Back to Basics: Motivating Employees During Uncertainty and Change

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Jul 3, 2020

Today, many businesses in the United States are rethinking the way they operate and plan for the future, with everything from workplace culture and policies to employee incentives and the physical office environment evolving in real time. Underlying this rethink is the question of how to keep employees motivated as they are working remotely or in the office under new social distancing guidelines. For guidance, employers should turn to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a psychological theory that maps out five ascending levels of human needs that can be applied to great effect in the workplace.

These five needs differ from familiar benefits such as unlimited PTO, cold brew in the office, and Summer Fridays. They are more fundamental and include physiological needs (like a comfortable working environment and access to a restroom and kitchen) and safety (feeling that your personal property is protected thanks to building security and having supportive, ergonomic furniture). This article will focus on three of the needs toward the top of Maslow’s hierarchy — connection, esteem, and ultimately, self-actualization — and how they can encourage and inspire employees as the future of work unfolds.

1. Foster Workplace Community

We all want connection. In our professional lives, that connection can come through colleagues, clients, communities, or even in the abstract, by working on a project that will make other people’s lives better. These days, building a vibrant and connected workplace culture takes creativity — as we are all social distancing or working remotely — but it can still be done.

For example, employers might ask their team leads to host Friday happy hour Zoom calls; establish Slack channels dedicated to interests, such as cooking or exercise, where colleagues can swap tips and pictures; or send out a newsletter featuring recommendations from employees around a theme, such as beach reads or new routines.

When workers feel a sense of belonging, they’re more likely to be engaged with their work and motivated to achieve. Successful companies will find ways to encourage these types of connections.

2. Recognize Wins, Big and Small

A positive perception of your own worth comes from feeling like you make valuable contributions to a greater goal, and this encourages you to achieve. One way to reinforce this dynamic among employees is for managers to purposefully give positive feedback on the heels of any successes, rather than simply wait for the annual performance review to come around.

To be effective, feedback should be specific and timely, and delivered in a tone of genuine appreciation. For example, if your practice lead was particularly well-rehearsed or creative during a new business pitch, send them a note afterward saying so. Or better yet, tell them on the recap call, if appropriate, since others on the team may benefit from what you have to say.

This kind of regular feedback has lots of benefits. Acknowledging accomplishments fulfills a basic human desire for recognition. Furthermore, it helps employees identify their own skills, and goes a long way in helping build the confidence needed to hit and sustain a high level of performance.

3. Embrace Trust

The fifth and highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy is about autonomy. Team leaders want to work collaboratively but also with the freedom to decide the best way to achieve shared goals. Speaking plainly, we all want to feel trusted and as if we are the captains of our own ships.

To empower your employees and maximize their potential, carefully consider their skills and abilities, and seek to provide them with both opportunities to succeed as well as assign them challenges to solve in areas where they naturally excel. Of course, this doesn’t mean overloading them with responsibilities, just efficiently filling their bandwidth. You’re aiming for a scenario in which your worker says with confidence, “I’ve got this” — and you both know they really do.

In the process of doing so, also ask yourself: Has any autonomy been taken away from your leaders as a result of working remotely, social distancing, or other aspects of the changing workplace? What new opportunities can you provide that will make employees excited to continue to work hard to achieve? Answering these questions with honesty will benefit all.

The more thoughtful you are about motivating your employees, the more productive your workforce will be.

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