Modernize Your Employee Incentives

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Two things that every manager, leader, and HR admin thinks about on a regular basis are employee motivation and employee engagement. These two bastions of the employee experience are vital to the health and productivity of your organization. After all, businesses with a high number of engaged and motivated employees are 21% more profitable and 17% more productive.

What if we told you that there was one way to increase both motivation and engagement in a wholesome, effective way? It’s true! The key is to use employee incentives. But you get these results only if your incentives are set up and managed in just the right way. You don’t want to dangle a proverbial carrot over your employees or force obedience in any way. Good incentives are meant to spark great work ethic with awesome rewards.

So what exactly are incentives? What are the best practices for implementing them? What are good incentive ideas? Will Craig confess his love for Samantha? Get all these answers and more on this episode of “Employee Incentives: A Love Story.”

Incentives are rewards or prizes of some kind that are directly tied to a measurable action or accomplishment. There’s a dictionary definition for you. But to clarify what that means exactly, it’s actually easiest to look at what incentives aren’t

Incentives are not employee recognition. Recognition is great for showing appreciation for an action after the action has been done. Incentives need to be set up beforehand. Incentives are also not celebrations. Service awards, birthday gifts, and holiday bonuses shouldn’t be considered incentives because they’re usually given regardless of performance (yes, typical bonuses don’t count as incentives—we’ll go over this in more detail farther down).

In order for something to be an incentive, the company has to decide which action or behavior they want to see, set a goal that will drive that change, create a reward for accomplishing that goal, and then clearly communicate this program to the relevant employees.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Why Are Well-Designed Employee Incentives Important?

Incentives can be great ways to show appreciation for employees who go above and beyond in certain aspects of work life, and if you’re careful in your implementation, these types of incentives can have a host of great benefits:

  • Employees feel more fulfilled. When employees are rewarded immediately after finishing tasks, and when these incentive rewards are frequent, employees are more motivated and interested in their work
  • Employees are more engaged. When employees receive rewards for their hard work, they are more engaged in their day-to-day activities.
  • Business recruitment and retention increases. When employees are incentivized and rewarded for their best work, the desirability of your business increases for both current employees and future prospects.
  • Productivity and sales increase. Sales incentives are one of the most popular types of incentives, and these are designed to bring in more money. However, with well-designed incentives for the entire company, all employees—not just salespeople—will be motivated to boost their productivity, netting the company more money.
  • Teamwork and collaboration abound. Some incentives create competition, and while those can be fun in small doses, the best incentives encourage teamwork and collaboration within teams, departments, and the company as a whole. And when everyone is working together, a culture of cooperation is born.
  • Company values are developed. When you tie your incentives in with your company values—by rewarding those who develop or embody those values in their work—you can create the culture and spread the attitude you want for your organization.

Put simply, good incentives help motivate your employees to achieve their goals and develop company values, all while boosting productivity and profit. One of the best things you can do for your workforce is to reward them for their efforts, and incentives are the perfect way to do that in a measurable, fair, and quantifiable way.

Good incentives are things that every employee has a chance to accomplish, no matter the work they do, and there are a range of different possibilities open to you. Let’s talk about how you can set up employee incentive programs in the most effective way possible.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Employee Incentive Programs

Employee incentive programs are simply the programs that you use to incentivize employee actions. To be most effective, these programs should include things like a time frame, any necessary rules, and specific goals or behaviors you want employees to reach for. You should also specify what the prize or reward is for those who reach the goal.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Incentive programs can offer financial or non-monetary rewards. Creativity in your programs and rewards is more important than cost—remember, you want to boost morale and motivation by rewarding your employees for their good behavior and hard work. As long as the reward does that effectively, it doesn’t necessarily need to be cash.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

How to Create Effective Incentive Programs

Let’s look at some dos and don’ts of incentive programs. After all, you want to incentivize employees to do their best, push their boundaries, and accomplish great things. However, what you definitely don’t want to do is encourage temporary compliance and behaviors, or alienate employees who may not be able to hit the same numbers or reach the same level of productivity as other employees. Here are some things to keep in mind.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Do Set Clear Expectations

Imagine sitting down to play a brand new board game, one that everyone has been talking about, only to realize that the instruction manual is missing (pretend Google and YouTube don’t exist for this hypothetical example). That same frustration is what incentives with unclear expectations create for employees.

