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How to keep people motivated and increase employee engagement

The pandemic left most businesses all too aware of how motivation can be affected in times of challenge and uncertainty. But it also produced a huge amount of data on how successful managers keep people motivated during these occasions.

Post-pandemic many CEOs and business leaders are highlighting recruitment, retention of talent, waning office culture, and the deterioration of employee motivation as some of the key challenges ahead. Many companies are seeing a drop in employee engagement and motivation, and managers are working tirelessly to fix it. Keeping a team motivated was an important and difficult task before the pandemic but this has now become even harder.

The pandemic caused a surge in remote work, accelerated digital transformation, and prompted a greater focus on improving the employee experience and engagement. Studies from the US are now highlighting that employers will have to adopt new approaches and invest further in technology that helps them to listen, learn and improve the employee experience post covid.

What does employee engagement mean and how can management teams improve motivation?

In a 2018 survey of employee engagement, Gallup divided employees into three levels of engagement.

  • Engaged: Employees “who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace”
  • Not engaged: Employees who “may be generally satisfied but are not cognitively and emotionally connected to their work and workplace”
  • Actively disengaged: Employees “who have miserable work experiences”

According to the Gallup poll, engaged employees work harder, put in longer hours, and stayed with a company longer, offering increased expertise and efficiency. Engaged employees are more likely to go the extra mile for customers, drive teams to accomplish more, and mentor and train new employees and the business is likely to be more profitable.

So, how do we improve motivation and subsequent engagement? Most of the challenges that arose during COVID were not new—the difference was that they all happened at once, and to everyone. Here are some of the key challenges

1. Keeping the mission and vision front and center.

When you think about a business that has revolutionised the way we live, it is hard to ignore Amazon. When Jeff Bezos was interviewed, he outlined Amazon’s three brand promises, referring to them as three big ideas:

  • Low Prices
  • Fast Delivery
  • Vast Selection

Perhaps the key to Amazon’s success. They keep things simple (Three big ideas), and they work constantly to get a little better each week at what they already do better than anybody else in the industry.

Therefore, post pandemic it is incredibly important for leaders to keep their team’s eye on the ball. Whether it’s reading the vision out loud in team meetings or regularly discussing it in one-on-one meetings, making sure everyone understands the “why” of their work. This small step will result in higher retention and happier motivated employees.

2. Disruption to normal ways of working

For most organisations, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest disruption they have ever experienced. Upheaval and uncertainty affect every employee differently, and many will experience anxiety and potentially other mental health issues.

Though money and benefits are important to motivation, they are not the only factors. A recent study found the most motivational factors for employees were an encouraging boss; good work-life balance; peer motivation.

So, the key for all leaders and managers is to remember empathy and encouragement go a long way – it’s vital to talk – to listen – to each individual and find out what works for them, not just once but on an ongoing basis. Individuals’ needs can change. Some may struggle with hybrid working, others may struggle with the office return. They might need more flexibility, a period of rest or just some helpful resources.

A time after such great upheaval is not the time for inflexible one-size-fits-all rules. Keeping the dialogue going and adapting your policies for each person will be key to keeping motivation high.

3. Be a respectful, honest, and supportive

This may seem like a no-brainer, but bad management is one of the top reasons employees leave a business. Things like respect, honesty, support, and clear communication are the foundations here. But there is a lot more a great leader and mentor can do.

It is great to feel fulfilled at work so share positive feedback. Satisfaction can come from a variety of places — but remember to share the experience.

4. Financial challenges

Many businesses have gone through financial uncertainty; during COVID, this has happened on an almost unprecedented scale. But even when you cannot control the financial circumstances, you can choose how you react, which will also determine how people respond.

The most important value during times of financial change is transparency. Do not try to cover up the problems — ideally, make the figures available so people can see the changes and understand the decisions being made.

5. Underperformance

When one person is struggling, or who appears completely unmotivated, the whole team’s morale can suffer. However, frustrating this can be, it is vital to approach it with curiosity rather than judgement.

Burnout and fatigue were rising trends among employees before the pandemic, and now, it could be even harder to feel connected and engaged to a business.

The underperformance of an individual may be due to the employee and/or the manager setting unclear goals that are random. The problem is often that individuals do not know why they want to achieve the goal.

Setting SMART goals is a necessity for any form of professional development. The methodology focuses on setting objectives into actionable actions to achieve and improve across various areas.

SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound.

Alternative the Five “Whys” technique may offer the solution, it is an iterative and interrogative approach to exploring the cause-and-effect relationship of a problem. This analysis model not only dives into problem solving but is also actionable.

By asking “why” five times, you can find out, for example, if the situation is temporary or permanent, if the person needs more training, if they’re having emotional problems or if there are personnel issues. Once you have understood the problem, provide support, regular check-ins, and positive reinforcement.

Another approach is to work on boosting the individual’s job satisfaction by focusing on task identity, the process of completing a project from beginning to end. Letting them work on different points across the life of an assignment can help people see the whole project, own their own contribution, and understand the effect that contribution has on others, both inside and outside the organisation — something that is easy to forget especially when completing mundane tasks.

6. Being short-staffed

 Whether it’s because of an increase in workload or a loss of personnel, being short-staffed can catch everyone off guard and directly impact the physical environment.

When it is all hands to the pumps, try Job Crafting. Job Crafting captures what employees do to redesign their job in ways that can foster job satisfaction, as well as engagement and resilience Job Crafting: lets each employee alter the boundaries of their job by taking on more or fewer tasks, often choosing tasks that play to their strengths and interests. The process identifies three main forms the job changes can take.

First, there is task crafting, which involves altering the type, scope, sequence, and the number of tasks that make up a job. Next, relationally crafting a job by altering whom an individual interacts with at work. Finally, there is cognitive crafting, where you modify the way, you interpret the tasks and/or work you are doing.

The principles of job crafting remain relevant where job structure is rapidly changing, putting more and more responsibility on the individual for the experience and engagement in their work. This method can turn staff changes into growth and development opportunities.

At times like these, companies may be tempted to put employee engagement on the back burner and focus on getting the job done, but this is when it is more important than ever to actively engage with employees, if anything it is better to over-communicate and make sure you are available and visible. An open-door policy, employee feedback, and inclusion in the action plan are all potential solutions. 

7. Personal mental health issues

When someone is going through a difficult time in their personal life, they will almost inevitably be distracted at work. While providing mental health support to help someone keep working has a valuable place, there is one-factor many overlook. Sometimes it is simply not appropriate or productive to ask someone to keep working during a time of mental health issues. Rather than expecting them to slog through it, offering a few days or weeks of paid leave may get them back on their feet faster and ultimately lead to more productivity and higher motivation.

Keeping employees motivated is hard work but critical for business success. Remember to make the time and financial investment as it will pay off in employee engagement and happiness tenfold because ultimately “hiring and developing people” is one of the most important things we do in business.

As we move towards a post-pandemic work environment, it is becoming clear that leaders, managers, and businesses that will succeed are those who put people at the very heart of their organisation.

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