The workplace as we once knew it, has now become increasingly fluid, and that trend has been turbocharged by COVID-19. That means the ‘how do you motivate your team’ handbook now needs urgent revision.

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Think of engaged employees and you’re likely to think of people who spend lots of time together in the same physical space. There are several reasons Google coders, special forces soldiers, nurses and airline cabin crew are inclined towards “esprit de corps”. But perhaps the most obvious one is that their workplace provides opportunities to forge warm and trusting relationships with their co-workers. It also helps that software developers, soldiers, healthcare professionals and flight attendants typically work for organisations with strong corporate cultures, and a clear raison d’etre.

But what happens when, as is increasingly the case in today’s economy, when a worker doesn’t go to the same workplace every time they clock on? What happens when they must work alongside individuals they have little or no familiarity with?  What if they have different managers for every shift who have different expectations?  What if they don’t even have a single employer, but rather freelance for a variety of clients? How do you motivate your team in those circumstances?   

The available evidence suggests that many businesses are yet to find a satisfactory answer to that question. A Gallup poll conducted a few years ago found that a mere 14 percent of workers in Australia and New Zealand could be classified as “engaged”. There’s little reason to be optimistic the results would be any better today. (Old-school, command-and-control managers may roll their eyes at talk of employee engagement, but the evidence is that it’s crucially important. Gallup also found businesses with highly engaged workers enjoyed 17 per cent higher productivity and 21 per cent higher profitability.)  

Our platform provides shift-management software for clients in, among others, the aged care, child care, retail, hospitality, mining and logistics industries in 18 countries. It has been servicing  deskless worker employers and employees for almost two decades. In the process, Humanforce has generated unique insights. Insights you can draw on when trying to work out how to motivate your team members and increase their productivity.  

We’ve gathered up our insights and provided a helpful summary below: 

Make sure your company values and culture are well communicated

As the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. If the people working for your business don’t understand what the business stands for, it will always be a struggle to keep them engaged. 

Organisations don’t have to be devoted to saving lives or transforming the world to have a powerful corporate culture. Very few Virgin flight attendants will ever save a passenger’s life. Nonetheless, they are usually enthusiastic about doing exhausting and repetitive shift work. That’s because they are energised by Virgin’s creative, collaborative, can-do culture. A culture Richard Branson devotes much of his time embodying and communicating.   

Employers who want to recruit and retain passionate staff need to work out what (beyond making money) their company stands for and ceaselessly communicate their company values to employees. 

There’s nothing inherently fulfilling about selling Swedish flatpack furniture or technological devices assembled in China. But there is fierce competition for jobs in IKEA and Apple stores. That’s because those companies have distinctive corporate cultures that attract both customers and employees. 

What’s more, a staffer at an Apple or IKEA store can be redeployed to a store on the other side of the country or even the world and continue to perform strongly. That’s because they have an embedded culture, and aligned themselves with the values of the company employing them.   

Key learning: Having a strong culture will help your business attract and retain enthusiastic staff.

Have open, honest communication with your staff

Few businesses actively set out to misinform their staff. But there are two ways in which it’s easy for wires to get crossed between frontline staff and the managerial/executive ranks. 

Firstly, those at the top of the org chart may believe it’s unnecessary and even risky to keep those further down the hierarchy in the loop. They may even convey the message that junior staff shouldn’t question their superiors, especially if doing so calls into question the judgement of those responsible for making decisions.) 

Workforces can function on a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ basis for a considerable length of time, but a day of reckoning usually arrives. Companies such as Microsoft and Facebook – where those further down the food chain are encouraged and often expected to challenge C-suiters – continue to go from strength to strength many years after launching.

In contrast, despite having access to abundant capital, getting gushing press coverage, and support from some of the world’s most powerful people, Elizabeth Holmes never realised her ambition of revolutionising blood testing. One of the main lessons from the cautionary tale of Theranos is that creating a culture of fear where staff are incentivised to bury bad news is rarely a recipe for long-term success.       

More prosaically, many businesses struggle to keep their staff in the loop in real time. This is especially the case in industries where casualised or deskless workforces are the norm. For instance, it’s one thing to roster staff to work at a particular location at a particular time, but what do you do when some of the staff that have been rostered on call are sick or simply fail to show up? 

How do you let your workforce know at short notice that there are shifts available? How do you convince those staff that have shown up that they haven’t deliberately been left shorthanded just so the business could save a few dollars? 

Many businesses have found they can use workforce management software to remove the kind of friction that can leave workers feeling disrespected and disgruntled. Delaware North is one of the world’s largest private companies and provides hospitality and food-service management around the globe. Its managers need to oversee hundreds or thousands of staff working at events ranging from the Australian Open to the Superbowl.

As Alison Gray, the company’s HT director explains,  for events to run smoothly, everyone needs to know exactly where they are meant to be at a particular time and frontline managers need to be able to resolve understaffing issues rapidly. Humanforce’s technology means managers have real-time information about where their team members are. It also allows employees to arrange and accept shifts – including short-notice shifts – via their phones. End result? “There’s no excuse for confusion, everyone works better,” Gray says. 

Key learning: It’s better to err on the side of over-communicating with staff. It’s also a good idea to take advantage of available, mobile app-led technology to keep everyone constantly in the loop of what is going on.

