How to identify motivation cold spots

Organisational change can have a devastating impact on employee motivation, so what can employers do to keep staff engaged and invigorated?

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Organisational change can create unrest in a workforce.
  • Line managers can play an important role in identifying any engagement and motivation issues.
  • Recognition schemes with clear objectives can help to re-engage and re-motivate staff.

Management changes, office relocations and restructuring exercises have been common occurrences during the economic downturn, causing widespread employee unrest and, in a number of cases, strike action.

One Housing Group’s pay strike during the summer, in response to the employer’s plan to slash pay, is one example.

Yves Duhaldeborde, director, talent and reward at Towers Watson, says: “Changes like this affect employees, and they start to ask themselves questions such as ‘will I have a job tomorrow?’.

“All of that impacts on engagement, and that lack of control over what is happening, and lack of understanding about what is going on, often makes staff ask, ‘why should I bother?’. It makes them feel disengaged and demotivated.”

Organisational change can affect employees in different ways. For example, some situations will impact on a particular team of employees, creating a group of demotivated staff. Conversely, an individual employee might become demotivated at work because of a bad experience with their line manager, or if they have been overlooked for promotion.

Dilys Robinson, principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, says: “Those sorts of very personal things could be very disengaging. They could be the flipover from being engaged to disengaged practically overnight.

“It’s like a break in a psychological contract. The employee feels the organisation has really let them down, or somebody important in the organisation has let them down. Different things affect different people depending on their level, from the very personal to the team, to the whole location.”

Identify demotivated staff

Employers can identify gaps in employee motivation in a number of ways, with engagement surveys being an obvious tool. But surveys can prove challenging.

Robinson says: “They can tend to be a one-off thing, such as once a year or once every two years. Some organisations have mini pulse surveys, at intervals, perhaps quarterly. That will work only if people are sufficiently engaged to actually participate.”

But employees’ level of response can give employers a valuable insight into staff engagement and interest in their role and in the wider organisation.

Line managers are key in identifying low motivation levels among staff. Regular discussions and one-to-one meetings between line managers and their team can reveal any issues and, in the process, identify appropriate support.

“There should be a degree of feeding [issues] upward towards the top of the organisation, to give some feedback of employees’ concerns,” says Robinson. “That is very much a line manager’s job, and it needs to be communicated right up the chain [of command].”

Duhaldeborde adds: “Managers who are trained to listen to employees, keep the door open and really capture the feelings within their team, can be very useful. It’s really about [employers] becoming more aware and more of a listening organisation.”

Open lines of communication

Open lines of communication are crucial for organisations seeking to tackle demotivated employees. Staff need to know there is a forum where they can share their thoughts openly without fear of reprisal.

This can help an employer determine exactly what the problem is and its possible causes. Colin Hodgson, sales director for reward and recognition at Edenred, says: “It could be that an organisation has restructured, for example. That sort of thing, in this day and age and in this economic climate, is unfortunately a necessity in many organisations.”

Restructuring programmes typically cause feelings of confusion, resentment and unsettlement, particularly for employees who survive any redundancy programme. In such scenarios, organisations must spell out to staff the future shape of the business and the role they will play in making the business a success.

Re-engaging staff

Although there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for re-engaging and re-motivating staff that have gone through organisational change, the very least that employers can do to reinvigorate and motivate their workforce is to identify what employees want from their job, and what makes them put in discretionary effort.

Towers Watson’s Duhaldeborde believes most employees simply want a level of autonomy in their role. “Showing staff that they have the latitude and the autonomy to make some good judgement would be very important,” he says.

Another motivational key is to reassure staff that although changes are happening, their skills are valued.

Recognition of a job well done, or of the effort that has gone into a project, can be enough motivation for some employees.

Recognition doesn’t have to be monetised,” says Edenred’s Hodgson. “Recognition is ‘thank you, well done, congratulations, great achievement’. It’s praise, not just from the management structure and immediate line managers, but praise from colleagues.

