Motivating Workers without Breaking the Bank
PrintMotivating Workers without Breaking the Bank
By Ann Meyer
As more employees consider jumping ship, employers look for low-cost ways to keep them happy.

These days, employee apathy is a worldwide problem.
After years of being asked to do more with fewer wage increases, incentives or rewards, many employees have lost motivation to do their best at work. "Twenty-seven percent of the workforce, which is a fairly significant apathetic group out there, are saying they've checked out mentally, but they haven't checked out physically. They're probably not the most productive," says Pete Foley, a principal at New York-based Mercer and an employee research consultant. "We're at an inflection point."

"Twenty-seven percent of the workforce, which is a fairly significant apathetic group out there, are saying they've checked out mentally, but they haven't checked out physically."

– Pete Foley,


While employers are grappling with what to do, growing numbers of workers are contemplating saying goodbye to their jobs. In the United States, nearly one-third of all workers say they are seriously considering leaving their present employer, up from 23 percent in 2005, and another 21 percent are disengaged, according to Mercer's 2011 What's Working survey of 2,400 U.S. employees and 30,000 worldwide.

That spells trouble for retail executives who need to get the most from their workers to stay competitive. "There's an old principle that says to accomplish great things in this life, you need to engage other people," says Stuart Orr, president of Vision2Execution, a training and coaching firm in Southern California. "Being able to motivate employees is critical to accomplishing great things," he says.


Yet at many companies, budgets for merit increases have been slashed to the bone and employers have eliminated the perks of more robust times, such as corporate cars, expense account meals and lavish fitness or game rooms. Often, when the perks go, so does the recognition. And that's a problem, Orr says. "Everyone in this world wants to be appreciated, wants to feel their time is well spent," he says. Yet new research shows non-financial factors can be more important motivators than money. "If employees love working for the company, they may be willing to work for a buck less than the competition," Orr says.

"Everyone in this world wants to be appreciated, wants to feel their time is well spent."

– Stuart Orr,


What do workers want? Respect is the top request, according to Mercer research. Other leading factors include work/life balance, type of work, quality of co-workers and quality of leadership. "They want challenge, and they want freedom, or autonomy," Orr says.

"A lot of big names out there, where they're a known employment brand, have done a really good job not necessarily on the monetary picture, but in [cultivating] an environment of respect and trust and open communication," Foley says.

At Woodland, Calif.-based Nugget Market Inc., managers use a servant leadership approach that turns the traditional corporate hierarchy on its head. "If you turn a standard organizational chart upside down, you have an inverted pyramid with the executive team at the bottom tier. The store directors and department managers then support associates at the top, who ultimately create our exceptional guest experience, which is our No. 1 goal," said Eric Stille, chief executive and president, in a news release. "It is this mindset that helps us deliver outstanding service and support to our associates, as well as our guests."

Employees also want to feel successful. Focusing on successes instead of problems or failures increases motivation, says Stephen Balzac, president of 7 Steps Ahead in Stow, Mass. "Motivation is not something we do once and forget about. In the end, fear of job loss can keep people doing the minimum, but if you want your employees to excel, you need to continuously provide constant, positive motivation," Balzac says.

One way is to recognize performance with a symbolic award. For example, John Brubaker, a performance consultant based in Maine, helped one beverage company create a symbolic award called the golden spike. The spike was awarded to sales representatives who went above and beyond, and a silver bat was given to the sales rep "who took the most swings." "My philosophy is that which gets rewarded gets repeated," Brubaker says.

To motivate workers without busting your budget, consider naming an employee or team of the month, highlighting an employee in a company newsletter, or providing high-performers with prizes, such as gift cards or tickets to movies, plays or sporting events, says consultant David Zahn of Zahn Consulting LLC in Wallingford, Conn.

More flexible hours, telecommuting options or job sharing also can be motivating factors. Nugget Market Inc., for example, offers job security through its 85-year history of no layoffs, while managers emphasize work-life balance.