How to motivate staff

Discover the benefits of a happy and productive workforce with our top ten tips for motivating your staff.

Successful businesses typically have a strong focus on the people that work for them, knowing that they can reap the rewards of an engaged workforce.

Today's business leaders are increasingly positioning staff ahead of customers in the happiness and motivational stakes. “Customers only come first if our employees are happy and doing a good job,” says Jason Stockwood, chief executive of online insurers Simply Business, which tops The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For 2016 list.

Highly motivated staff can have a profound impact on the success of your business. According to research by BH Engagement, annual turnover can be as much as three-times higher in companies with a structured employee motivation scheme. They're a talent magnet too: 44% of potential employees consider reward and recognition programmes when evaluating working for a company.

In contrast, poorly motivated employees can negatively affect business performance and operations - from working ineffectively and broadcasting their indifference to customers to deserting a company.

A surprisingly high number of the UK workforce feel demotivated. BH Engagement also found that around 39% of employees feel under-appreciated at work, with 77% reporting that they would work harder if they felt better recognised. Motivated employees retain better and they're good for business. A 5% increase in employee retention can increase profitability by between 25% and 85%.

The good news is that motivation isn't just about paying more. Small, simple ways to motivate staff can have a big impact and needn't cost a fortune. Here are our top ten tips for motivating staff.

1. Set clear staff expectations

Confusion about the duties, tasks and even the purpose of a job role can be highly demotivating. When an employee isn't sure about what they should be doing and why it can create a sense of unease at work. This is one of the basics to get right from the start.

Employees are the most important people in your business - more important, argues Vineet Nayar, than customers, who in this video that shares eight simple ideas to increase employee engagement.

Get staff off on the right foot by providing a clear, detailed job description. It should describe the duties that the role is responsible for, as well as details such as who the role reports to and the values the employee should display - such as a 'can do' attitude.

A written job description should serve as the basis for an employee's annual review. Knowing their performance will be judged on how well they meet their job description encourages staff to monitor their performance throughout the year. Regular one-on-one meetings with staff to discuss performance are helpful, along with setting new objectives as the business develops. Explain clearly what success looks like in a job and what the goals and targets are within the role. Be sure to alter job descriptions to reflect changing roles and responsibilities.

2. Lead by example

There's nothing worse for morale than bosses who take a “Do as I say, not as I do” approach. Saying one thing and doing another shows staff that you don't share the same values you're asking from them and gives them permission to adopt similar behaviour. Your leadership and working practices set the tone for employees. If you disappear for long lunches or scoot off early on a Friday to play golf but won't let your employees do the same then you aren't leading by example. If you don't want your employees rolling in at 10am each day make sure that you're at your desk bright and early.

Leading by example isn't limited to working hours. Staff will be influenced by the way you speak and behave so make sure your behaviour is what you expect from them.

A good way to build a motivating culture is to involve employees in decision making and strategy creation. Together, agree the values of the business and actively model them. If you want your business to be collaborative then hold team meetings and invite staff to submit ideas or work on projects together.

3. Ensure brilliant communication

Lack of communication about both the company and employees' performance will quickly demotivate staff - especially for a new business where job security is less certain. Regular, open and honest communication will go a long way to motivate staff. There are two ways to ensure great communications:

  • Internal company communications - Regularly update staff on important issues that affect your business such as how it's progressing against end of year targets. A brief team meeting on a Monday morning is a good way to motivate employees for the coming week. As your business grows use newsletters, staff community boards and all-hands meetings to ensure staff stay up to date with the business.
  • Individual staff communications - Hold regular one-on-one meetings to discuss issues and invite employees to provide honest feedback about the challenges they face. Talk to your staff on a regular basis - preferably face to face. Staff prefer a visible boss but if you're off-site make regular phone calls.

Remember that communication is a two-way street - listen to your staff and act on their feedback. That way they feel valued and motivated to contribute to the business's success.

4. Praise staff and use positive feedback

More than a pay increase, recognising when someone has done a good job is immensely satisfying - people love to be recognised for their work and appreciate being thanked.

Positive feedback is best delivered in person and straightaway. Publicly acknowledge staff who do a great job and share positive customer feedback with the whole team. Small rewards and 'thank you' notes go a long way - spot awards such as vouchers along with a hand-written note saying thanks are hugely motivating. Make praising staff and saying thanks a daily habit.