Clearly define the rewards you’re offering and how employees can earn those rewards. That direct relationship between effort and outcome will make your employee incentive program that much more powerful. Plus, with a direct and specific relationship between the desired behavior you want to incentivize and the goals you want to accomplish, you’re more likely to bring about the desired change.

This is why end-of-year bonuses shouldn’t be your incentive program. It’s hard to tie these bonuses to specific, measurable achievements, so many employees don’t know what to do to get larger amounts. And employees who feel entitled to a bonus just for doing their normal work may be upset or unsatisfied if they don’t get a bonus or if the amount isn’t what they wanted. Avoid that ambiguity with specific, measurable incentives.

Do Offer Different Incentive Programs

As we mentioned, sales incentives can be powerful tools. For sales teams. But what about marketing, HR, customer support, and engineering? These teams deserve the opportunity to push their boundaries and strive for excellence—and they deserve to be rewarded for their hard work.

Other incentive ideas that everyone can participate in include:

  • Consecutive days without missing work. Give out prizes for those employees who are consistently at work doing their best. (However, make sure to encourage time off and work/life balance as well—it’s a narrow line to walk, we know.)
  • Referral programs. Reward employees who go out of their way to refer their friends and family to work for the company. As long as you’ve built a healthy, rewarding culture (with awesome incentives), many employees will naturally want to invite their loved ones to join the fun. Make it even more enticing with some sort of reward program!
  • Health and wellness programs. You can incentivize your employees to stay fit and healthy by rewarding them for their wellness efforts. Offer on-site health screenings, gym memberships, or wellness classes, and then reward employees who take advantage of them. Healthier employees means fewer sick days and lower absenteeism.
  • Sales incentives. For companies with sales teams, you know those employees are the foundation of most of the income you generate. Incentivize them by rewarding those who hit goals and even more so for those who exceed goals. And while not everyone can participate in these, it’s important to at least ensure everyone on the sales team has a chance to participate.
  • Safety programs. Safety should always be a priority. Encourage greater safety certifications for your teams by incentivizing training and courses to improve safety knowledge and skills.
  • Continued education. Around 92% of employees think professional development is an important part of their job. Encourage professional growth by providing continued education and incentivizing participation.
  • Support team satisfaction ratings. Client success and support teams are fielding questions and client concerns all day every day, and most teams have a rating system to let them know how they’re doing. Incentivize good customer interactions by creating a support team satisfaction rating program that rewards those who go above and beyond.

Ensure that every employee has the chance to take part in your incentives. You can also include incentives for individual performance, team performance, department performance, and company performance. These types of varied incentives are sure to reach the maximum number of employees.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Don’t Offer the Same Reward for Other Programs

Say that you create an incentive that offers event tickets for those who achieve it. Tickets to a concert, festival, or theme park would be awesome, right? But what happens if you offer that as a reward for five-year service anniversaries as well? Are employees going to be incentivized to strive for that reward? Probably not. They may just wait for their five year mark.

Make sure that whatever you offer as incentives is unique and desirable for your teams. Employees need to want the reward, and they need to know exactly what they have to do to earn it.

Don’t Give One-Size-Fits-All Rewards

This is huge. An incentive needs to include a reward that people want badly enough to work for it. But if only 50% of your workforce is even remotely interested in the Peloton exercise bike you’re offering, you’ll only have half the results you’re aiming for. Offer choices and options for your employees to pick from if they reach their goals. 

Or, if creating a catalog of rewards isn’t possible, at least reach out to your employees through surveys to see which rewards are the most popular. The last thing you want is to put time and money into implementing an incentive only to find that no one cares.

Awardco offers millions of reward options through Amazon so that each employee can choose the reward that’s most meaningful to them. After all, we would be more motivated to work for the headphones on our Amazon wishlist than for the company-branded sweatshirt option.

As you follow these guidelines for creating and implementing new incentive programs, you’ll see the results and behaviors that you want. Plus, employees will create lasting habits and improvements to their work ethics because they’ll feel invested in the incentives you’ve given them.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

The Top 4 Types of Employee Incentive Rewards

You know what incentives are, why they can be beneficial, and how to create the best kinds of incentives for your company. But what rewards will get your employees jumping out of their ergonomic office chairs? What can you offer that will create the most excitement and drive the best behavioral improvements?

