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Increase Employee Morale on a Budget: Inexpensive Employee Appreciation Ideas

January 15, 2024

Time and again, research backs up our lived experience: employees are happier and more likely to stay when they feel appreciated at work. And it’s clear employers can do more to recognize employees for their efforts and contributions.

According to Gallup’s ongoing Q12 survey on employee engagement at the time of this writing, just 29% of respondents report receiving positive recognition in the previous seven days. Over the past few decades, employers have often grappled with the best ways to show appreciation and many ideas have fallen flat—from pizza parties to branded sportswear and beyond.

For a long time, there’s been a common refrain in discussions around employee appreciation that it might ‘cost too much’ to do things differently. And this year, amid broader economic uncertainty and the heightened need to control spending, that concern has prevented many organizations from improving their employee appreciation programs and practices in meaningful ways.

Fortunately, there is another path forward. There are plenty of ways to show employee appreciation that won’t break your bank—and some that won’t cost a thing. In this article, we’ll explore eight inexpensive employee appreciation ideas that will fit into any organization’s budget.

The Power of Employee Appreciation

Assuming employees receive fair and adequate compensation and benefits—what we often refer to as ‘table stakes’—offering inexpensive but thoughtfully considered types of employee appreciation can have a profound impact on job satisfaction, productivity, and retention.

Employee appreciation boosts engagement, and organizations with higher engagement consistently see higher levels of productivity and less turnover than organizations with lower engagement. Gallup's State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report found that high-engagement organizations saw 14% greater employee productivity and a positive impact on retention. Companies with average annual turnover rates above 40% experienced 18% less turnover, while companies with historically low turnover saw 43% less turnover.

All of these gains contribute to a healthy work culture and a positive work environment, which pay back dividends in spades.

Let’s dive into eight unique, affordable staff appreciation ideas that any organization can adopt right now.

#1 Personalized Handwritten Thank-You Notes

In an era of digital communication—texts, emails, DMs, and video meetings—a handwritten note of appreciation can have a powerful impact. That’s in part because they’re so rare but also because they take more time to write, address, and mail a handwritten thank you note than to fire off an email or text. Handwritten notes convey the message that the recipient is worthy of that extra effort.

To be meaningful, it’s crucial that these messages are thoughtful and personalized. This is not the time for a form letter where an employee’s name is simply dropped into a placeholder, or a note penned en masse by an assistant and signed by the boss. These notes can be brief—even two to three sentences can be enough to convey authentic gratitude. Be as specific as possible about what you’re thankful for. Instead of writing “I appreciate your great work,” point to a detail of that work, such as, “The graphics you created for your report looked great and were easy to read.” Maybe it will take a few more words to be specific, but honing in on what you are appreciating is far more valuable than generic platitudes.

Need help drafting an employee appreciation message? We've created 50 examples to help get you started. Check them out here.

#2 Office "Employee of the Month"

While some might fear the concept of putting an employee in the spotlight each month is outdated and frivolous, we beg to differ. The key to pulling it off is being creative about how you celebrate the chosen employee—and make sure you’re doing it in a way that reflects your organization’s culture and values, as well as the preferences of your employees. Typical Employee of the Month programs have a two-pronged approach: recognition and reward. Organizations can recognize a special employee each month by announcing the winner during a staff meeting, posting their photo on a bulletin board or employee intranet, and featuring them in a staff email. Rewards can vary depending on your budget and employee preferences. Popular options include an extra day of PTO, a cash reward or gift card, or a paid work lunch.

Because you can choose the monetary value of monthly rewards and there isn’t much administrative work involved, it’s easy to control the cost of this program and ensure it fits into your budget.

#3 Digital Employee Awards

In a world of hybrid work, going digital with all kinds of employee appreciation options is a necessity. Digital awards help ensure that everyone is included regardless of their work location or schedule, and it also makes awards easy for employees to use.

