Whether you’re sitting in the executive suite of a Fortune 500 company or you just manage a small team of creators or administrators at a small non-profit, leadership roles require that you motivate employees to perform their best. Leading educational consultants Better Leaders Better Schools apply the same approach to school leadership.

To outsiders, this is a tougher task than it appears. It’s more than simply “go, go, go!” and “you can do it!” There is an art to incentivizing employees so that they feel acknowledged, fulfilled, and rewarded for their work.

We’re curious about how business leaders tackle this challenge in a world gone almost entirely digital, especially now that remote work is the norm.

Incentivize for the Future

Leaders are tasked with the tricky feat of not only motivating employees in the short term (hourly, daily, and weekly) but also for the foreseeable future.

Employees need to feel energized and excited about what’s next, even if it’s beyond the horizon. Give them a bit more control over how they work, and this instantly becomes easier.

“The best way to reward and motivate your employees is to allow them freedom and flexibility in the workplace,” said Kamron Kunce, Senior Marketing Manager at 4Patriots. “If you can push everyone to reach goals and reward them with deviating time or heading new projects, it makes for far higher rates of productivity. Let everyone work as equals and have a say in what occurs within the company. If everyone works as a team, then the incentive of what projects you head next time will push many to reach new levels of productivity.”

Empowered employees work better individually and together.

Personalize Feedback

At the end of a tough day or week, managers shouldn’t just clock out with a cold shoulder. It’s always better to acknowledge everyone’s contributions and talk about the challenging experience that the team has just endured.

Asking for feedback in these situations isn’t easy, but highly important to strengthen team bonds and improve in small ways.

“The best way to motivate employees is to talk with them one-on-one as much as possible to discuss their role on the team and what they are doing well,” said Melissa South, SVP of the SwingTie. “Positive feedback in an intimate setting bodes far better with employees rather than group praise. That is not to say to cut one out fully, but there should be a push to talk individually with everyone so you not only get to say to them how you feel, but they can vocalize anything they wish to as well.” 

When you talk strategy with employees one-on-one, that’s a powerful way to motivate.

Keep it Light

We’ve all worked jobs that feel like a grind day in and day out. Coworkers have bad attitudes, and so do the customers. Worst of all, managers don’t help the situation! Little do they realize their negativity is often the cause of the problem.

“A great way to motivate employees is to keep the company culture lighthearted and fun,” said Chris Gadek, Head of Growth at AdQuick. “The last thing that you want is for the company to drag down on everyone, and motivation dies because it is so draining to get up for work. Proper motivation comes from the ability of a manager to mold a positive work environment. Positivity does wonders for a team, especially in terms of productivity.” 

A positive mindset is highly transferable, so managers may need to readjust their own attitudes if they notice employee motivation falling,

Bring in the Right People

When bringing on new employees, managers have a chance to improve their teams significantly. They also run the risk of “poisoning the well” with someone who doesn’t mesh with the culture or cannot pull their weight in terms of production.

It’s hard to gauge how someone will fit in with a team based on interviews and documents, but this is the challenge of team development that we all face.

“Hiring people is an art, not a science, and resumes can’t tell you whether someone will fit into a company’s culture,” said Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks. “When you realize you’ve made a mistake, you need to cut your losses and move on.”

Sometimes the best teammates aren’t the most prolific producers, but they keep teams together and act as “glue” for improved performance overall.

Raise the Stakes

Not sure why employees are yawning at meetings and not pushing themselves to the limit each day? Maybe they don’t feel like they’re truly a part of the company, and it’s time to get them more involved with a personal stake in the game.

“One way more businesses should push motivation in the workplace is to have more of their employees as shareholders on the team,” said Jeffery Brown, President of Big Fig Mattress. “If more people have actual stakes in the company’s success, then they will want the company to perform far better than before. Although this might not be possible for every business, for those that can pull this off, it makes a major difference to all employees to have a few shares in the company.” 

There’s no clear blueprint for pulling this off, but more companies are figuring out ways to implement this plan and seeing improved engagement as a result.

Collaborate with Workers

You never want to be that supervisor who stands back with a mug of coffee while your team members hustle frantically to hit deadlines and work overtime. That’s the comic-book version of a boss that nobody wants to know!

