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Keeping motivation levels up in the workplace will make for a better working environment. Research has found that nearly a third of employees are poorly motivated and over 10.9 million Brits state they are unhappy at work. It remains that it is not possible to stay motivated every minute of the working day, but having the right attitude, environment and focus can make a difference.
If motivation is our general willingness to do something, it is pretty clear it is essential in the workplace. As a result, one of the most important responsibilities of a leader is to motivate employees to promote engagement and enthusiasm. This guide will break down everything you need to know about how to keep employees motivated. It will examine various techniques and strategies and highlight current evidence regarding their effectiveness. However, it is argued that these techniques are not a one size fits all approach, and the most successful motivational methods have been designed to suit the individual team. It is also easy to assume that money is the only effective motivator, but this is not necessarily the case. We have also included a selection of non-financial tips and tricks that have proven successful.
What is motivation?
Studies have shown that motivated employees are better suited to handling uncertainty, are more proactive, are better problem solvers, and have a wider understanding of the company that they work for and its consumers. As a result, motivation in the workplace is often discussed in relation to the energy, commitment, persistence and creativity of workers.
In the dictionary, motivation is defined as being the reason or reasons that we act or behave in a particular way. It is what pushes us to do better and to succeed, and it is what makes our employees come to work each morning and go the extra mile. For some people, money is motivation, success and status drive a few, and for others, it is making sure their families are safe and well.
Internal vs. External
Internal motivation: Also known as intrinsic motivation, this type of motivation comes from within. It is our work ethic; the pride and passion that we take in our everyday roles. Yet, with intrinsic motivation, it would seem that there is no tangible reward.
External motivation: External motivation, or extrinsic motivation, refers to the things outside of us that make us work, including financial rewards and physical incentives. This could be praise, trophies, or other forms of recognition.
How to increase motivation at work
Much has been written regarding how to increase motivation at work, and there has been a wealth of empirical studies on the topic. High levels of motivation have been frequently associated with high output and employee engagement, whereas low levels of motivation are correlated with high levels of absenteeism, reduced output and high staff turnover.
It is important to distinguish between unmotivated and lazy, with the former often being confused with the latter. It would be a mistake to write off a disengaged employee for what is perceived to be individual delinquencies when their attitude results from the company’s shortcomings. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the leadership team to ensure strategies are in place to promote employee engagement. Whether it is fostering open communication, creating a more productive environment, or implementing an employee recognition system, there is so much that employers can do to motivate their teams.
Recognising and praising great work
Praise refers to the act of making positive statements about people’s work. It addresses the need for approval, is affirming, and its use reinforces desired behaviours. It is widely believed that the use of positive reinforcement such as praise can play a key role in maximising employee performance, with an appreciation of hard work being cited as one of the key factors in ensuring engagement. However, for it to be effective, praise should be specific regarding the positive behaviour, and be individualised and authentic.
Implementing a regular reward system can be motivating; with evidence showing that ensuring appropriate recognition is in place can help to boost internal motivation. This means that having an employee recognition programme, like ‘Employee of the Month’, can give people a tangible goal to work towards and help to boost overall productivity.
In the modern capitalist era, it is money that supposedly makes the world go around, and financial rewards such as a regular bonus or commission can ultimately incentivise performance.
Other rewards could include:
- Sign up to online employee rewards programmes.
- Memberships and subscriptions.
- Finishing work early or starting later.
- An employee recognition scheme.
- Nights out or dinner.
Small (and big) rewards can boost morale and motivation, as well as provide an obvious goal for employees to aim for. However, these do not necessarily have to be monetary, and there are some studies which suggest that non-financial rewards can be just as motivating.
Recently, gamification has become an increasingly popular method to boost motivation in the workplace. This refers to the application of gaming concepts to the workplace to create friendly competition. This can be as simple as turning a repetitive project into a game of bingo, using software that ‘levels up’ employees, or collecting loyalty points that can be redeemed for something desirable.
Setting achievable goals
Employees need to know what is expected from them and everyone’s work should have meaning and purpose. As a result, having clear individualised goals in place can help to boost overall motivation in the workplace. These should aim to provide a sense of personal achievement, but should also be aligned with the overall goals of the company.
