In short:

  • Employee motivation is a crucial factor in business longevity that impacts productivity, morale and retention.
  • Managers can enhance employee motivation by monitoring their own behavior, adjusting motivation tactics on a per-office and per-employee basis and regularly checking in with employees to gauge motivation levels.
  • While managers can do plenty to help, they should remember that employees have some control over their own motivation levels, too.

A motivated workforce is a critical factor in building a long-lasting business. But the average worker is disengaged more than 26% of the time they’re in the office, according to a recent Accountemps survey of 2,800 workers across 28 U.S. cities.

An unmotivated, disengaged workforce leads to problems including lost productivity, low morale and high turnover. If a company is only as good as its people, then developing and maintaining a motivated workforce should be a main goal of its managers.

Brandi Britton is a district president at Robert Half, a top-five global staffing firm with over 70 years of experience in human resources.

According to Britton, motivation from managers, specifically, leads to employees that are “productive, effective and passionate about their jobs.” It also plays an essential role in retaining employees, she explained, “which is critical in today’s competitive labor market with low unemployment rates.”

Britton suggested three ways managers can build a team that’s genuinely excited about work.

Image of Brandi Britton standing in front of a window in a downtown office high rise.
Brandi Britton, district president at Robert Half

1. Lead by example.

As a manager, your behavior trickles down to your team. You can motivate your team simply by making a conscious effort to set a positive, upbeat tone in meetings, emails and conversations.

If a team is underperforming — say, not hitting its sales goals — motivation-minded managers will be proactive about addressing the issue.

In situations like these, “Take time to talk with your employees one-on-one,” Britton said. “Show them that you care about them beyond their performance, and … find out what their pain points are so you can better support them.”

“Take time to talk with your employees one-on-one. Show them that you care about them beyond their performance.”

Many managers themselves would agree that we’ve stuck around at a job because our manager showed a capacity and care to fight for our success. Britton echoes this sentiment: Supporting employees and reinforcing their positive attributes, even in difficult situations, will help them stay motivated, she says.

2. Tailor your approach.

Every branch office or individual employee derives motivation from a different incentive. Realizing this truth and being flexible in your strategy is essential to developing a plan to keep employee motivation at a high level.

For instance, many employees are motivated by receiving individual praise in a team meeting. Others have personality types that might not enjoy that type of recognition, preferring private email recognition instead. Still others might do their best work if you describe to them a future promotion to come after certain milestones, each of which are celebrated on weekly phone calls.

Britton suggests asking your individual team members what motivates them flat-out.

“Ask your team members how they like to be recognized, and acknowledge their achievements accordingly,” Britton said.

“Ask your team members how they like to be recognized, and acknowledge their achievements accordingly.”

Some employees also find certain working styles and locations more conducive to productivity than others. Though it’s growing in popularity, remote work isn’t for everyone. And while working solo isn’t a brand-new employee’s cup of tea, it might be just the thing a tenured parent craves.

If you see employees struggling with motivation either at home or in the office, “Talk to your staff about where and how they work best, and try to accommodate requests,” Britton said.

3. Check in often.

Along those same lines, test the value of listening to your employees’ feedback as you sample new motivation tactics. Regular one-on-one check-ins — by phone or in-person — are helpful for collecting candid thoughts regarding how your team feels about work overall. For a potentially greater dose of honesty, consider sending team members an anonymous survey.

Britton said that keeping these surveys simple and straightforward is the best way to go. She recommends questions like, “How happy are you working here?” and, “How likely are you to recommend this company as a place to work?”

Even if the responses are less than stellar, Britton explained that it’s important to share the results with your team.

“Let them know that you take their feedback seriously, and provide insight into how the company will address concerns,” she said. “A transparent and proactive response to constructive criticism lets employees know that they’re valued.”

“Let them know that you take their feedback seriously, and provide insight into how the company will address concerns.”

�� The bottom line

Building employee motivation is more art than science. However, there are strategies and tools managers can use to understand what’s important to employees and develop plans to support those needs.

Yet through it all, remember that motivation doesn’t fall squarely on your shoulders as a manager. Employee initiative is part of the equation, too.

“While employers need to cultivate an organizational culture where great people thrive, workers should speak up and let their managers know what they need to be successful and grow their careers,” Britton said.

Encourage your team to work together towards a motivated workplace, and it’ll be around for a long, long time.