Using digital employee awards to acknowledge individual achievements is an effective way to shape the employee experience, help people feel they belong, and foster a positive work culture that encourages employees to stay on. Digital awards can range from a spotlight on your employee engagement platform to digital gift cards to physical gifts. As with other ideas on this list, you can determine a comfortable spending level for these types of awards.

#4 Lunch the the Boos

Sometimes, experiences outweigh material rewards. Many of us feel this way in our personal lives—in fact, a 2021 Sitecore Holiday Trends Report found 71% of US residents would prefer experience-based gifts. That very human desire for connection applies just as much at work.

During the height of the pandemic, many remote teams adopted the practice of a weekly or monthly team lunch. Typically, the organization provides lunch for everyone on a predetermined day, often by distributing digital gift cards for meal delivery (such as GrubHub or Door Dash). On the day of the event, everyone logs into a video meeting and dines together. If your team is working together in the office, consider taking them out to lunch at a nearby restaurant or having lunch catered.

It’s crucial that this is a fun, social-oriented lunch break and not a regular staff meeting plus food. Scheduling a ‘non-working work lunch’ gives employees the opportunity to break bread and connect with one another on a human level—which helps drive communication and collaboration. For individual awards, consider offering a one-on-one lunch with a C-suite executive or another senior member of the organization who might have some wisdom to impart over a midday meal.

#5 Employee Recognition Wall

Creating a visual recognition wall helps keep the good cheer going and serves as a reminder that employees are seen and valued. This might be a bulletin board in the break room, other office common area, or even in your lobby where you pin up Employee of the Month photos and recipients of other awards. If encouraging peer-to-peer recognition is an important part of your employee appreciation program, you might also use a recognition wall as a memo board where employees can add notes of appreciation for others’ contributions.

As with any physical collection of memorabilia, you’ll want to make a schedule for maintaining it—rotating out older awards and adding new ones on a regular basis, so the wall looks fresh and clean. Faded photos and curled certificates aren’t as likely to motivate employees and keeping your wall current is a low-effort and virtually zero cost commitment.

#6 Team-Building Activities

Engaging in fun team-building activities can be an effective way to show appreciation, if they align with employees’ preferences. It can be helpful to offer a menu with a few options for employees to vote on, and it’s crucial to include alternatives that are suitable for all ranges of physical ability. A team-building activity could be anything from a daytime field trip to a bowling alley to a virtual book club that meets during business hours.

#7 Employee Spotlights

So far, we’ve talked about several ways to show appreciation to employees internally but you don’t have to stop there. Many organizations feature employees on their website, in a digital newsletter, and on social media.

With their permission, sharing the name, photo, and story of an employee outside the organization can affirm the importance of their contributions. Employee stories also help strengthen employer branding and support talent attraction. And, there’s no additional cost to adopt this practice—just the few minutes it takes to put together the spotlight info.

#8 Celebrating Work Anniversaries

When it comes to showing appreciation to employees, you can’t go wrong with celebrating length of service milestones. Organizations have historically celebrated employees after one year, five years, ten years, and so on. Because the length of time employees stay with an employer has changed, we recommend celebrating these milestones earlier and more often. For instance, you might celebrate a new hire after their first 90 days, then at six months, and then at the one-year mark. From there, organizations might choose to recognize an employee after each year, rather than waiting several years for the next award.

Awards for work anniversaries are often monetary bonuses or physical gifts. Giving employees the option to select from a menu of gifts is an effective way to ensure they receive an award that aligns with their preferences and priorities.

Employee Appreciation Drives Positive Work Culture

Employee appreciation programs and practices are a must for fostering a positive work environment where people feel comfortable, engaged, and motivated to succeed. It’s crucial to challenge outdated notions that it’s too costly to show appreciation to employees. Integrating some or all of these low-cost employee appreciation ideas will help you get more out of your recognition program, no matter your budget. And because of their simplicity and flexibility, you can be creative about what each idea looks like in your organization, so that you’re serving your unique employees’ needs. In time, you’re likely to see improvements in employee morale, job satisfaction, well-being, and even productivity.

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