The science of motivation

It can be difficult to pin down why people are performing well – but taking a scientific and individualised approach may be the key to unlocking motivation

All employers know a motivated workforce is a productive and happy one. Surprising, then, that relatively few seem as curious as you’d expect about the science and theory that sit behind it, according to professor Nick Holley, co-director of Henley’s Centre for HR Excellence.

He adds that rather than following vendor- and consultant-driven “fads”, businesses should spend more time analysing their own data and building a picture of what is and isn’t working. “The problem is that in the short term it is easier buying snake oil than actually understanding and fixing the root cause of the problem,” he says.

Patricia Hind, director of the Ashridge Centre for Research in Executive Development, Hult International Business School, agrees that few companies use the vast amount of information available to them to address areas such as performance management, employee engagement and motivation, even though they regularly use ‘big data’ to improve the customer experience.

“When done in the right way, tracking, analysing and sharing employee performance metrics can be very beneficial for both individuals and organisations,” she says. “The trick is to think about business processes in a different way, and to ensure that the metrics used are simple, accessible and relevant to individuals.”

It’s highly likely that data and analytics will be one of the factors that will drive a more scientific approach towards employee motivation. In the meantime though, it should be acknowledged that businesses are using a breadth of methods to motivate employees. Here we look at the reasoning behind more scientific, individualised approaches in four key areas.

Flexible working

The thinking

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Manchester Business School, suggests “big HR data” can help us understand what drives individual performance, but contends it is more important for HR to look at psychological drivers. He claims that although flexible benefits were once a motivator they are less important to employees now, and the real driver of performance is flexible working options. “Being given more autonomy at work, having some ownership of the business, and most important of all a good quality of working life lead to better health and wellbeing,” he says. “Training and development are still important to many workers, but the need to have better work/life balance and flexibility is critical.”

In practice

Addaction, a leading specialist drug and alcohol treatment charity, offers a range of flexible working options that, according to its HR director Guy Pink, are powerful motivators for its 1,100 staff. “Society is much more aware of flexible working and because we are being commissioned to work evenings and weekends a standard nine to five working model no longer meets our business needs,” he explains.

Addaction offers a variety of options, including part-time working, compressed hours, and term-time working, all of which have proven particularly powerful motivators for women coming back after maternity leave. “It really helps women returners plan how best to juggle competing demands knowing that we offer this,” Pink says. Meanwhile, time off in lieu is especially appreciated by frontline staff. “Compressing a working week into four days is proving very popular and we are seeing an increase in the number of flexible working requests.” An extra day off in Leap Years, which is done at minimal cost, is also something that is “incredibly well-received”, he says.

Coaching and development

The thinking

Coaching is shedding its image as the sole preserve of the executive tier, with organisations training their middle managers so it can be deployed within teams. Some businesses are beginning to exploit it even further. In its 2014 survey Global Human Capital Trends, Deloitte concludes that leading organisations are scrapping the annual evaluation cycle and replacing it with rich, ongoing feedback and coaching designed to promote continuous employee development.

Meanwhile, Henley professor Holley’s recent research found that the key driver for motivation is an individual’s direct manager. This, he says, underlines the importance of HR working more closely with managers in “coaching and challenging them” to be better at motivating each employee in a way relevant to them.

In practice

Coaching is an integral part of working life at global management consultancy Bluefin Solutions. “Internal coaching programmes are neither expensive nor difficult to implement, and if done in the right way can produce a tangible and speedy return on investment,” says the company’s HR director Gemma Bullivant.

Since the introduction of internal coaching training, the company’s attrition rate has fallen from 23% in February 2014 to 10%, and Bullivant reports engagement levels are the highest for several years (although adds the caveat that all HR initiatives are interdependent). “I firmly believe that we need to look at every aspect of the business strategy through the lens of employee engagement and motivation. Only then will we truly maximise the output of the talent pool,” she concludes.

Corporate away days and out-of-office activities

The thinking

The motivational feel-good factor and the buzz that out-of-office events can create should not be underestimated. According to Bill Alexander, CEO at reward and incentive specialist Red Letter Days for Business, employees can derive great satisfaction from doing something that they wouldn’t normally get to do every day.

“We recently threw a Dragon Boat race event for more than 300 people as a ‘thank you and well done’ from their employer, and the camaraderie at these types of events is huge,” he says.

Alexander reckons the key is to make the time meaningful for the team or person. “Cash will often be received in a pay cheque and spent quickly on utility bills. Give staff a gift to remember such as a hot air balloon ride, or a weekend away with their team, and they’ll talk about their reward pre-, during and post the event,” he says. “A meaningful reward will retain motivation levels for a much longer period of time – cash is not always king.”

In practice

The Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), a leading UK network of independent girls’ schools, puts on a wide range of away days and social events, both in departmental teams and across all staff. In addition, voluntary CSR days are open to everyone and have involved ceramic poppy planting at the Tower of London and building riverbanks at the London Wetlands Centre in Barnes.

“The CSR days have a strong motivating effect,” explains Caroline Hoare, director of people at GDST. “There is always a buzz in the office after one of our events. They are a brilliant opportunity to get to know people in a very different context, and to break down perceived hierarchies.”

Hoare adds that cross-team working has also improved as staff have got to know colleagues in other teams. Engagement levels have steadily increased across the Trust over the past three years and last year it made it onto the Best Companies list of the 100 Best Not-for-Profit Organisations to Work For.

Reward and benefits

The thinking

A strong reward and benefits package became a key differentiator in the bid to be seen as an employer of choice in the war for talent during the 90s.

Introduction of flexible benefits, online self-service benefits portals, and total reward statements have given employers more ways of reinforcing and demonstrating the value of their reward and benefits strategies.

But many organisations are still failing to communicate the value of their schemes to employees. A survey of UK HR managers published by Sodexo Benefit and Reward Services revealed that 45% of UK HR managers identified communicating and engaging staff as a key challenge of implementing a reward strategy.

“It is crucial to get buy-in from senior management,” says Jamie Mackenzie, marketing director of Sodexo Benefit and Reward Services. “They must devote sufficient time to incentive schemes in order for them to work consistently across the wider business – a problem that 63% of businesses are experiencing.” Mackenzie adds that personalisation, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, is a growing trend.

Meanwhile, half of larger organisations now offer flexible options according to Martha How, reward partner at Aon Employee Benefits. “I’ve yet to see an employee exit flex,” she says adding that with healthcare and wellbeing rising up the corporate agenda, gym membership, dental insurance and cancer screening are frequently included.

In practice

Specialist consultancy Gemserv last year conducted a “top to tail” review of its reward and benefits programme to realign and strengthen its “employee deal”. The specialist consultancy, which operates in the utilities, environment, telecoms and information security sectors, wanted to reinforce the link between reward, contribution and performance as well as incentivise individual and team performance.

As part of the company’s incentive structure a profit share scheme was introduced whereby 15% of annual profits would be shared equally across the business. “The idea was to strengthen our culture of ‘we are all in it together’ and everyone, no matter what they are working on, can make a difference,” says Mandeep Thandi, head of HR at Gemserv.

Other initiatives include empowering line managers to reward their employees with cash or voucher incentives, and enhancing a quarterly reward scheme where workers can nominate colleagues to receive a non-cash award of up to £1,000. Nominations are reviewed and selected by an employee panel. This is “for staff, owned by staff, with decisions made by staff,” says Thandi.