Goals should be SMART:
However, this should not be an excuse for managers to increase micromanaging. The employees themselves should choose their goals, and it is the responsibility of leaders to empower them to achieve these. While it is good to have long-term goals in place, having smaller targets set up along the way can be much more effective. Furthermore, for such goals to be effective, a periodic review is necessary. This time should be used to acknowledge when employees succeed, as well as highlight areas where they may be struggling and need extra support.
We have all heard the saying that teamwork makes the dream work, and team bonding exercises have grown increasingly popular. It makes sense when you consider that we can spend over 40 hours a week with our colleagues, that our relationships with others at work are critical for job satisfaction.
As a company, your team is your most important asset, so assuring that people work together cohesively should always be a priority. A focus on teamwork enables employers to emphasise collaboration, and this is associated with increased productivity and a boost to the overall mood of the office. Fostering a sense of teamwork can improve employee relationships, avoid conflict and boost creative output. This is upheld within empirical research, with studies finding that people come up with better ideas when working with others.
Ensuring staff take breaks
Breaks can boost focus, increase productivity and stimulate creativity. This has been reinforced throughout current thinking, with studies frequently showing that taking regular breaks can have a significantly positive impact on productivity and play a critical role in reducing or preventing stress. It is all about working smarter, not harder. Plus, evidence has also indicated breaks can be effective at reducing the risk of decision fatigue, which is also known to demotivate. However, it is not just about making sure people take a break, but also encouraging them to use that time wisely.
People should not be encouraged to work through their break, and they should ideally be off-topic when chatting with colleagues. With so many of us sitting at our desks for long hours, movement breaks can be an effective way of disconnecting. Research has suggested just a 5-minute walk every hour can have a positive impact on our overall physical health. Whether it is stretching, reading or just chatting about the weather, breaks should be frequent, regular and meaningful.
Ensuring staff take their holidays
It is not just short breaks during the day that can impact employee motivation levels; it is also important to make sure that staff members use their holiday entitlement. Our holidays can play an important role in positive mental health.
Yet, a 2015 YouGov survey reported that nearly a third of British workers did not take the 28 days (5.6 weeks’) statutory annual leave they were entitled to. Several reasons were cited, including staff shortages, a heavy workload, and a negative organisational culture, amongst others. This adds further weight to the impact of the demanding work culture and how this may include holiday shaming. If your team are reluctant to take their holidays, leaders should adopt a proactive approach. They should set an example and enjoy their own holidays, promote a positive work atmosphere that prioritises the work-life balance, and have a clear policy in place regarding holidays.
The productive environment
Staring at the same grey walls or the confines of a cubicle day in, day out is bound to impact our overall mood. Our physical environment impacts everything from our outlook to the impression that your company gives others, and your workspace should be inspiring. For example:
- Make it open-plan: Some studies have shown that having an open-plan office is more cohesive with collaborative work. It is also associated with a more open-door policy, with everyone being part of the team.
- Add interest: Make your environment exciting to look at and be in; add elements of nature and artwork, and use different depths and textures.
- Psychology of colour: You could also consider looking into the Psychology of Colour for some tips and tricks for your office décor. For example, did you know that too much yellow can make people hungrier, white can cause eyestrain and seeing the colour red causes our heart rate to go faster?
Organisation techniques and tools
It is pretty obvious why being better organised is linked to increased motivation. However, it is important to remember that the best organisational techniques will ultimately depend on the team and are dependent on the individual.
Workshops can also be a great way to foster open communication and can be an opportunity to teach effective organisation and productivity methods. Whether it is bullet journaling, eating a frog, or the Pomodoro technique, there are so many organisational techniques that people have found to be successful for them. You could also encourage staff to lead their own workshops, with organisational techniques that suit them. This would take the pressure of organising something off you. Plus, it means you are giving staff the opportunity to speak up and speak out about the things that work for them.
Mental health and wellbeing
Poor mental health is one of the biggest issues facing modern businesses, with mental health issues being the primary reason for time off work during 2021. GoodShape’s UK PLC 2021 Workforce Health Report reveals that in 2021, poor mental health accounted for 19% of all lost working time across the country, followed by confirmed cases of COVID which represented 16%. In total, UK workers took over 319 million days off work for illness or injury, at an estimated cost to employers of £43 billion and counting.
