Zero-cash motivational strategies during COVID-19

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We don’t have enough revenue and material resources to encourage our employees to continue working hard during the pandemic, including those working from home. However, our CEO told us not to worry about it as he thinks the best motivational strategy is still job security, because the company is trying its best not to retrench any workers. Is he correct? — Lemon Juice.

Your CEO is correct. How can you argue with him? The sound of his voice and his footsteps are the strongest form of motivation possible within the organization. Indeed, we must save jobs at all costs. And if it comes from the boss, then surely he is wise, but not necessarily a management genius.

When your CEO is correct, it doesn’t mean, however, that your idea of motivating people is wrong, especially during these trying times when practically everyone is suffering from undue stress and anxiety while trying to guess what might happen next. Indeed, there are many questions that we should answer when the workers are facing the unknown.

How do we calm their fears? How can we motivate them to give their best for the organization? Can we continue building a strong workforce from the wreckage of the pandemic? To answer those questions, I am recommending my time-tested strategy for motivating workers using zero cash, which I’ve been using forever.

You don’t have to spend money and other material resources to motivate people. There’s a common denominator that runs through all this. Your job is to know your people, their ambitions and strengths and align this with their fears.



All managers must know what motivates their workers. In general, there are certain well- accepted principles that you can apply that don’t require money. Some managers often ignore them, but those who work in the real world, and even in the virtual world, know how important they are.

One, money is not what motivates people over the long term. Its impact is short-lived. Most bonuses and other financial rewards come in during year’s end. However, its effects wear off starting February of the following year. That’s one single reason why we should teach our workers to aspire for what management theorist Abraham Maslow talked about “self- actualization” or the highest level of achievement.

Two, workers value flexibility and freedom to do their jobs. This does not mean allowing people to do their own thing without regard to rules and other limitations. As long as there’s an agreed goal, resources to be used, and a reasonable timeline, there’s no point for managers to micromanage workers. You’ve heard it before, but I will not hesitate to repeat the wonders of empowerment and engagement.

Three, praise only the best and the brightest individuals. Let me emphasize however, that you should actively define what is considered exceptional work performance and give people their fitting reward. But ditch rewards for average accomplishments. If the workers have met your minimum expectations, there’s no reason why you should sing their praises. You’ll only end up encouraging average performance.

Four, focus on giving non-monetary rewards that motivate. There’s no shotgun approach for this. You must tailor-fit your zero-cash reward to employees who value them the most. This includes the right to choose and manage a project, a letter of praise signed by the CEO, a testimonial plaque from peers attesting to their high regard for the employee, and the opportunity to help develop an important new product for the company.

If you want a shotgun approach that may apply to all workers, encourage them to display their family photo on their work desks or use them as virtual backgrounds during online meetings. The options are endless and limited only by your creativity.

Last, employee rewards must reflect company values. Almost every organization has its own vision, mission, and value statements. To maximize the opportunity to reward people, management must be able to connect organizational culture and values and how they’re being translated into actual worker behavior.

One example is promoting “innovation through teamwork” as a corporate value. Desirable worker behaviors includes proposing and successfully experimenting with a new system that eliminates some form of operational waste or correcting product defects with simple solutions.


You must initiate and continue to maintain proactive two-way communication with everyone, including those who are perceived to be problem employees. An expensive carrot isn’t necessary to do this, and neither is the stick, except in urgent circumstances.

The days of a barking boss have passed — perhaps as long as 50 years ago. There’s no point in resurrecting such a style now, even during the pandemic, in the face of many constructive alternatives that you can explore.

When you commend workers for exceptional performance, be specific about what you are praising. Don’t simply say “the job is exceptional,” but rather exert some effort to define in exact terms both the diligent effort (such as spending days without overtime pay) and the actual result (such as the money the company saved).

Then emphasize the impact on you as a boss, the whole management team, other employees and the organization in general. When you recognize a high achiever, or even deadwood, your goal is to reinforce successful behaviors so that employees will repeat them and act as models for others.

ELBONOMICS: Praising people is like a sunlight that is available and free. Send anonymous questions to or via