Motivation Redux

Friday, May 1, 2009 - 09:36

Time to rethink staff motivation? Get it right and you're well on your way to surviving these turbulent times. Get it wrong and the entire ship could go under. By Chris Sheedy

When Peter Bithos, CEO of Virgin Mobile, introduced 'pet-ernity' leave - unpaid leave to take care of a pet - to staff within his organisation, it wasn't just another creative Virgin publicity stunt. It was a carefully planned and strategically fascinating policy to help motivate his workforce through the current negative economic climate.

"Our staff are gen X and gen Y," explains Bithos. "We can't pay at the same level as the big end of town, so we always think about what our people want. We know they're putting off having kids and they're delaying getting a mortgage. It's possible that the most important individual in their life, outside their partner or family, is their pet."

And so, with typically Virgin-esque disrespect for the staid sensibilities of big business, Bithos introduced pet-ernity leave. In doing so, he helped to shore up the morale of his staff who hear every day in the media about the bleakness of the economic climate.

In such a negative global corporate environment it's vital for an organisation's management to re-evaluate their policies, processes and practices in regards to staff motivation, says Sonja Ankucic, Strategy and Projects Manager at the Human Resources Centre. Only companies staffed with driven and dynamic people will survive, and flourish within, such an environment.

The right principles

"There are constraints within today's environment, such as not having as much of a budget to play with," Ankucic says. "But if your fundamental management principles are right then you'll find that staff will continue to be motivated."

Ankucic says one of the great motivators in tough times is to continually and clearly communicate to every staff member about their specific role in the organisation and how the work they do fits in to the bigger picture.

"That gives people a feeling of fulfilment and purpose," she says. "Link a person's objectives to the strategic objectives of the business and it's a powerful tool. Staff should also be provided with clear expectations and performance indicators so they're able to self-assess their performance. When you know you're doing a great job it's easy to remain motivated," Ankucic continues.

"For example, project management is a great way to motivate people. Give them an opportunity to start a project and manage it from start to finish. When you give responsibility, set expectations and give your people the skills and resources they need for the project, then you can sit back and watch them flourish."

Despite the likelihood at the moment of tighter budget restrictions, there is still very much a role for training in teaching staff new skills.

Diana Ryall, Managing Director of career development company Xplore, and past Managing Director of Apple Computer Australia, advises of the benefits of setting up a transparent mentoring program at work, ensuring that all staff have an opportunity to be involved. This is a free, effective and, if done properly, targetted way to upskill a workforce.

Communicate clearly

Giving this sense of career development, Ryall says, is one of the greatest motivators of staff. It also ensures that your organisation's workforce, in times of change, retrenchment or restructure, is dynamic and skilful enough to work across departments and to handle any challenges sent their way.

"Communication is everything when times are tough," she says. "Stand up and tell your staff the truth; tell them your concerns. Then explain the exact plan you have to get the company through those issues. Tell your team what has been decided and why; that helps pick them up and get them going again."

Sean Cookson, Director of Corporate Development at Adrenalin, agrees. He often spends his days with businesses that have hired his company to organise team-building exercises. But in a past job, one of the simplest and most effective things he ever did was move out of his office.

"The team that I had in my previous role was around 45 people," Cookson explains. "I realised that anything to increase the communication between layers within an organisation helps enormously, so I made a simple decision to move out of my office and on to the floor with the team. Overnight that made a huge impact on the information flow, just because I was more accessible."

Ankucic says timely, honest and clear communication, particularly in an environment of retrenchment and restructure, will not only help to prevent unhappy murmuring around the water coolers but will also help the organisation develop a culture of respect, trust and approachability.

Finally, Ankucic says, it's vital for managers to realise that motivation is their responsibility, that there is no such thing as a person who can't be motivated, and that managers need to spend more time than ever brushing up their own skills when it comes to motivating their charges.

"I think it's important right now for managers to take responsibility, to take ownership and to say, 'This is something we can really work on'."