How can employers improve staff motivation going into the new year?

  • A key challenge for businesses next year is to ensure that their messaging around culture, purpose and values is not only aligned, but reflected in the employee experience through benefits, reward, recognition and development.
  • By understanding employees’ differences, employers can provide more genuinely rewarding incentives for individuals to work towards.
  • Surveys and focus groups can not only give an insight into what employees want but also support a sense of belonging.

When thinking about motivating employees, the first idea that springs to mind is often money or another type of financial reward. But as a new year begins, instead of trying to inject motivation in their workforce with cash, perhaps there are fresh methods employers can try?

Options for employers

Sometimes the best way to keep staff motivated is to recognise that the work they are doing is noticed, appreciated and making a difference to the business as a whole.

Jamie Mackenzie, director at benefits provider Sodexo Engage, is of the opinion that employers could foster an environment of peer-to-peer recognition and get their staff into the habit of regularly showing their appreciation to each other for their efforts. “Non-verbal sources of recognition can be effective too, for instance personalised e-cards or rewards from management, such as e-vouchers,” he says. “Often a tangible reward such as this has a stronger impact on staff, and motivates them even more to maintain a high standard of work.”

The pandemic saw technology become an important tool within many workplaces. Robert Hicks, group HR director at engagement platform Reward Gateway, explains that the business adopted new technology to give employees what they needed to do their jobs and feel supported in the process. “Employers must adapt recognition programmes for the digital world,” he says. “These won’t be effective if they are difficult for employees to use. Instead, HR must look for ways to integrate digital recognition initiatives into an existing environment. No one wants another application to open and manage.”

Often what motivates an employee is influenced by their personal circumstances, which are always changing, and for many have been impacted by the pandemic as well as their situation at work. While workers’ mental and financial wellbeing have both been affected, the past year has given many the ability to be more flexible in where they work, which has in turn the potential to improve motivation.

Charlotte Godley, head of proposition at benefits technology firm Benefex, believes that working for an employer with clear values and purpose is becoming increasingly important. Potential employees expect an organisation to support their wellbeing, to have a strong sustainability strategy and to be diverse and inclusive. “So the challenge for businesses is to ensure that firstly the messaging around culture, purpose and values are all aligned, but importantly that they are reflected in the employee experience through benefits, reward, recognition and development,” she says.

Godley cites online recognition schemes as a tool for supporting recognition in a dispersed workforce, as well as helping to keep people connected, but believes that it is not enough to just implement a new initiative. A business needs to embed recognition into its culture to ensure success is celebrated throughout and at the highest level, she insists. “Employers need to have a very clear compensation strategy so that employees understand how they are rewarded, and that there is a reward for high achievers. If employees feel they will get the same compensation regardless of what they achieve, there is little motivation to do better,” she says.

The Great Resignation

The Great Resignation, the trend that is seeing frustrated employees leave their jobs en masse as lockdowns lift and the economy improves, began in 2021 and has continued on into the new year.

Godley says it demonstrates how employees are re-thinking what motivates them. “The fact that so many feel the need to change jobs in order to give them what they want, certainly suggests that employers need to reconsider their relationship with their employees if they want to retain and recruit the best,” she says.

Hicks argues that society is now heading into the era of the Great Adjustment, which means a bigger focus on inputs, and outputs will follow. “If treating our people well becomes our first-and-foremost priority, then productivity, retention and a more engaged workforce will come. 2022 is about appreciating the people [we] have and adjusting to give people what they want in the future,” he says.

What will work?

Employers may want to be adaptable when it comes to offering motivating initiatives, as with a more flexible approach, everyone’s differing needs and preferences can be met to make the impact of the strategy stronger.

Mackenzie says: “Some people like chocolate, while others prefer working towards an additional day off beyond their annual leave allowance. By understanding employees’ differences, employers can provide a more genuinely rewarding incentive to work towards. After all, employees are more likely to be motivated to work for [an organisation] that makes them feel valued.”

Some businesses have not yet broken the mould of workplaces that cater to one way of working, despite actually being made up of staff with individual needs.

Mona Akiki, chief people officer at benefits platform Perkbox, says it is key to provide choice to those with different needs, which means going beyond the traditional options for rewards. “We tend to be prescriptive about when employees work, where they work and how they work. Although this may be extremely useful and efficient for certain types of roles, for a long time, we have assumed that this is the way all jobs should function,” she says.

This is beginning to change with hybrid working becoming the norm for so many people, and Akiki would like to see a similar shift for rewards. “Many of us in HR have been providing benefits focused on the majority of our people. Although this used to be the most effective way to do things, it also means that we may be catering to the employee with the most traditional lifestyle,” she says.


Effective communication can often be crucial to keeping on top of motivation levels, as well as making sure employee benefits packages are fit for purpose.

Mackenzie says it is important to leverage the behind-the-scenes data organisations have of what benefits are most used. “Employers must also make sure they are checking in on their staff regularly so they can properly gauge their needs and meet them appropriately. This presence can also reassure employees that support is there should they need it, which could in turn boost motivation levels,” he says.

Godley agrees, believing the easiest way to ascertain what will help to motivate the workforce is quite simply to ask. “Surveys and focus groups can not only give an insight into what employees want but also support that sense of belonging. They can also enhance the employee experience, as staff feel connected to the business by knowing their opinion matters and that they are being listened to.”