Why is employee motivation important?

Aleksi Meldo

Co-founder @Evergreen

If we’ve learned anything over the past couple of years, it’s that the traditional workplace is undergoing a seismic change, the repercussions of which will likely reverberate for years to come. Even the phrase “the workplace” now takes on a different definition, with so many of us working from home offices, coffee shops, and other places. Most importantly for organizations, the pandemic has affected not just where we work and gather, but how we “feel” about work, and what we value. Employee motivation is more important than ever. 

Challenges to traditional motivational techniques

There are a few reasons why organizations should start thinking differently about employee engagement.

We’re not in the office anymore

Before the pandemic, some managers resisted remote work requests, fearing the change would require more work. 

Indeed, not having workers in the office can make it more difficult to implement some strategies. Team building and other motivational activities have been thrown out the window by some because their workers are now scattered in various places.

More Workers are quitting/changing their jobs

Many organizations find employee retention is more difficult than ever, as the worldwide health crisis has led many to rethink their priorities. Starting around early 2021, the number of people quitting their jobs during the pandemic increased significantly as “the Great Resignation” began. 

Many believe the current employee exodus is caused, at least partially, by:

  • Lack of worker protections during the pandemic
  • Stagnating wages

But some cited other causes, including those falling under the category of “Life is too short.” According to a Boston Globe article, 4 million people nationwide quit their jobs in April 2021. It’s the highest ever for a single month since the government started tracking the statistic in 2000.”

How to motivate employees?

As we all know, not all people are motivated by the same events. Numerous workforce-related factors may impact the effectiveness of your organization’s motivational efforts. 

Workplace Friendships and Culture

Water cooler talk, workplace lunches, after-work get-togethers. Too often, organizations don’t fully realize what truly matters to their employees. For instance, one workplace engagement survey showed that 20% of workers surveyed listed “camaraderie” as their main motivation for work

Not money or stock options (though that certainly helps) but companionship, and friendship. Organizations who want to keep employees connected during this period, use virtual team building or staying connected through Zoom meetings, emails, and video calls.

Workplace culture

The research of psychiatrists Ryan and Deci, mentioned earlier, also led to theories that: play, purpose, and potential may increase employee performance.

Many organizations of course talk about culture and its effect on employees. Harvard Business Review found that companies “famous for their cultures — from Southwest Airlines to Trader Joe’s — maximize the good motives, while minimizing the bad ones.

The “good motives” they’re referring to are: 

  • Play - you do the work because you love the work itself, it’s fun
  • Purpose - you do the work because the outcome affects how you feel about yourself, a person passionate about the environment might choose environmental law over business law, etc.
  • Potential - you do the work because it leads to something else you want to do, like taking an entry-level job when you’re really interested in management

Different generations require different rewards

Employees are working longer than ever, with some workplaces having workers representing as many as four or five different generational periods:

  • Traditionalist (or the Silent) generation, born between 1925 and 1945.
  • Baby Boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964
  • Generation X, born between 1965 and 1981
  • Millennial generation, born between 1982 and 1997
  • Generation Z, born after 1997

The generational shift in the workplace caused by retiring Baby Boomers and the number of Millennials and Gen Z workers joining organizations means everyone needs to think differently about current reward systems.

According to a Pew Research Center report, over 1 in 3 American labor force participants, 35% to be exact, are Millennials, making them the largest group in the U.S. labor force.

Each generation is motivated by different things, often based on value systems that tend to change from decade to decade.

Everyone’s different

Money and benefits may motivate Traditionalists and Boomers, more than Gen X and Millennials. Gen X, many now in their fifties, value more flexible working situations and life/work balance. 

Meanwhile Gen Z, younger and interested in improving the world may be more interested in mentorship opportunities, and cause-focused activities like planting trees combined with peer-to-peer recognition. 

With so many age groups represented in today’s average workforce, it’s no wonder that your motivational attempts may have worked for some, while not working for others.

To avoid this, try mixing up the kinds of motivational efforts you offer or give options. 

As rewards for workplace competitions or as random forms of appreciation, your organization can offer a choice between:

  • Skill building and other educational training, 
  • Days off work
  • Ride share credits (Uber/Lyft, etc.) credits
  • Food gift cards – we don’t have to eat together to have our “work lunch” today

Ways to motivate your employees

Empowering employees/autonomy 

Perhaps it’s no surprise that many workers want more autonomy in the workplace. 

In 1985, American psychologists, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci came up with the theory of self-determination, challenging the then-prevailing notion of tangible rewards as the main human motivation. 

They listed autonomy, competence, and relatedness as being the three components of self-determination, defining autonomy as being the main agent in charge of their own life. 

As the years have passed, workplace autonomy has become increasingly important as a motivational tool. A Fast Company article found that during the “Great Resignation” period the #2 reason people gave for quitting their jobs was lack of autonomy. 