Mental health troubles were the most common cause of lost working time in nearly every industry, with absences averaging at least three times longer than for COVID-related reasons. Alarmingly, 54% of workers who take two or more mental health-related absences will go on to leave their jobs.
Fundamentally, an organisation that focuses on mental health and wellbeing is one which cares about its team.
However, there are so many ways that you can incorporate this, including:
- Empowering your employees to make decisions and be autonomous, but to speak out if they are struggling.
- Creating an environment where people feel they can speak openly about their problems.
- Sharing tips for positive mental health as part of your meetings.
- Holding regular wellbeing workshops.
- Having a mentor or buddy system in place.
- Having a trained mental health first-aider.
Ensure no one feels left out
Evidence has shown that more diverse workforces perform better and that people are more likely to be motivated when they feel included. Furthermore, the impact of isolation and exclusion can have a significant impact across the organisational culture of your company, particularly when employees feel that they have to hide or mask core parts of their identity.
Promoting workplace inclusion could include:
- Leadership commitment.
- Hiring a diverse workforce.
- Collecting inclusion data.
- Uncovering barriers to inclusion.
- Involving employees and respecting their voice.
- Creating inclusive policies that promote equality and diversity.
- Awareness and training.
To ensure employee engagement, staff members must feel they are equally valued and treated with respect. Although everyone should practise inclusion in the workplace, it is the leadership team who are responsible for maintaining such standards, and they must be fair and avoid double standards.
Flexible working shifts
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) found 96% of companies in the UK offer at least one type of flexible working, which could include everything from a formal offer to the whole team or a private negotiation between the company and one employee. However, the same survey reported that a third of firms would be reluctant to extend the offer to the entire team. This is despite there being a strong positive correlation between flexitime and high motivation levels.
Whether it is fitting work around an employee’s family life, having a Friday where people can finish an hour earlier but still get paid for the whole day, or empowering staff to choose the hours they work best, flexible working can be a sufficient motivational tool. Developments in technology have meant that working from home has become easier than ever before, and arrangements such as these have become increasingly popular.
The benefits of adopting a flexible approach include:
- Developing and showing trust in employees.
- It is associated with increased employee satisfaction.
- It is an effective tool for staff retention and recruitment.
- It recognises that each individual works in different ways and plays to their strengths.
- It enables people to achieve a better work-life balance.
Maintaining the work-life balance
The same study by the CBI reported that 39% of employees feel the work-life balance is underdeveloped by their employer. Moreover, a study by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) reported that a third of respondents were unhappy or very unhappy about the amount of time that they spend working. The elusive ‘work-life balance’ is a phrase we hear constantly and it actually refers to a state of equilibrium between the various factors in life. It is all about leaders recognising that employees have lives outside of the workplace that are equally, if not more, important.
Promoting a positive work-life balance amongst your team could include:
- Developing specific policies.
- Offering counselling and support services.
- Implementing more opportunities for flexible working.
- Increasing support for parents and carers.
- Encouraging staff to work remotely and take holidays.
- Promoting a positive work environment.
Avoiding professional burnout
Keeping staff motivated and engaged is also necessary for avoiding professional burnout. This is defined as being a state of emotional exhaustion and it is associated with a loss of motivation, depression, fatigue and cynicism. It is often the result of a long period of continuous stress, and a demanding work culture that focuses on output, profit and targets can trigger it. As well as affecting the individual, an organisational culture that encourages burnout can also have a wider effect on the overall company. It can cause high staff absenteeism and turnover, and it can impact the morale of the entire team.
Providing an in-depth look into motivation in the workplace has shown that by recognising a job well done, maintaining a positive attitude to motivation, and setting achievable and realistic goals, companies can make a positive difference to staff motivational levels. We have outlined the importance of praise, rewards, flexibility and inclusion, as well as stressing the value of a focus on mental health and wellbeing. It remains that when wondering how to keep employees motivated, there is so much to consider. However, across the evidence, it has been made clear that productive employees are often those who are happy.