When a cash bonus is off the table because the company isn’t meeting its numbers, a “bonus by whimsy” can be a powerful tool for motivating and cheering field staff.

The concept comes from remodeler Paul Eldrenkamp of Byggmeister, in Newton, Mass. In a 2000 Journal of Light Construction article, he wrote, “The rules are simple. I pay out the money when I feel like it,” which lets him “use bonuses as a positive reinforcement without incurring a continuing obligation.”

Examples from Eldrenkamp and other remodelers:

  • A few hundred dollars to acknowledge a lead carpenter for patiently dealing with a difficult client.
  • Bringing lunch to the crew on the jobsite.
  • A $50 or $100 bill on hand to distribute during meetings in response to a glowing letter or a particularly good idea.
  • A stash of gift cards to spontaneously distribute.

Interestingly, Eldrenkamp says the bonus-by-whimsy concept no longer fits his company now that it’s largely employee-managed: “My current thinking is that an owner who wants to develop a clear exit strategy needs to work with his or her employees … [so they] motivate themselves to do the right thing, instead of being dependent on the owner for a reward system.” To that end, he sees bonus by whimsy as a good training tool — not necessarily a long-term strategy.