Employees who feel that they have more autonomy are more connected to their roles, than those without. You may also find your employees do a better job when they’re more invested in their work.

Autonomy styles can vary

Giving employees more autonomy doesn’t have to mean letting people “do anything they want.” If you’re unsure how this will look at your organization, try a hybrid model: offering more autonomy for some tasks, and less for others.

This hybrid autonomy style may mean:

  • Giving employees a choice on which projects to start and when
  • The ability to delegate more
  • Flexible deadlines within a set period, like “due the week of Jan 5th” or “the first quarter of the year” instead of “on my desk on Monday 5 pm”  
  • Empowers employees to work from home some days (employee choice) just not every day. 

As time goes on, you may find that some tasks are fine when left in employees’ hands, freeing up your focus on other duties.

Clear expectations=less conflict, happier employees

Closely related to your organization’s need to provide employees with autonomy is the need to provide clear expectations.

Many employees cite a lack of common understanding between themselves and organizations on projects and their work duties in general as the cause of many workplace issues. 

Organizations perceived as having strong leadership are more likely to have more insightful communications with their employees.

  • When organizations give clear instructions, employees are more likely to take possession of their roles and have positive outcomes
  • Benchmarks are set for what success looks like
  • It also makes it easier to hold employees accountable without emotions being involved
  • Breaking larger projects into achievable targets can help with follow-through

Mentorship programs

Many stories discussing generational differences focus primarily on Generation Z's response to mentorship programs. But mentorship isn’t just for younger generations. Mentorship programs can work for everyone.

According to a report from the Society for Human Resource Management, while most employees think remote work is beneficial more than half think: working remotely permanently would diminish networking, stress work relationships, and require more hours at work.

One way to counteract this effect is through a mentorship program.

Mentorship programs for new hires

  • Some organizations team up with more senior team members with new hires as part of the formal onboarding process. This is especially useful for organizations with new hires who started during the pandemic. Even during the pandemic, organizations can use Zoom or other video conferencing to create a virtual mentoring system. Teaming new hires with a senior team member gives the new hire:
  • A resource for questions, a sounding board
  • Sense of belonging, helping them assimilate quickly

The senior team member also gets benefits from the arrangement.

The pandemic has left many employees feeling disconnected from the workplace. Mentoring a new employee, even virtually, can motivate long-term employees. It also gives them a way to “network” or provide service to your organization.

Other ways mentorship helps long-term employees

Employees who’ve been with your company for longer tenures can also benefit from mentoring programs aimed at them. 

Mentoring programs aimed at upskilling long-term employees help with employee engagement. It also may be vital to team members looking for professional advancement, especially now that there are fewer in-person networking opportunities.

Mentorship helps with cross-training, learning new roles

Mentoring programs can help current employees who are stepping into new roles within the organization. Especially now, many are missing the kind of one-on-one training that was more easily available when everyone was in the office. Before, if a member of your organization had a question about a new position within the company, they just walked over to someone’s desk.

Try having a “buddy” program instead

Not quite ready for an official mentoring program? Try “buddying up.” 

Many organizations team new hires with “buddies,” usually a more experienced team member in the same or a similar role. These programs are designated to show the new hire the ropes and ease them into your workplace culture. 

A buddy program doesn’t have to have formalized content or training, the same way some mentorship programs do. However, they still give new hires, or even tenured hires who need some help, additional support, and resources.

Create professional advancement pipeline/performance development

Often organizations hire team members to perform certain roles without thinking about what the next steps will look like on a new hire’s career path with them. 

This is a mistake. Employees may stay with a business for a year or two before looking for the next step in their career journey. 

If the organization doesn’t have a clear path to promotion, they’re more likely to leave. When creating your organizational structure, make sure opportunities for career advancement are built in for each person you bring into your organization. 

For example, customer service roles should have opportunities for advancement into supervisory roles, etc.

Peer-to-peer recognition

Employee recognition is the timely, informal, or formal, acknowledgment of a person's behavior, effort, or business result that supports the organization's goals and values, and exceeds his superior's normal expectations. But peer-to-peer recognition is when organizations take recognition to the next level, empowering teammates to reward each other–and that’s important. 

A SurveyMonkey study found that 82% of surveyed workers thought recognition was vital to their work happiness.

Peer-to-peer recognition can be as simple as a thank you card from a coworker, or a “shout out” during a team newsletter. It also can be as impactful as cause-based work, philanthropic or charitable donations on behalf of the team member being recognized.  Evergreen is an example of an organization that is empowering others to recognize leaders at their workplace in a meaningful way. 

Evergreen uses Slack and Teams to make implementation a snap, helping organizations like yours provide recognition to team members by planting trees

Learn more about how our Evergreen app can help your organization enhance its corporate culture and bring teams closer together.

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