5 ways to keep your people motivated – lessons from the pandemic

We are getting slowly but surely back to a ‘new normal’. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard these two words – ‘new normal’ – in the last few months and I know for sure I am not alone in this. It’s nothing ‘normal’ about this situation but there’s a lot we can change to improve the way we work and support our people. 

Whilst under this immense pressure to keep our organisations going during unprecedented times, let’s not forget the simple things that go a long way.

The ways in which we communicate have already undergone massive change and there are more changes on the horizon. The ever-advancing technologies have had a dramatic impact on not just the way we do business but also the way we run our lives. They have facilitated new ways of working, new ways of living and new ways of learning. The most recent pandemic has become an incredibly strong driver for change. Keeping people motivated during a period of uncertainty could be a tremendous challenge. More so if most of us, if not all, work from our living rooms while trying to balance work demands with homeschooling, partners’ endless Zoom meetings and, of course, their own online presence on top of their daily childcare and household chores. ‘Digital presenteeism’ and ‘digital fatigue’ have become important challenges for ourselves, our people and organisations.

Organisations have to quickly bounce back and keep up with the plethora of changes that have come their way in the last few months. But not all is lost. On the contrary. Every crisis comes with opportunities as well.

So how can you keep your people motivated?

1. (Re)connect to Purpose 

It’s easy to lose the sense of purpose when our minds worry almost all the time about our loved ones’ health or our own, financial security, jobs, businesses and so on. When we are afraid our reptilian and limbic brains are more active than our neocortex. Our neocortex is the most evolved part of our brain. When our neocortex is activated, we can think clearly and weight options, and focus on innovation and contribution which in turn leads to progress. By now you can probably see where I’m going with this. Remembering our purpose helps us to focus on what we can do to move forward.

Research shows that the most successful people don’t define themselves by power. They don’t define themselves by financial gains. This is not to say that power or financial gains are not important to them. But it’s important to look beyond that. They define themselves by impact, contribution and purpose. Even the uber-ambitions Jeff Bezos, currently the wealthiest person on the planet, famously said: 

“don’t worry about competitors, don’t worry about making money for shareholders, and don’t worry about the short-term. Focus on your purpose, on the customers and their needs, and everything else will fall into place.”

There is no better way to motivate people than helping them understand why their work matters and how they make a difference. This needs to go beyond financial profits. You can do this by sharing context about the work they are supposed to do and why they need to do it. Help them see the impact of their work in the big picture.

Ask questions like ‘Why are we doing what we do?’, ‘Who benefits from our organisation’s work and how?’, ‘What does success look like for us?’, ‘What role does each of our people play in delivering the best for our customers?’

2. Give people the right tools to build – Never stop the learning

The pace of chance is enormous and increasing. There is nothing more frustrating than knowing your purpose and where you are going but realising that you don’t have the necessary skills or knowledge to get there. Organisations need to look at the employee journey as a whole and put in place key helpers to support their people do their jobs. These could be tools like systems but also thinking about skilling, reskilling, and upskilling. 

Only by being able to move fast and to quickly embrace trends is progress possible. You won’t be able to give your people all they need all the time in terms of learning and development opportunities but give them as much as possible. 

Create a learning culture in your organisation. Use your current knowledge about your sector, embrace trends, and upskill your people before your competition. It will pay off.

3. Say ‘thank you’

This sounds very easy to do but somehow many of us forget the enormous impact a simple ‘thank you’ could have if said at the right time. Recognition plays an important role when it comes to motivation. There are many ways to say ‘thank you’ to people. Think about recognising good work, using sticky notes, acknowledging their work, short phone-calls to say thank you, writing a note and so on. It doesn’t need to be expensive. It is actually better to add your human touch to it rather than overutilising financial rewards or trips to Hawaii (yes, one can have too many of those and the excitement of the first trip becomes entitlement and expectation and stops having the desired outcome). For instance, the vice chairman of Netapp, an US data management and storage provider, wanted to make sure his people knew how much he appreciated their work, so he started a movement called ‘Catch Someone Doing Something Right’. Every day he calls between 10 and 20 employees across the company to congratulate them on a job well done, as nominated by their peers and managers. Each call might take only 20 seconds but its impact last much longer. 

People want to work in a place where they feel appreciated and respected.

4. Look at the(ir) big picture

Authentic support for our people starts with a deep connection to what matters. The bigger the organisation, the harder to get to the bottom of what matters to your people. But don’t use this as an excuse. Talk to your people, understand where they stand and ask them how they want to be supported. Of course, managing expectations is important as not all ‘wants’ will be possible but from my experience, people are conscious of what is actually possible within the means of the company and rarely ask for changes that would jeopardise the organisation as a whole. 

Organise focus groups, talk to your people, explore your knowledge gaps when it comes to what matters the most to them. Ask questions like ‘Is it professional development?’, ‘Is it flexible working?’, ‘Is it job autonomy?’, ‘Is it the purpose of their work that they care deeply about?’. Pay attention to your people.

Bringing people on the business journey is an effective way to keep them engaged – even during difficult times.

Talk WITH (not to) your people – you’ll be amazed what you’ll learn.

5. Check where you stand – really stand

Lead by example. Inspire your team to achieve more. Leading doesn’t come only from the Chief Executive or your most senior leaders in the organisation.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you’re are a leader” – John Quincy Adams

If you are not motivated and authentic, people will feel it and will mirror that in their behaviours. Actions speak a lot louder than words. If you’re not engaged and enthusiastic about your organisation, your team, or the work you do, it’s unlikely that you’ll be a great motivator of others. 

Take the time to reflect on how you really feel about your purpose, what you enjoy about your role and what you find challenging. Think about what impact can you and your team have on colleagues, partners, and customers. 

Sometimes, while key leaders of the organisation focus extensively on how to keep their people motivated, they forget about their own motivation and what it keeps them going. It’s easy to fall into this trap. An effective way to stay away from this trap is to reflect on your own motivation. 

Remember that motivation is a personal affair. There is no one size fits all. Knowing your people and what takes to motivate them will pay off. Pay attention to their needs, their wellbeing, and engage with them on a regular basis in order to stay connected to what matters to them. 

Motivation doesn’t work in a vacuum.

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