Motivate employees without spending money

With a workforce that is increasingly disengaged, costing more to produce the same, more and more companies are looking for ways to motivate employees.

Most, however, make the mistake of using extrinsic motivation to motivate employees. They reward employees by giving them something tangible, like an iPad or monetary bonus, when they meet targets.  The problem with this approach is that the moment you give them something tangible, you set a baseline in terms of future expectations.  The bonus soon becomes a demand, the iPad becomes standard, neither serving as motivation for longer than a few months.

The stakes keep rising each time you wow! your employees with something awesome.  Soon, you realize it’s impossible to keep up with this extrinsic method of reward.  Rather than motivate employees, it turns into something demotivating when you are unable to keep up with it.  The moment you stop giving the reward, people become unhappy.  A seemingly impossible feat.

Not quite.

The good news is that there are endless ways to reward the behaviours you want without spending any money, simply by changing the question.

As opposed to asking “What your employees would like to have?”, rather ask “How would they like to feel?”

Everything we do, everything we buy, everything we say, is to make us feel a certain way.  In the having of the iPad, you are fulfilling not a physical, but an emotional need.

The good news is that once you grasp this, it’s easy to find rewards that fulfil this need without spending money or giving the thing.  Find creative ways that result in the same feeling, without the monetary expense.

Once you understand the rules of the game, motivating your employees becomes as easy as child’s play.

The rules of the game

1 – It needs to be voluntary.
2 – Rewards needs to be random, or at least unscheduled.
3 – It needs to keep changing.

If you follow these rules, you can design an unlimited number of motivational strategies on your own, but here are some ideas to get you started.

1. Provide clear targets and feedback

Probably the easiest way to motivate employees is to set achievable goals and regularly show progress towards this goal.  We feel a sense of achievement when we can see that we are getting closer to our goal, which is inherently motivating.

Set an achievable target for the team and display a chart indicating how the team is progressing towards this goal.

Visualize progress

Make it fun and colourful to keep people engaged.  Give the team the responsibility to create the board and see how their creativity inspires positive change in the workplace.

2. Give an opportunity to give back

Salesforce is undeniably one of the most successful companies in the world.  The company philosophy, developed by Marc Benioff,  includes integrated philanthropy, or 1-1-1 model, as a fundamental part of the business.  1% of their resources are invested in causes they feel passionate about,  currently focused on healthcare and education.

Most corporates already have some or other social responsibility program, yet few involve employees, even fewer making it their responsibility.

Giving is one of the most rewarding experiences for anyone, and allowing employees to contribute to a cause of their choice, not only motivates them but improves the company’s public reputation.

Consider a partnering with an existing organization such as VolunteerMatch to find a cause your company or team care about. Give back time, money, skill or both as a team building activity. Alternatively, as opposed to paying out performance bonuses, allow for time off to spend at a charity of the employee’s choice.

3. Make something

Most office jobs require people to sit still for long periods and follow rules and procedures in a set and repetitive way.  This is probably one of the most demotivating things, as deep down, we all crave to express our own individuality creatively.  And we’re made to move.

Allocate half a day a month, during the quiet periods or after completing a specific milestone, to make something not related to the business at all.  Have a workshop on soap making,  or a mosaic class, or an Asian cuisine cooking class (if you’re a Westerner).  Or for the scientists and engineers, give them a challenge inspired by a comic book, like building a rocket for a skateboard.

The key is to do something interesting that will allow you to learn a new skill, be creative, and take your mind temporarily off work entirely.  Immerse yourself in another type of work and afterwards showcase what you’ve produced, or draw parallels as to how what you’ve learned can be used in your work.

Reboot your mind.  Practice your creativity. Boost your productivity.

4. Play

Many studies have proven how valuable play is for both children and adults.  Play is a natural form of learning in nature and is the ultimate form of relaxation (for most people).

If stress is one of your problems in your workplace, consider having a play-day once in a while.

Define the behaviours and results you want to reward, such as the value of trust, exceeding a client’s expectations, or taking the time to clean the office before you leave and create a different, personalized version of Pokemon Go.

Image of a treasure map

Draw a huge map on one of the open walls, serving as the treasure map of the office.  Each time someone discovers a “treasure” by observing the desired behaviour, map it out.  This friendly competition between teams is an easy and fun way to recognize people’s contribution to the success of the company.  It’s also great to improve communication and respect between different teams.

The team with the most treasures at the end of a pre-defined period is the winner.

5. Experiment laboratory

Create a safe space to fail by allocating an empty office or area in the office as a laboratory for experiments.  Most people are afraid to try something new as they are afraid to fail.  However, learning is one of the most motivating things, directly impacting the productivity and performance of a team.

Have experiment sessions where employees are given the opportunity to try something new, which are too risky to try in a development environment.  Allow people to try seemingly crazy things in a creative kind of prototyping environment.  For example, a simple roll-on deodorant inspired the design of the original computer mouse.

What you are trying to do is cultivate a culture of creativity and innovation, where people are invited to experiment with different solutions. They can then safely apply their learning in their daily work, without the failures.

Improved creativity.  then Improved motivation. Improved products.


The best things in life are free. Motivating your workforce doesn’t have to be expensive. Identify how people want to feel.  Find ways to fulfil this emotional need without having something.

The factor to motivate employees most is having a purpose, contributing to something bigger than ourselves, the experience of success and social connection.  None of these has to cost a cent.  It merely requires some time and creative ideas.


Image source:, Google images (with usage rights labelled for reuse). I the author confirm I have the right to use these images.

With 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.