Instead, be the type of leader who takes a collaborative approach to management. Help team members figure out creative solutions to problems and listen when they need to talk about something important.

“I keep my employees happy by giving them agency in their assignments,” said Dr. Tzur Gabi, Co-Founder of Caligenix. “I plan quarterly meetings with my employees to set goals together and hear their ideas for projects. Not only does this allow me to create a schedule that’s reasonable for my employees, but it produces innovative, inspired project ideas that motivate my employees to take ownership over their work and emotionally invest in my company’s success.”

With some extra space to be creative and the support of supervisors, employees are set to thrive.

Fun and Friendly

The workplace is for getting stuff done, but the best company cultures also have a strong community that keeps employees engaged on a social level.

Now that so many people contribute remotely, leaders in the workplace should try to keep things fun for employees in between long periods of work.

“Engaging folks in virtual games, trivia, and socials helps alleviate some of the stress and keep the workplace bonds and motivation alive,” Rishi Kulkarni, Co-Founder & CEO of Revv. “Fortunately, we’ve always had a culture of measuring outcomes, and that hasn’t changed during remote work. This has also allowed us to work around the challenges that remote work has brought as employees could give attention to loved ones without compromising their performance or efficiency.”

These days, managers must be more flexible to allow employees to work on their own terms as well – provided they accomplish what needs to be done in the allotted time.

Understand Others First

The better you understand your employees, the more you can capitalize on their strengths and give them assignments that allow them to thrive.

This is a key part of management that’s often overlooked – delegating tasks based on unique employee traits and giving them a chance to develop skills that matter most.

“I love using the enneagram as a tool to understand myself and others I interact with,” said Sarah Morgan, CEO of Even. “The enneagram teaches us about our core motivation. I love to use this understanding to motivate my staff in a way that feels personal and resonates at a core level.” 

Empathetic business leaders will always outperform those who don’t acknowledge the unique characteristics of their employees.

Present New Opportunities

Does it seem like your team has lost some of that passion during the shift to a remote work setting? Maybe they’re falling behind on projects or not bringing positive energy to the table.

In this case, it might be time to introduce some new challenges or offer more transparency into how the business works from your perspective. This can be the boost your workers need to spring back into action.

“If your employees need an extra spark of inspiration, it may be a sign that they should be more involved with the company,” said Liz Eddy, Co-Founder & CEO of Lantern. “Share with them some extra insights or offer them opportunities to take on more responsibility. Some workers will say no, but others will jump at the chance to offer more to the organization.”

Even if employees don’t seem eager to participate in new ways, they’ll at least appreciate the effort on your part.

employee recognition

Recognize Great Work

Don’t underestimate the power of recognition in the workplace in the era of remote work. Employee motivation will suffer if you don’t acknowledge their performances, and it doesn’t take much to make a positive impact.

“Rewards don’t have to be in the form of gift cards or boxes of snacks,” said John Scheer, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer at Herman Scheer. “Sometimes what employees want most is recognition from their managers and team members. That’s totally overlooked these days, especially in the remote work environment. Ramp up recognition and watch engagement rise in parallel.”

A thank-you email or client testimonial can be just the thing for making employees feel accomplished and more engaged at work, so be generous with your appreciation.

Show Off on Social

Social media is an avenue of communication to the entire world, but few companies use these platforms to give employees a boost of recognition. That’s a missed opportunity.

Think of your social media accounts as a “wall of fame” for employees that go above and beyond. This will give customers a chance to relate to your brand and create a sense of pride within the organization.

“Your company probably uses social media all the time, so why not showcase your employee success stories on platforms like Facebook or Insta?” said Derin Oyekan, Co-Founder of Reel Paper. “This has a huge effect on making workers feel like superstars and also humanizes your company in the eyes of customers. Everyone wins, and it motivates others to succeed as well.”

Part marketing, part motivation – this is a great tactic to try.

Team-Oriented Rewards

It’s great to reward individual employees for their efforts, but acknowledging an entire team can be powerful as well, especially if they’re fresh off a stellar performance.

After a week of hard work, the project is done, and you give a company-wide shoutout to your team – that’s a great way to showcase your leadership and make your team feel good about their accomplishments.

