Friday
  • A preferred parking spot

Any one of these can create more job satisfaction, which in turn enhances productivity and can even lead to results that support raises in the future.

11. Foster a Sense of Community

When there’s a strong sense of community at the office, your employees will feel more connected to each other and to the company. Remember: you’re not running an apartment complex where neighbors can go years (or indefinitely) without needing to know each other’s names. You’re running a department or organization where everyone can achieve great things when they all work together.

To enhance a sense of community, make opportunities for peer to peer interaction. For example:

  • Order lunch in for everyone when a particular goal is accomplished and encourage all employees to enjoy it together in the boardroom, lunchroom, or other shared space.
  • Hold an annual company picnic and invite employees to bring their families.
  • If you work at the division of a larger corporation, start a friendly competitive rivalry with another division, such as which team can sell the most products in each quarter.

You can even include remote workers in the community experience thanks to videoconferencing software. Technology is a great teambuilder: you can live in Iceland and ‘attend’ a holiday party in New York.

12. Give Them Autonomy

Everyone wants to have control over their own work: few things erode a workplace more than micromanagement and helicopter bosses. Unless they’ve given you a valid reason to do otherwise, give your employees the chance to make some decisions regarding how they will accomplish an objective or complete a task.

When you run a company, it’s impossible to be everywhere at once. Consequently, you will never see most of what goes on every day. If you’re confident that you’ve got a good team, the biggest compliment you can give them is to empower and trust them to make the right decisions.

Even if an occasional mistake is made, the risk is far outweighed by the benefits. When your employees understand that they are an essential part of the organization’s success, it will motivate them in ways that money cannot.


Even if your budget doesn’t support the higher salaries that your people deserve, companies that go out of their way to create a workplace with a strong culture, sense of community, and appreciation for its workers will motivate and retain their staff a lot longer than organizations that treat them like cogs on a wheel. Treat your employees like they matter, and they’ll return the favor with their loyalty.

Rose Keefe

Rose Keefe is an author and technical writer who has over ten years’ experience in supporting project managers in the manufacturing and construction sectors. One of her primary responsibilities was developing product manuals that supported efficient use of industrial equipment. She continues to write on the subject of time management and commercial productivity for trade websites and publications.

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