How to Choose Incentives
That Truly Motivate Your Nursery Staff
Build a team that is excited to get to work.

Finding the right incentives to motivate staff is probably one of the topics researched most by managers. And yet, it’s never really that simple when it comes down to it, is it?

It can be difficult to balance big, long-term incentives, which aren’t always affordable, with short-term, superficial ones that might not have much of an impact.

But finding affordable incentives that genuinely motivate your staff is worth it. Retaining staff is famously difficult in the early years sector and preventing burnout is key. The novelty of a new job can quickly fade once the eagerness of wanting to do well “just to get your foot in the door” diminishes and staff get increasingly comfortable in their positions.

But how do you go about finding the right solution for your setting? Well, we’ve got a few ideas for you…

1. Getting the balance right

Balancing incentives is all about balancing job security with encouraging staff to learn and improve. Of course, you want staff to feel secure in their roles – if they are under a lot of pressure they can’t possibly be at their best. On the other hand, staff that feel too comfortable can end up losing interest in improving themselves and the way they work.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you should start making staff feel like their job is at risk! But you should think about whether you have the right incentives in place to ensure your staff are motivated to work hard and are keen to learn more.

2. A helping hand?

When your to-do list only seems to be getting longer and longer, creating time to work on staff incentives can feel like too much of an extra load.

But you don’t have to do the work alone. One idea would be to appoint a senior member of staff as an Incentives Officer. Do this formally, if you can, as giving staff this sort of responsibility can boost their career development in itself, encouraging them to be a more reflective practitioner.

Just remember to choose someone who is fair and get along with the team. Engaging with everyone in the setting is the best way to learn and understand what best motivates them.

3. Understand your staff

You might have an army of people in your team, or maybe just one or two. Whatever it is, you need to look after them so they can look after others. Understand their needs, get a good idea of what they want to achieve in the next few years, and find out what interests them. This should be the basis for your development plans.

From here you can periodically monitor their progression in line with those plans and see if any changes need to be made. It is likely that their plans and your needs as an employer will coincide, and these areas are where you should focus your energy so that people can follow their interests in a way that is helpful to you and your business. Situations that benefit both the practitioners and the business are what creates an environment with happy employees and a healthy business too.

It is a good idea to re-evaluate these goals and progress regularly with lots of feedback. Put targets in place, but don’t be afraid to change them if things change or if it makes more sense to go in a different direction.

4. Let’s talk money

General research tells us that financial and time-off rewards are often the most effective ways to motivate staff. Time is money and money buys time for your staff when they need to support their own families or to relax on their time off.

Paying staff more when money is already tight is a difficult decision and not one you should take lightly. But you need to be aware that if you fail to provide staff with any financial incentive to work towards, it’s going to be difficult to keep them motivated.

If you do decide to use financial incentives, whether they are bonuses or raises, make sure you are fair. Have a transparent system in place so that staff can understand what they have to do to get a bonus or pay rise and when these might be awarded.

Regardless of whether you want to keep your financial incentives quiet, staff will end up talking. That’s why you need to make sure you’re transparent and not unfairly rewarding one person over another.

5. When it’s not quite falling into place

Always address periods of difficulty with your staff before they become a bigger problem. Sometimes a little understanding goes a long way and understanding the root cause of these difficulties leads to a longer-term solution.

Acknowledging that a member of staff may need a break or a lighter workload for a bit shows appreciation for how they have done in the past. Giving them the break shows that you know they are responsible and that they will return to their full potential at a later point. Trust and responsibility can be very motivating factors.

For many people, this is an incentive to work even harder when their rough period is over because they know that they have been given a chance when they needed it most.

6. Training

Good training might be expensive but bad training is even more costly. Training can be a great way to motivate staff, making them feel more valued, by allowing them the room to improve on their strengths. It should be organised according to a training programme, designed and executed in line with your staff’s strengths and goals.

One key component is to make sure that staff share the knowledge that they gain with other members of the team.

People generally like to learn from members of their own community and colleagues are often more open and motivated to ask questions within the team in order to properly absorb what they have heard. What’s more, the person who undertook the training will have to make sure they have a good understanding of the topic in order to pass that information on.

Research shows that instead of large classrooms and formal teaching styles people often like to learn in a to-the-point yet casual, cooperative way. For you, this may mean attending seminars, joining in group work or task-oriented learning. Don’t forget about online learning options either, as they are sometimes a good option for people with different learning skills and styles.

7. Creating an enjoyable work environment

Alarm tone-triggered work-related nausea is a real phenomenon. In fact, most job satisfaction surveys will tell you that perks and little ‘signs of recognition’ go a long way in keeping that mysterious feel-good factor at a high level in your setting. It’s not all pay packets and training schedules.

One idea is to find the most motivating, positive person on the team and follow their example. What is it that they do naturally to make the environment a great place to be?

Another great idea is to go above expectations. Give yourself or your Incentives Officer a budget every month for small surprises. That could simply be a surprise bar of chocolate every now and again, or it might be allowing every member of staff the day off for their birthday.

Having happy, motivated staff isn’t just about incentives. It’s about making sure you have a welcoming, positive environment that everyone looks forward to coming into every day.

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