“Keep an eye on teams and how they perform together when facing tough deadlines and high expectations,” said Jason Wong, CEO & Founder of Doe Lashes. “If you can reward a team as a whole, that has a massive impact on the future success of those individual workers. It’s a confidence boost in the short term, and you know they can be relied on to perform at a high level in the future.”

When there’s an exciting new project in the works, your team might be the one that gets called on to do the job.

Direct Connection

Remote work has led everyone to feel a bit cut off from their organizations, even though they spend 40+ hours a week on projects and communication.

Managers should remind themselves to check in directly with employees at every level – a quick meeting or message can be a big motivator for employees that might feel disconnected.

“It seems outdated, but a personal email from an upper-level manager or supervisor goes such a long way these days,” said Alex Keyan, CEO & Founder of GoPure Beauty. “Even a phone call can do the trick to make an employee feel more respected and valued. This was more commonplace back in the day, so let’s bring it back.”

Keep Customers Involved

If your business serves customers and receives feedback regularly, use those positive testimonials as fuel to keep your teammates motivated.

This will remind everyone that their work is appreciated and helping change the world for the better, even in some small way.

“Every now and then, we want to hear that our work is making an impact,” said Aylon Steinhart, CEO, and Founder of Eclipse Foods. “It’s easy to get disconnected from the fact that our businesses help real people and make them happy. Businesses should talk about customer satisfaction more openly among teams and celebrate the good things they’re doing for the world. It can improve the whole atmosphere of a workplace.”

More connection with happy customers means better-performing teams – every time.

Set a Positive Tone

Managers are often so focused on making tough decisions and reporting to supervisors; they sometimes forget to look in the mirror and see how they’re conducting themselves.

Stress can be contagious, and leaders have a responsibility to stay calm and collected in the face of mounting pressure. Employees will reflect your vibe as a leader, so be aware of how you act!

“Leaders may not realize how much they truly set the tone for an entire company,” said Darren Litt, CEO of MarketerHire. “If they always seem overly serious and stressed out, that feeling spreads to teams across the organization. Sometimes the best way to motivate employees is to simply be positive and energized yourself. As a leader, it helps everyone – including yourself.”

Lightening up and relaxing can be a good way to turn down the temperature in a tough situation, so make a point of practicing this kind of self-control.

Offer Constructive Feedback

We’re all tempted to complain about our jobs now and then, but this never achieves anything positive. If anything, complaining only drags other people down and kills motivation across the board.

Instead, try to provide feedback based on facts that help others improve in real ways. It’s easier said than done, but with practice, you’ll figure out the best way to guide your team in the right direction.

“It’s really hard not to criticize, condemn or complain when you think something is wrong,” said Grant Park Academy Co-Director Adam Cole. “There are times when constructive feedback is called for.”

More often than not, trusted employees will fix their own mistakes, so remember not to micromanage.

Reward Big Results

Maybe your company establishes a structured reward system with bonuses or gifts to keep people motivated. This takes some extra investment but can still be a powerful tactic.

Not everyone is motivated by the same things, so maybe offer different options for rewards so that all employees strive to achieve more.

“Our team is very results-driven, and we go to great lengths to hire the best candidates who love their roles and work with integrity,” said Dr. Pooneh Ramezani, CEO & Co-Founder of Dr. Brite. “To further reward and engage our employees, we believe in recognizing the results of our team members by giving them random gifts for their accomplishments. We are always coming up with new ways to celebrate all of our employees’ accomplishments and finding new ways to reward them.”

Always Be Appreciative

We spend a lot of time in the workplace, and the people working alongside us deserve to be treated with respect. Whether you’re a top-level executive or a first-time team supervisor, showing appreciation to your employees is so important.

From everyday tasks to big wins, become comfortable with appreciating employees for all they do. That good energy is going to come back around to you some way down the road.

“Small gestures of appreciation go a long way! Remembering birthdays and noting special events in employees’ lives is important, now more than ever,” said Tyler Forte, CEO & Founder of Felix Homes. “Shouting out employees’ small or large accomplishments during company meetings shows employee appreciation and provides the opportunity for employees to get to know each other. Encourage other employees to praise one another during team meetings to further endorse teamwork and connectivity.”

Employee motivation is one of the most elusive aspects of management, and any longtime business leader will say the same! Applying these different techniques is a great start, and over time you’ll incorporate these methods into your management style without a second thought.