Want to learn more about what really motivates people at work? The results can sometimes be surprising, as Dan Ariely explains in this Ted Talks video on what makes us feel good at work:

5. Adopt a no-blame culture

Avoid a company culture of blaming staff when things go wrong. Not only will it demotivate staff they'll be less willing to take calculated risks and more likely to hide mistakes for fear of being caught out.

Instead adopt a no-blame culture where mistakes and problems are explored in an open and transparent manner with a view to learning what went wrong and how to improve. Ensure regular debriefs after projects or milestones and invite teams to work together to see how things can be done more effectively. For a start up this invaluable insight will make your business more effective.

6. Be flexible and personal

Modern businesses are different to firms of the past. A flexible, friendly team environment means staff enjoy spending their time at work and want to achieve their best. According to a CIPD 2015 survey over half of respondents said they prefer to work in 'an organisation with a family feel, held together by loyalty and tradition.'

Don't be a stickler for a conventional nine-to-five working day. Many small businesses are adopting more flexible working hours and options to work from home. As much as the salary, the ability to work flexible hours may attract and help you retain the best staff. Spend time getting to know your employees' personal situation so you can help them achieve a better work-life balance.

Dress code is important. The days of a shirt and tie or a business skirt are declining, with many companies adopting more casual dress codes. Be clear on what's acceptable, such as when meeting clients, but be open to employees dressing in line with your industry - it also communicates the culture of your new start up.

Bringing charitable causes into work also creates a caring environment. For example, let employees choose a company charity to support. From a jar on the reception desk to collect pennies to cake sales and individual fundraising activities, it gives staff a common goal that helps unite them as a team.

7. Empower staff to make great decisions

When staff feel that they have control over the projects they're working on - as well as responsibility to succeed - they tend to be more motivated. Allowing an employee to deliver a project or perform a task the way they want to, even if it's different from how you would do it, means they take more responsibility.

A hands-off approach sends the message that you support employees taking the initiative and you trust them to make the right decision - both positive behaviours that foster a productive working environment. It also means less time spent micromanaging staff and more time for building your business.

8. Offer opportunities and career development

It's rare for an employee to enjoy working in a job with few prospects. Take time to learn about the career aspirations of each employee and together work on a career development plan. This involves inviting employees to express their views and mapping them to future roles in the company. Identify skills and experience gaps then put together a plan to develop those skills through training, work shadowing or coaching. Regularly review progress against the plan so employees have a sense of development.

Perform a talent-mapping exercise, identifying employees with potential and developing a training programme for them. Recognise high performing employees and offer them opportunities for promotion into new roles. Development and training doesn't need to be expensive, with online learning courses and government grants available to help start ups with their training needs.

9. Employee rewards and incentives

As a small business owner it's unlikely you can use sky-high salaries and large bonuses to motivate staff but small rewards work just as well. Tickets to events such as the cinema, theatres, concerts and sports tournaments are a good example of a small reward. You can also arrange trips out for the team and incentives such as extra holiday days or taking time off to help a charity. Surprise modest bonuses at the year end when business has been good are a way to thank staff and keep them motivated.

You can also make your business a fun place to work with team-bonding activities. Arrange the occasional team lunch or picnic where employees can bring their partners or family, or simply take the team out for a few drinks.

Motivating staff is a difficult challenge and sometimes the obvious rewards tactics don't always work out. This video by career analyst Dan Pink tackles the puzzle of motivation as an inspiration for a Ted Talks video:

10. Create a good working environment

Nobody wants to work in a dirty, cramped space with old or broken chairs and desks, surrounded by piles of boxes and trailing cables. Create a clean, pleasant and safe workplace. Ensure computers and other equipment work, workspaces are well lit, with clear floors and enough accessible storage space. Get employees to help with regular tidy sessions and use digital services and tools to keep paperwork to a minimum.

A good environment matters. Jason Stockwood, chief executive of online insurers Simply Business who won the Sunday Times Best Company to work for 2016, says “You can’t force people who hate their environment to do a good job.”

Use plants, pictures and colour on walls to brighten workspaces and provide plenty of creative space to encourage staff to use their office environment to doodle ideas, draw up plans and create to-do lists.

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Disclaimer: While we make reasonable efforts to keep the information on this page up to date, we do not guarantee or warrant (implied or otherwise) that it is current, accurate or complete. The information is intended for general information purposes only and does not take into account your personal situation, nor does it constitute legal, financial, tax or other professional advice. You should always consider whether the information is applicable to your particular circumstances and, where appropriate, seek professional or specialist advice or support.

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