5 ways to motivate employees at the end of the year and beyond
Hey! I’m Claire Dale and I’m a Movement Specialist and a leading exponent of Physical Intelligence.
Along with my colleague Patricia Peyton at Companies in Motion, we’ve written an award-winning book on motivation called Physical Intelligence. We specialise in helping businesses become physically intelligent organisations through enhanced wellness, resilience and productivity.
Last week I held an exclusive talk for the users of the Perkbox platform for the Perkbox Live series. I’ve also been asked to give some advice on how you can motivate your employees as the winter months draw in and the days get shorter. So here it is!
Why is it important to motivate employees at the end of the year?
Motivation is a fundamental part of being human. We’re always being motivated to move towards or move away from something. When we’re hungry, we’re motivated to seek out food and eat. When we don’t like where we are, we’re motivated to leave and find safety.
When we’re not motivated, we start to feel less alive and our cortisol levels rise. And the more cortisol we have in our body, the more stressed we can start to feel. To counter this, we have dopamine. It’s a chemical in the brain which makes us feel good. This is what draws us towards our goals, we complete our tasks, we get a hit of dopamine and we’re motivated to move onto the next thing. It gives us the energy to keep moving in the right direction.
If we apply this to what’s going on in the business world right now, there’s a lot of uncertainty, people are faced with redundancy and it’s hard for leaders to genuinely paint a picture of a vision which everyone should be working towards. With this uncertainty, it becomes difficult for leaders to define their goals for 2021. And that’s hard for employees, many don’t know physically where they’ll be – at home, in the office – let alone where their business is going to be.
While leaders can’t control what happens next, they can control how they respond to it – and that can be crucial for motivating employees. That’s why we need to set goals for employees, especially those working remotely. You can’t expect them to just sit at their at-home working setup from 9 to 5 like how the previous office worked. Managers need to set goal-oriented work so employees have achievements to show at the end of the day rather than just time punched into the clock.
If we don't have those goals, it's very difficult to motivate ourselves forward because we don't have that target that we're aiming for. And if we don’t address that lack of motivation now, we’ll carry it over into next year.
How do I motivate myself?
We teach a technique that I also use to motivate myself called ‘seeing the long game’. Start with a visualisation of a bright future or the goals you want to achieve and work backwards from that point.
It can be difficult to see that bright future right now, so what I’ve been saying to people lately is, imagine it’s the 31st of December and you’re looking back from that point. What do you need to do in the next two and a half months to get there? This gives us a reverse visualisation, showing us the principles and approach we need to get where we want to be.
From there, we can set the milestones which we know we need to hit in order to reach that visualised end. And these don’t have to be big things. A lack of motivation towards even smaller aspects of a job can be detrimental to the success of a business.
Maybe employees need to continue to perform daily tasks to keep the ship steady. Break these small tasks down into individual milestones and show employees how each one they complete will be putting the business in a better place as we enter the new year.
Then we have to put the work in. A tip we recommend is to literally tense your muscles, firing up your levels of motivation towards the task. The act of tensing the muscles before carrying out a task is proven by science to increase our determination. It sounds hard to believe but it’s true! Think about it, if you're about to lift a heavy object, you don’t just try and lift it. You tense the muscles in your body because you know you’re going to need the effort to lift the object.
And what do we do when we’ve lifted the heavy object? We celebrate! Once I’ve completed that task which I needed to do, I put my hands in the air and celebrate as if I’ve just scored a goal in the cup final. We call that the Winner Pose. When all of this is combined, it changes the brain chemistry to be more positive and continues to turn the wheel of motivation.
What are the main challenges to employee motivation?
Motivation is a chemical process within all of us. It works on the balance of oxytocin and dopamine in the brain. Oxytocin comes from our social bonds and dopamine comes from our levels of trust and purpose. Both of these chemicals can naturally rise and fall with how we interact with our jobs.
When employees are isolated from their colleagues, feel like their work doesn’t have a purpose or that they can’t fully trust the senior leaders in the business, both oxytocin and dopamine levels drop – and so do the levels of motivation. The challenge we have is that isolation in the pandemic is making it much harder to maintain those social bonds and see how our work has a purpose.
The simplest way to describe this is that oxytocin and dopamine make us feel like we belong. It goes way back to our ancestors, we gathered in tribes because it built social bonds and helped us fulfil our purpose of staying alive – and we trusted each other to make sure we all survived. This works the same way in business. The challenge is to make employees feel like they belong to that tribe of your company.
How can you overcome the barriers to employee motivation?
Celebrate the small victories
Some people fall into the trap that we shouldn’t celebrate small successes when we’re in a time of crisis, that it’s in some way showing off while others are suffering – but this is exactly the time when we should be celebrating! We need to bring the energy of victory that comes from celebrating the little wins which our employees achieve.
You could choose to do this on a team or company-wide level, doing both would be even better! For example, at the end of each week, encourage teams to meet and congratulate each other for their achievements that week. You can crown the mention of each achievement with a round of applause to cement that feeling of celebration.
On a company-wide level, you could do this on a monthly basis. Gather everyone together as best you can and have senior leaders openly praise the great work that people have been doing. There are also recognition platforms, such as Perkbox Recognition, which allow employees to send digital messages of thanks to each other. Each one is displayed company-wide on an interactive feed, allowing colleagues to like and comment on the recognition being sent, and join in for a shared sense of celebration.
