How to reward your team WITHOUT customized travel experiences

Recently, there seems to be an endless parade of companies touting jaw-dropping employee perks, often in the tech industry. It’s great that companies like Google can offer employees endless gourmet meals, dream vacations, and free pet care. However, you can still do special things for your team even if you don’t have the budget for customized travel experiences.

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There are many ways to show appreciation. The author of a recent Forbes article proposes “learning stipends” (cash to spend on education) as a strong benefit to drive employee loyalty in a cutthroat workforce market. Following this theme, online courses are a promising frontier to simultaneously give value to employees, strengthen your team, and grow organizational capabilities.

Online courses deliver clearer value to people in ways that nice-to-have perks do not. First, educational courses empower them. A recent Wall Street Journal article demonstrates how professionals are already pursuing education on their own time (and dime), as employers have “shifted responsibility to the individual.”  Partnering with employees by offering time and money gives them what they are already seeking. Second, online courses, offered by respected academic institutions and online facilitators such as and Coursera, provide professionals with a concrete accomplishment. For example, the MicroMasters program provides customizable, bite-sized programs through established universities. Learners earn credentials that are not only relevant to their work, but that help them to stand out professionally.

Online courses also strengthen internal teams. Many courses assemble learners globally from different backgrounds and industries. These practice sharing opportunities enable problem-solving collaboration between learners in different fields. If multiple learners join from the same company, they can engage together by discussing content and projects. Finally, videos, surveys, and discussion boards from online courses enable learners to grow communication and technical skills that are requirements in the modern workplace.

Online courses also support organizational capabilities at scale. As a co-author of a recent IEEE article, which analyzed courses offered by MIT to thousands of working professionals, we discovered that recognizable companies, even titans of industry, are much less sophisticated in engineering subjects than they perceive. New education technologies used by modern course providers facilitate employee training in critical subjects more efficiently for more people than traditional education programs. New approaches with flexible times and locations also better integrate with busy professional lives and are less disruptive.

If you’re considering online courses for your team, then keep your goals and purpose in focus. If it feels like training, then employees won’t perceive it as a perk. Give them control over their learning, even if subjects are only vaguely connected to work responsibilities. However, be sure to set guidelines, because online courses vary widely and benefits are not guaranteed. There are mesmerizing numbers of options with costs ranging from $49 Coursera certificates to thousands for programs at elite universities. Remember that credentials such as certificates are not equivalent to traditional degrees. Finally, outcomes depend totally on the overall learning and working environment. Therefore, if money is a critical factor in your organization, then perhaps time to pursue learning is itself one of the best investments that you can make in your team.