Recognising top performers has long been viewed as a good strategy to motivate future performance. Along with proven engagement and retention benefits, offering employee rewards or recognition allows you to acknowledge the results or behaviours that help your organisation achieve its objectives, which incentivises future similar behaviour.

But when budgets are tight, how can you reward your employees? Regardless of how well-deserving they are, if the money isn’t available then the bonus or raise an employee may have otherwise expected can no longer be given.

It’s at times like these that managers can be left unsure of how to give recognition to employees. The good news is that, for many employees, non-financial benefits are just as important as the monetary component of any staff recognition program. In fact, many employees prefer non-financial forms of recognition.

After all, a little appreciation can go a long way and the fact that recognising employees costs considerably less than rewarding them with monetary bonuses doesn’t make it any less effective. In fact, the opposite is often true, since taking the time to acknowledge good performance is likely to result in a more considered and personal approach, and is therefore a more effective way of recognising staff.

Here are the next four ways to recognise top performance when budgets are tight:

6. Merit-based promotions

It’s important to continue to acknowledge and action merit-based promotions, even when budgets are tight. While you may not be able to offer a pay rise, you should still honour any pre-arranged commitment to promote an employee who has met the targets and objectives required to qualify for advancement. Failing to keep your word by not recognising such a success would demotivate an employee who has worked hard to be eligible for a promotion and may potentially create an engagement and retention risk. Furthermore, it could have wider-reaching effects, such as by harming your employer brand and reputation in your market.

7. Learning and development

No one wants to feel that their skills are stagnating. Therefore, offering ongoing learning and development opportunities can be a great way to reward top performers. There are various ways this can be achieved, such as through coaching, a mentorship, the chance to sit in on important meetings, cross-collaboration with another department or a stretch opportunity.

Taking on additional responsibilities allows you to reward an employee in a way that will aid their longer-term career. They can learn new skills, hone others and gain exposure that will aid their promotional prospects or help them do their existing job even better. At the same time, you can encourage the development of skills that are in short supply within your team, thus helping you to overcome any skill gaps, which is a win-win for both you and your employee.

8. Flexible working options

Flexible working options are very important to today’s skilled professionals. Many people have experienced remote working, for instance, throughout the COVID-19 lockdown, and have come to see the benefits it offers.

But flexible working does not only encompass remote working. You could also consider rewarding a top performer with flexible working hours or flexible leave options. Part-time employment and job sharing are other examples of flexible working in action.

While not all workplaces can offer all these strategies, for those that can it is a strong benefit you could provide in lieu of financial recognition and reward.

9. Work-life balance

For many people, receiving additional time off to spend with their family or friends, or on social or leisure activities, can be highly rewarding. After all, if time is money, then this could be an ideal middle ground when financial rewards are unavailable.

You could, for instance, offer a top performer the opportunity to take an afternoon off or have a long weekend. Offering an additional day of annual leave each year is another option. Such staff rewards help your employees feel that their efforts have been recognised while giving them an opportunity to rejuvenate, which is particularly important if they’ve just completed a complex or all-encompassing project.

Final points to keep in mind

  • When you are considering how to reward your staff, remember that recognition can come from many people, including the managing director or department head, peers and even customers.
  • The level of reward you give an employee should correspond to the performance you wish to recognise and continue to encourage. A free coffee can acknowledge a quick win gained by handling a customer enquiry in a particular way, but an afternoon off is more appropriate for a team who worked overtime to meet a set deadline.
  • Before offering any recognition, make sure you are clear about what you are recognising someone for. While you can acknowledge their results, also recognise how they went about achieving it. That way, you reinforce the behaviours that led to the successful outcome and allow others to understand how to achieve a similar result.
  • Recognition should also be fair. There should be a clear criterion to determine who is rewarded and employees must understand exactly what is required to qualify for recognition.