We’ve broken down some great options into four different categories. Take a look below to see what stands out the most to you.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Professional Development

A surprising 40% of employees say that they quit within the first year because of a lack of skills training and development in their role. And 87% of Millennials, one of the largest portions of working Americans, say that professional development and career growth are very important to them.

Incentives can provide employees with awesome chances for career development and boost your organization’s productivity. Some ideas for incentives and rewards include:

  • Offering classes and seminars on various subjects and skills
  • Sponsoring employee memberships to professional organizations
  • Paying for employees to attend various conferences
  • Offering lunch-and-learn and skill-sharing opportunities

The incentive itself could be a professional development opportunity. Provide a library of relevant reading material and then offer a small cash reward each time an employee reads one of these books.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.


Tangible gifts and cash are great, but creating memories is one of the greatest gifts you can give. As much as that sounds like a Hallmark card, it’s true! Here are some ideas you can offer to get your employees out of the office:

  • Reimburse recreational activities such as trips to a National Park or a skiing trip.
  • Treat your top achieving employees to dinner at a local restaurant.
  • Pay for employees to learn something new, such as a cooking class, an exercise class, music lessons, or an art class.
  • Offer tickets to events or attractions such as a sports game, a concert, a museum, or the zoo (remember that not everyone will like the same event—offer various options to please as many people as possible).
  • Give employees an extra day of PTO. Or, better yet, offer an all-expense-paid vacation! Local Airbnb options can give employees a nice break without breaking your budget.

Experiences are a great way to incentivize hard work at your company because they’re exciting and can hold great worth for your employees. Plus, the employees who earn these rewards will come back refreshed, so you lower the risk of burnout. It’s a win-win!

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.


With gifts, the sky's the limit. We’ve already created a whole guide dedicated to giving employees gifts, so we won’t beat this dead horse too much. The most important thing to know, once again, is that gifts should be something your employees actually want. Here are some general ideas to get the inspiration for your own company flowing:

  • A year of a subscription, whether that’s Netflix or Book of the Month for better work/life balance or Spotify Premium to allow employees to really focus while in the office.
  • Gift cards are always a good option.
  • Cash toward a team budget—once the team has earned enough through incentives, the whole team gets to do something fun with it.
  • Clothing or accessories (both branded AND unbranded—branded swag is not something every employee will want).
  • Care packages so that remote workers can get in on the fun.

Don’t settle for run-of-the-mill gifts that won’t get people excited. Find out what really lights a fire under your employees and offer gifts that fit the bill.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Work/Life Balance Services

Last, but not least, you can offer services as a reward. Employees have a life outside of work, and even the best incentive in the world isn’t going to make them forget about the stresses they face in their everyday lives. So why not offer to alleviate some of that stress with an incentive reward? Here are some ideas:

  • A house cleaning service that employees can earn every month.
  • A vehicle-centric reward, possibly including free washes and detailing, gas reimbursement, oil changes, or tire replacement.
  • Meal delivery kits sent to employees’ homes to take the stress out of eating healthy.
  • Meeting with a financial advisor to take some of the stress out of finances

You have all sorts of ways to incentivize and motivate your workforce to give their best efforts. The key is to consistently offer rewards that employees actually want.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Other Employee Incentive Considerations

A few things we haven't mentioned yet. First, remote employees deserve effective incentives just as much as anyone else. If you have remote teams or even if your entire company is remote, making clear, easy-to-understand incentives is even more important than ever. Tailor rewards to fit the people who don’t come into the office, and make sure to clearly advertise each incentive as often as you can so that everyone hears about it and knows how to participate.

The last consideration we want to mention is budget. Some of the rewards listed above may sound pricey, but you don’t need to worry too much about that! Not all incentives need to be in the form of extra cash added to an employee’s paycheck. Things like swag or extra PTO are still great rewards, and their cost is minimal.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Use Awardco to Maximize Your Incentives

You don’t need to spend all of your time and effort into creating and implementing incentives. With an employee recognition platform like Awardco, you can easily tie recognition, incentives, rewards, and budgets together into one platform. With automation options and our partnership with Amazon Business, you’ll be able to handle any and every incentive you can come up with.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

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