hr programs on a limited budget

I was at a culture conference in San Francisco not long ago (Culture Summit), and there were a few speakers from amazing companies talking about all of the creative things that they do to engage their employees.

Some of the companies that were speaking (Facebook, Google, HubSpot) have enormous budgets and were talking about some of their perks or team building activities.

A few times, questions would come from the audience sounding something like:

“Okay, that sounds cool, but what if you don’t have a big HR budget? What if senior leadership won’t give you the budget you need to throw these parties or breakfasts”.

I understand why these questions are being asked.

When you hear about a company like Facebook offering free, five-star food to all of their employees, it can make any HR manager a bit nervous.

But the truth is, most of what employees want costs no money at all.

Most of the things employees want are free. Most of the things employees want are easy to implement.

Don’t look at having a small (or non-existent) budget as a problem, but instead, look at it as an opportunity to get creative.

Before looking at what HR managers could do to fix this issue, let’s take a quick look at where this problem comes from in the first place.

The Root Of The Problem

An important question to ask ourselves is, where does the idea that having a small budget won’t work come from?

Is it the fact that the budget needs to be bigger? Or is it the fact that employees are genuinely unsatisfied?

What’s going on here?

My theory, is that after the recession a few years ago, companies were expecting their employees to do more with less. Massive layoffs left people having to ultimately take on an entire extra job in addition to the heavy workload they already had.

People have adjusted to this “new normal” and now companies everywhere expect way too much from their employees.

You need to understand the concept of equity theory – where employees need to feel as if there’s an equal amount of recognition (praise, salary, etc.) to the work they put in.

When that equality isn’t there, employees start to become disengaged.

Most employees feel as if they’re not being treated fairly.

The simple solution is to throw money at the problem (give them a raise), but that’s a very short-term solution. Also, you’re not really addressing the problem, you’re addressing a symptom of the problem.

The real problem is the fact that they’re overworked and managers have unrealistic expectations about how much work there is to do.

Until you address that core issue, you can throw as much money as you want to the problem, and complain about how small your HR budget is, but you’re not fixing the real problem.

What that ends up leading to is a ton of waste. So many HR managers waste a ton of money (fancy perks, company outings, pizza parties, etc.) No one wants those (maybe pizza parties).

What Employees Really Want

At the end of the day, what people ultimately want boils down to one word: respect.

They want to have a life, be paid fairly, understand their ideas count, feel like their work is important, etc.

All things that literally cost nothing.

Sure, the odd pizza party or team lunch is a nice perk that could easily have you spend money on, but for the most part people just want the respect they deserve.

They just want to be happy.

Here are some things that you should do that employees really want.

  1. Autonomy

    Employees want autonomy. They need to feel like they’re growing in life. It can’t just be about following orders and filling in spreadsheets all day.

    Your employees have incredible ideas and they’re going to waste.

    The problem with most companies is that they’ll offer autonomy, but it will only be half-autonomy, meaning that they’ll be told what to do, how to do it, get some freedom, and then be told how to fix what they did.

    That’s not autonomy.

    That’s a certain level of freedom within a project.

    If you really want to give employees want they want, lean a bit more towards letting employees see things through from beginning to end without interrupting or changing their direction.

    Even if it doesn’t fit with your original vision, that’s fine. Your original vision might not have been that great anyways.

  2. Respect

    This is the most important item on this list.

    At the end of the day, it all boils down to respect. Treat your employees the same way you would treat your own children.

    Do you think it’s fair to ask them to work late when you don’t? Do you think it’s fair to underpay them? Do you think it’s fair to take credit for work they did?

    Show your employees the respect they deserve.

    If you know that a deadline is too tight or a client demand is too big, but you give it to your employees anyway, that’s not really a sign of respect.

  3. Trust

    Trust and autonomy go hand-in-hand.

    You need to be able to fully trust that your employees will do a good job for you, no matter what the task is.

    You need to trust that employees will have your company’s best interests in mind.

    Don’t feel the need to question their motives.

    If you trusted them enough to hire them and pay them money, you should trust them with just about anything.

    As a simple example, if you want to build your employer brand, give your employees the creative freedom they need and trust that they’ll behave themselves on social media.

  4. Flexible Schedules

    In almost every survey of what employees want and what keeps employees happy, the idea of flexible schedules keeps coming back.

    If you’re not already doing this, you should start right now.

    If you are doing this, it’s important to expand the benefit and remind people that they can be free to use it. Again, this goes back to respect and trust.

    As technology continues to destroy our work-life balance, being able to live a life outside of work is becoming more important than ever.

    Employees are genuinely having a harder time removing themselves and “unplugging”.

    It’s your job as a leader to make sure that they don’t get too stressed and don’t experience burnout.

  5. Team Building

    Having friends at work is so important to your engagement and happiness.

    It’s sad to think that many people go to work, have very few social interactions, and then go home.

    We need those social interactions to grow as people.

    As a leader, it’s your job to make sure that relationships between colleagues is strong and that there are plenty of opportunities for people to connect and work together.

  6. To Be Involved

    Employees want to feel like their ideas count and that you respect their opinions for company decisions.

    You should be asking all employees to submit ideas and make sure the feel comfortable enough doing so.

    And not just your favorite employees, you should be asking all of them.

    You’ll have to work at this, employees might not feel comfortable contributing right away, but if you work hard enough at it, you’ll start to get some amazing ideas and employees will be engaged.

  7. Praise

    If you’re looking for the easiest way to make your employees happy and productive, praise is the answer.

    When an employee knows that they deserve a thank you and they don’t receive it, they (understandably) get upset and are less motivated to try hard.

    It’s so simple. All you have to do is say “thank you.”

    The hardest part is simply being mindful of what’s going on around you. Once you can spot employees that are going above and beyond or you notice someone putting in good effort, you should be thanking them.

    When they receive that thank you, they’re much more likely to keep trying to do good work to get another thank you. So it’s actually in your best interest to praise employees, because it will in turn make them more productive.

Once you put those things into place, you won’t need to worry about company picnics, games, or other gimmicks.

How Do You Engage Your Team?

What are some things you do to keep engagement high on your team? Let us know in the comments below!