By baking experimentation into work, redefining accomplishments and changing the way we plan for the day, we can have a positive impact on employees’ motivation levels.
It’s that time of year where employees’ motivation levels might start to dip. The inspiration and energy of a new year has well and truly worn off, and the end of the year is not yet in sight.
Deadlines pile up, expectations increase and motivation levels wane.
On top of this, we know exhaustion levels are high right now, likely due to the tail end of three years of hyperproductivity, economic uncertainty and new ways of working.
Researchers from the University of Melbourne have found that of employees aged 25-55, 50 per cent are reporting feeling exhausted at work and 40 per cent feel less motivated than they did before the pandemic.
HR professionals aren’t immune from this. An informal poll of 323 members of AHRI’s LinkedIn Lounge showed that 68 per cent said they felt more exhausted now than this time last year.
The combination of low energy and low motivation leads to a cocktail of potential risks: work quality can slip, out-of-character behaviours can emerge and retention efforts can be compromised.
So, what can HR and employers do to boost engagement levels in employees and themselves?
“Humans have three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. When these needs are satisfied in the workplace, employees perform better, are more satisfied and stay with the organisation longer,” says Justin Weinhardt, Associate Professor of Business, Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources at the University of Calgary.
The trick becomes how to effectively infuse these three things into the work day.
1. It’s all in the planning
Think about how you plan your average work day. You might be someone who makes a long to-do list or blocks out time in your calendar for specific tasks. This can help to offer a sense of control over your day, but what happens when unexpected things arise, as they always do?
You might get called into an unexpected meeting, or perhaps a co-worker is distracting you from getting into a deep flow of work. Whatever the reason, ending your day without making a dent in your pre-planned tasks can be demotivating.
“Why do our plans fall apart? Is it because we are unmotivated? I don’t think that’s correct. At the start of the day, we are optimistic and we perceive an empty day full of possibilities of all that we can get done.”
This leads us to become “optimistically biased” about what we can realistically achieve in a day, he says.
“We forget to account for our children calling us, a colleague stopping in for a chat, or an unexpected meeting.”
“Create a plan that will make you motivated to get something done when your plans have been thwarted.” – Justin Weinhardt, Associate Professor of Business, Organisational Behaviour and HR, University of Calgary
Weinhardt, along with experts in the UK and USA, conducted research which found that when people engage in ‘contingent planning’ – that is, considering and planning for potential disruptions they may face in the day – it helped to increase their engagement levels, as they set more achievable goals for themselves.
“What we found is that when workplace interruptions were high, employees who planned for how they would finish their work after they got interrupted performed better than when they just did typical time management planning.”
It’s about structuring how you’ll ‘bounce back’ from a distraction and preventing ‘attention residue’ from taking hold.
“For example, [consider] an HR manager [who] must submit their recommended changes to the company’s performance management system by the end of the week,” says Weinhardt. “Maybe that HR manager creates a contingency plan that [says] if they get interrupted too much, they are going to leave the office early to finish their report in a coffee shop or at home.
“Maybe they work on that project at home and then come to the office. The HR manager could also ‘schedule’ a meeting with themselves for an hour to get uninterrupted time to work on the project. The central idea is to create a plan that will make you motivated to get something done when your plans have been thwarted.”
2. Redefine accomplishments
Each day, we’re faced with too many tasks and not enough time to complete them, says Weinhardt. This means, along with contingent planning, we need to redefine accomplishments and create cultures that set people up for a productive day.
“There is an obsession with busyness in corporate culture, because it’s easier to verify if people are busy rather than if people are productive. Just talk to anyone at work and they will tell you how busy they are. However, ask [them], “Do you feel accomplished today?” and people look at you strangely.”
Read HRM’s article on why leaders need to stop talking about how busy they are.
In order to feel as if we’re making a positive impact, we feel the need to demonstrate our competence through the volume of work we churn through, he says.
“We feel as if we need to accomplish ten tasks to feel accomplished, but we can rarely get ten important things done in a day.”
Even when we know this type of busywork will impact our productivity, we can find it hard to stop. For many of us, our brains are stuck in hyperproductivity mode and we find it hard to slow down – or stop completely.
Timothy Wilson, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, conducted an interesting experiment which demonstrated how much humans struggle doing nothing.
Participants were placed in sparse rooms and asked to leave all their belongings outside, including their phones, and to sit in silence and think for 15 minutes. They were told they could press a button, which would administer a small electric shock, if they wanted to. Surprisingly, 67 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women opted to press the button, just for something to do.
The takeaway? Our always-on brains have been conditioned to keep us constantly working.
“What we need is to actually follow through and complete a task where we use our skills, creativity and knowledge,” says Weinhardt. “This is what makes us productive. Running around from meeting to meeting or quickly dipping in and out of tasks does not give us that sense of accomplishment.”
Weinhardt suggests asking employees about the assignments and projects that give them the greatest sense of accomplishment.
“Co-create a contingent plan where the necessary but unfulfilling tasks are still accomplished, but ensure there is a plan to increase the time they spend on tasks that use their knowledge and abilities and [align with their] interests.”
Read HRM’s article on how to help employees discover their ‘red thread’ tasks.
3. Let employees get experimental
Another way to boost engagement is to incorporate play and experimentation into work rather than relying on emotional or financial pressure to drive people, Lindsay McGregor, co-founder of Vega Factor and employee engagement and motivation expert, previously told HRM.
“If you yell and scream or punish people, they’ll default to tactical work. They’ll follow instructions and execute what’s on their to-do list, but they won’t go beyond that. They won’t bring creativity. They won’t help others.”
She refers to a client she worked with, a retail bank, that needed support motivating its people.
Along with her co-founder, Neel Doshi, McGregor worked on getting the bank’s leaders to think about play, purpose and potential as the key ingredients for a successful motivation strategy.
“To find play, the staff would get together each morning and think about experiments they could run. They’d say things like, ‘There’s usually a long line for our customers, which frustrates them, so how could we help them get what they need without standing in a line? Or make the process of standing in a line a little more fun?’
“The next day, people would share what worked and what didn’t. Not only did this make work more fun, it also scaled learning across the organisation.”
“Running around from meeting to meeting or quickly dipping in and out of tasks does not give us that sense of accomplishment.” – Justin Weinhardt, Associate Professor of Business, Organisational Behaviour and HR, University of Calgary
Next, they focused on their branch’s purpose, which was to improve the financial health of their community.
“They’d tie what each person was working on to their branch goal. That meant people didn’t feel like they were just showing up to collect a paycheck.”
The combination of these elements, and the absence of emotional pressures, is what McGregor and Doshi call a ‘TOMO culture’ – a total motivation culture.
“When a culture is high in total motivation, people feel a lot of play, purpose and potential for the actual work that they’re doing. So that’s not saying, ‘I work for a great non-profit, but I hate my job as an accountant,’ but being able to say, ‘The day-to-day work I’m doing as an accountant gives me play, purpose and potential.’ When you’ve done this, you’re able to motivate people to do both the tactical and the adaptive work.”
It’s about employers taking the time to ask: “Does everybody have an interesting, meaningful problem to solve?” she says.
“So many organisations have big, grand mission statements, and those are important, but to feel truly engaged, people have to feel that if they don’t show up to work tomorrow, something they care about isn’t going to happen.”
Lindsay McGregor’s quotes were first published in an article for HRM Online in May 2022 titled: ‘Want to increase employee engagement levels? Try facilitating a TOMO culture’. Read the article here.
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