Help staff to realise and recognise their value to the business whatever level they are

As companies such as Accenture, IBM and Proctor & Gamble recognise, an employee who believes they are valued is much more likely to give 100 percent. Even when they are doing tasks that are unpleasant or tedious. Key company culture elements  such as providing positive feedback, celebrating work anniversaries, or asking for employees’ opinion cost nothing. Even the cost of performance bonuses, lavish office Christmas parties, or giving workers a day off for their birthday pales into insignificance when compared to the benefits derived from delighting and thereby retaining employees.   

Key learning: It costs little or nothing to let your staff know you appreciate their efforts. Demonstrating that appreciation can yield huge dividends.  Communicating in a timely manner also reinforces the benefit of demonstrating that appreciation.

Empower everyone as individuals

Even those in high-paid, prestigious jobs can burn out if they feel their efforts aren’t valued and they have little control over their destiny. So, it’s unsurprising that workers in modestly paid, non-prestigious roles tend not to stick with any one employer for long. That leads to substantial employee turnover costs in industries such as hospitality and retail.

Smart operators in ‘churn and burn’ industries typically do two things to empower and thereby hold onto their staff. Firstly, they never miss an opportunity to communicate the message that junior staff are just as important, if not more so, to the success of the business as those with a corner office. Among other things, this often involves allowing junior staff some autonomy and trusting them to get done whatever needs to be done (rather than micromanaging them).  

Secondly, they provide as many opportunities as possible for employees to learn new skills, have new experiences and, should they wish, progress from entry-level roles to managerial and possibly even executive ones.

Key learning: Nobody enjoys feeling they are destined to forever be an insignificant cog in a giant machine. Let your staff know their present job is valuable and that they will get opportunities to apply for more senior roles. Focus on employee engagement and how technology can continue to enhance it in the workplace

Welcome new ideas and suggestions from your workforce

Even if employees feel valued and empowered, they may believe that suggesting improvements is beyond their pay grade. Successful companies go to great lengths to discourage this mindset. They do that by setting up digital suggestion boxes. And training managers to request feedback from their frontline staff. And holding regular company-wide meetings where staff ranging from interns to the CEO are expected to brainstorm ideas together. 

Some companies, especially in the tech industry, have even experimented with allocating 15-20 percent of their staff’s working hours to ‘Innovation Time Off’ (ITO). At Google, ITO has resulted in money-spinners such as Adsense and Gmail.

At a bare minimum, this approach encourages staff to feel a sense of ownership about the business. Occasionally, it results in an idea that can generate significant cost savings or an entirely new revenue stream.

Key learning: Even junior staff can come up with billion-dollar ideas.

Make sure employees are in a role where they have challenges to inspire them

Starbucks has proven that even doing minimum-wage work at a fast-food outlet can be exciting, in the right circumstances. One of the ways Starbucks keeps employee engagement levels high is by creating (manageable) challenges for its employees. 

For instance, entry-level staff are given the training to become proficient in a range of areas (cleaning, restocking, machine maintenance, customer service, preparing different foods and beverages etc). If they want more challenging work once they’ve mastered the basics, they are encouraged to learn managerial skills. Such as rostering, payroll, recruitment, staff training, cost control, tracking P&L statements and so on. Famously, Starbucks declare that they will even cover the cost of a bachelor’s degree for those staff who ultimately aspire to challenging careers in fields ranging from anthropology, to electrical engineering, to urban planning.  

Key learning: Even seemingly “more simple or less exciting”roles can be  structured and presented in a way that allows staff to feel like they are learning valuable skills.  

Support and manage everyone individually

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just younger workers who expect employers to treat them as something more than easily interchangeable units of labour. Like it or not, your employees have outside lives involving children, parents, study commitments and membership of sporting teams and community groups. The small amount of time and effort required to, for instance, take into account staff members’ childcare responsibilities or religious obligations when making rosters can pay huge dividends if staff feel like they are seen and respected. As Simon ‘Start with Why’ Sinek, notes, “When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.”

Key learning: Your staff will almost certainly be happier and more productive if you treat them as treat them as individuals

Finally, don’t forget about the grinders 

Employers sometimes make the mistake of focusing on high-potential staff while ignoring those who aren’t interested in climbing the greasy pole. A worker who is happy to simply pour beers, or wait tables, or pick items in a warehouse is very valuable, and should continue to be made to feel valuable. Employers can do this, usually at minimal cost, by providing well-stocked office kitchens, ping pong tables, frequent caring actions for staff mental wellbeing, prayer rooms, long-service awards and so on.  

Key learnings: You can’t have an army exclusively made up of officers (or aspiring officers). So, make sure the enlisted ranks feel valued enough to stick around. 

Summary of best strategies to improve employee and team motivation

After these solid factors, it should be clear that it’s no simple matter keeping standing economy workers engaged and productive.  We hope the elements in this article have been useful, and you’ll be able to put them into practice immediately to improve your team’s motivation.

Elucidate Your business’s mission and values constantly.  

Communicate with your staff as much as possible. Ideally with technology that removes the friction from activities such as rostering

Validate every worker’s contribution to your business.

Collaborate with all your staff if you want to reap the many benefits of synergistic brainstorming.  

Facilitate your staff acquiring new skills and, should they wish, advancing their careers.