Running a small business can seem like juggling act and with the added challenge of managing cash flow, simple solutions on retaining and motivating staff are likely to be welcomed. Once of the most effective ways of motivating employees is praise, according to new research from American Express.

According to the research, employees who work for the UK’s small businesses rate praise higher than bonus (35% compared to 20%), when it comes to what they feel is most important to their job.

When financial remuneration is taken out of the equation, an overwhelming 69% of employees said the simple act of saying thank you is the best way a boss can show their appreciation.

This is followed by small thank you gifts and additional time off was the third most popular choice.

Helping to make them feel valued, the top five rewards employees said they would most like to receive in recognition for hard work are:

  1. Shopping vouchers
  2. A complimentary meal out
  3. A bottle of wine
  4. Tickets for an event
  5. Box of chocolates
Considering the relatively modest costs of recognising hard work on an ad hoc basis with small gifts such as the above, the research found they are effective at keeping employees feeling appreciated and valued (55%), happy (42%) and respected (33%).

Importantly, 90% of the small business owners surveyed agreed that it’s important to give their staff ad hoc rewards to recognise hard work and just under a third (30%) claim they spend over £250 per employee on rewards each year.

Nevertheless, 46% of small business owners cited financing rewards on top of other outgoings and having readily available cash flow as the biggest challenges to being able to reward staff. Perhaps as a result, almost half (49%) of all employees working for a small business say they haven’t received a small gift or reward in the past year and more than a third (37%) wish they were rewarded more often.

Honey Langcaster-James, psychologist and business consultant said: “I often work with organisations and business leaders to solve problems relating to staff motivation. I find that employers frequently believe they can't afford to reward their staff in addition to paying their salary. When I suggest any kind of reward or recognition system they worry that it will become a costly burden without leading to any positive outcomes.

“However, what I find, and this study confirms, is that often just simple praise, or a small gift of thanks can go a long way towards making employees feel valued and appreciated."

Karen Penney, head of small business services at American Express said: “In addition to running a small business we know that it can be incredibly rewarding to work for one. Nearly a third of the employees we interviewed said they worked for a small company because they have a personal connection to it and almost as many said it’s because they feel more noticed and valued.

“However, for small business owners, finance remains the largest obstacle to rewarding the contributions of staff.”