Appreciation over reward
There’s probably been no other time when every company’s finances have been so under scrutiny. And right now, many businesses simply don’t have the means to increase salaries or pay bonuses to motivate employees. Fortunately, money has never been the biggest driver of motivation anyway. People are motivated by other avenues, they’re motivated from feeling appreciated, being recognised and by making a difference.
It’s a saying that my colleague Patricia uses a lot but is nevertheless true, plants need to be watered more than they need to be pruned – and that’s the same with people. Showing appreciation to your employees is the ‘watering’ here, and appreciation is one of the key resources in keeping up motivation in the long term.
Appreciation works so well because you’re getting the combination of the dopamine and oxytocin chemicals I mentioned above. It provides dopamine because the employees feel rewarded (in a non-monetary way) and oxytocin because appreciation shows employees how they fit into the wider social construct of the business.
Connect your employees
These long periods of isolation are a huge threat to motivation too. We’re working from home and not seeing anyone for most of the day or we’re going to our workplace and not able to interact with others as we did previously. When you walk into the workplace, there are no handshakes or slaps on the back – all of that is gone. And the more isolated we become, the less we feel part of that team and our oxytocin levels drop.
It can be difficult to connect people digitally, especially now everyone seems to have moved past the Zoom quiz phase. One way to connect and motivate people is to get them to work on the same project. Get employees to come together and collaborate to solve a problem. Even though they’re already a part of a group to begin with, getting them to solve a challenge as a group will boost oxytocin levels and motivate employees toward achieving their goals.
Another way to boost connection is to get people to look directly into their computer camera rather than at the faces on the screen. We can boost oxytocin in each other more effectively if we use that camera lens. So as long as we're stuck at home, and we're communicating through Zoom, get people looking into the camera. You can still toggle back and look at the person's face on the screen but encourage people to give each other eye contact through the camera lens and boost those social bonds.
Get out of crisis mode
Many of us have probably found ourselves or our senior leaders in crisis mode, and for good reason, there’s a global pandemic which is pushing us all towards panic stations. But we need to be mindful of the impact which this has on the motivation of our workforce.
It’s not a bad thing at all to be invested in how to keep a business sustainable during these times, but it can become one when leaders are no longer visible. Your employees will be saying: “Hello. We're still out here doing our job. How are we doing? And where are we headed?” And this perceived lack of direction can make motivation drop rapidly.
HR can often find itself in the middle of all of this, but try to see it as an opportunity to celebrate, appreciate and connect employees. Remind leaders that whatever the news is, people are much better off if they know what’s going on. This is important because by not communicating with employees about what's going on, trust is going to suffer and those oxytocin levels are going to drop.
A great example of this is Winston Churchill, he was very upfront about the challenges that World War Two was going to bring to the country and people understood. They appreciated his honesty and he didn’t make promises he couldn't keep. That’s the same when it comes to your employees, remind leaders that they need to keep those channels of communication open and be visible during this time of crisis.
One way of simplifying this is: If it’s bad news, people will always worry. If it's bad news and you share it, people will still worry. If it’s bad news and you don't share it, people will worry even more. So you may as well share it and get the collective brilliance of the company working to solve it.
Provide opportunities to be creative
People much prefer to be active in a crisis and given an opportunity of trying to handle it. Not only does it make them active participants in the future success of the business, but it also stops gossip and rumours grinding motivation to a halt.
One thing about motivation is that we get more of it when we’re able to be creative, especially when we’re able to be creative in a crisis. The feeling of being creative is hard to come by when we’re not feeling stimulated and that’s even more difficult at the moment with our prolonged period of isolated working.
As HR and business leaders, find ways to challenge employees and mix things up so there’s some variety for people. Focus this around fun to get dopamine boosts across your workforce. This could be in the form of role swapping so people get a crash course in what it’s like to be their colleague for the day. Businesses are also starting to back off from the idea of forced fun and I think that’s incredibly powerful for creativity. Find the fun in what benefits your company and ask people for collaborative, creative ways to solve any challenges which arise.
I know at Perkbox, employees openly talk about the projects they’re working on and ask for any help they need. Colleagues who believe they can help can digitally raise their hand and say count me in.
From there, that group of people work collaboratively, share their skills and creatively solve a problem which directly benefits the collective efforts of the business. This is a textbook way to improve motivation. It builds social bonds and trust, greatly increasing dopamine and oxytocin levels which, as we know by now, boosts motivation.
What does successful employee motivation look like?
There are four main elements which you’ll see across your business when you’ve successfully motivated employees – strength, flexibility, resilience and endurance.
From the strength perspective, success comes from teaching people about the muscle tensing and celebrating techniques I wrote about above. It also comes from leaders in the business making decisions under pressure and communicating those decisions so your employees can feel like an integral part of where the business is going.
Flexibility is about developing those diverse teams and building trust between them to get the oxytocin flowing. Even if people are demographically different, get them working well together and you’ll increase motivation. On an organisational level, success will come from being able to adapt quickly to changes. This can be trickier for larger organisations but find ways to be as flexible to change as possible.
With resilience, it’s about your employees and your organisation being bouncy. This is when they’re motivated to rise to external challenges which are usually unforeseen. Rather than running for the hills, employees will be positive and draw on their motivation to help move the businesses forward towards that shared vision of success.
You’ll certainly see success in employee motivation when you notice the endurance of their energy. When your people are able to give you more of themselves for longer, it will be because you’ve given them an environment where they trust their leaders, have those social bonds with their colleagues and can see the long game of what they’re doing.
I hope that’s motivated you – if you’ll excuse the joke – to give employees what they need to feel motivated themselves. Don’t forget, you can find out more about motivation, physical intelligence and how I can help your business here.