“Recognition doesn’t necessarily have to carry a reward budget.”

Incentive schemes

Of course, incentive schemes are necessary for some workforces, but to be successful, they must have clear objectives.

Hodgson adds: “It’s about establishing a very clear path and clear objectives; objectives which are Smart [specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely]. It’s about building a recognition programme that addresses and acknowledges the past, but is very clearly aligned with the direction of the business moving forward.”

Employers that try to run an incentive scheme without clearly communicating their objectives to staff will probably not achieve the desired engagement effect. David Walker, commercial director at Personal Group, says: “HR functions and reward professionals have got a huge job to do in making sure the programmes they’re investing in are well understood throughout the workforce.

“The ‘how’ it is delivered and communicated is equally as important as the ‘what’. Motivated employees are more likely to give discretionary effort more often and for longer, and employers have to take an overall approach to engagement and make pay and motivation an aspect of it.” 

Case study: ATS Euromaster re-engages staff through change programme

ATS Euromaster

Tyre retailer ATS recognised that to improve its financial performance, it needed to address low engagement levels among its employees.

Five years ago, the organisation was making a financial loss, so newly-appointed group HR director Irene Stark was tasked with helping the business return to profit.  

“We decided that the best way to do this, and to make sure that any sort of change was sustainable, was to do it through our staff, but also through things that would be transformational,” says Stark.

She recognised that although ATS could change policies and procedures and restructure departments to try to improve business, to bring about lasting change, it needed to alter employees’ behaviours and the way they worked.

Stark and her team concluded that one of the best ways to do this was to make sure staff were aware of everything that was going on in the organisation, and knew what its three-year plan involved.

“We told staff what was going on and treated them like adults,” she says. “Some of them didn’t even know we were losing money.

“So the whole engagement piece was around communicating our three-year plan for the business, and getting everybody involved in taking us back into profit.”

ATS involved staff in writing its three-year business plan, so they could take ownership of it. The organisation then communicated the plan to all employees using a story-telling approach: it described where the organisation had been, and where it was going. All staff were given a face-to-face briefing by their line manager.

The employer also invested in leadership development, and learning and development initiatives.

When Stark joined ATS in December 2007, the organisation’s employee engagement score was less than 30%; now it is over 60%. Staff turnover has also improved and now stands at 16% a year, compared with 40% five years ago.

“We’re on track to break even in the near future,” says Stark. “Also, things like customer complaints have reduced because our service is better.”

Viewpoint: David Webb: Making the most of change

David Webb

Employers should be used to the notion of change by now. Minor change happens constantly, and in organisations, major change seems to come round every few years or so. Yet mention change and often the initial reaction is hostile. We can still be locked into a primeval fear of the unknown.

Many employers recognise the need to manage change effectively to keep staff working at their best. Handling change badly can have a wider, damaging impact on how an employer emerges from the reorganisation.

Key steps in a successful transition firstly include planning well ahead. Some change can be unexpected, but much of it can be foreseen, with preparations made in good time. Successful planning reassures customers, too.

Keeping up to date with legislation is also key, so that any change concerning matters such as contracts of employment, redundancies and takeovers stays on the right side of the law.

Employers must take time to carefully explain proposals for the future to staff, so they understand the need for change. This is part of the process of starting to turn that opening hostility into accepting and welcoming the change.

Organisations also need to listen to staff, because they may have ideas that could aid or improve the way ahead, and make them feel involved.

Managers must demonstrate leadership in presenting a clear and realistic vision of the future, so each employee and team will know where their jobs and objectives fit in.

Finally, employers must remember that it is not just senior managers who have key parts to play.

Line managers are closest to employees, and have the biggest influence on how they perform, behave and view the organisation as an employer. They have an important role in helping to explain the future to their staff in one-to-ones.

David Webb is part of the team at workplace relations organisation Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service)