Employee motivation is the level of energy, commitment and creativity that employees bring to their work, and is critical to business performance and success, especially during a crisis.


In Latin, “motivation” derives from the word “movere” which means “to move”. At its core, the word refers to the desire to act in service of a goal. It’s the key element in setting and attaining one’s objectives.

Regardless of the endeavour or goal at hand, motivation is fundamental in the level of success an individual, team or business attains.  

Whilst motivation naturally varies from time to time, especially during times of uncertainty (we’re not robots after all), it is essential to “moving forward” as well as moving past discomfort.

But how does one do this during a crisis? How can we help our teams stay engaged, stimulated and energised at work amongst a general sense of fear and uncertainty?

Before we delve into the how, let’s have a quick look at what employee motivation is and why it matters in the first place.


What Is (Employee) Motivation?

First and foremost, it’s worth mentioning that motivation is very much an internal and personal process. Whether you see it as a driver or a need, motivation pushes us to act on our desire for change.

Applied to a professional context, employee motivation is best described as the level of enthusiasm and commitment an employee has towards their job. This motivation will push them to continually better themselves and reach for their goals.

Whilst some business leaders may think that because motivation is personal, external factors have no impact, and as such, a business has no sway over employee motivation. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Following that train of thought, some may take the easy route and choose to motivate different people the same way. Once again, this would be a mistake.

For instance, whilst some of your team members will respond better to intrinsic motivation, others will respond better to extrinsic motivation

Simply, someone with intrinsic motivation will be more likely to perform well at work simply because they love what they do and are aligned with the business’ values. Conversely, someone with extrinsic motivation will more likely perform well at work when offered incentives.

Knowing the difference between the two can help your business tailor your approach for each team member, so as to get the best result.

Besides its intangibility, motivation is very easy to facilitate once we understand how it works and why it’s important for both the employee and the organisation they work for.


Why Does It Matter?

Employee motivation, which goes hand in hand with employee engagement, is key in retaining talent and developing a strong & positive work culture

Not only is a motivated employee more productive, they’ll also develop more engagement towards their company. This of course leads to businesses achieving higher levels of output as well as happier, more fulfilled employees. In other words, employee motivation is a win-win.

Whilst investing in employee motivation is important at any given time, it’s even more critical in times of crisis, like COVID-19. Indeed, in a context where uncertainty has riddled their day-to-day, employees may find it more difficult to remain highly motivated and driven at work. 

Overwhelmed by circumstances and situations that are out of their control (and yours), work can quickly become robotic. When the workload increases drastically with limited support (such as in times of crisis), some employees can end up doing the bare minimum. This isn’t because they don’t care, but simply because they’ve lost all motivation.

In certain circumstances, remote working can also negatively impact employee motivation and can lead to a lack of motivation at work. Although this isn’t ideal, there’s a way around it.

Did you know employee motivation is contagious? When one employee feels happy and engaged, they exude a natural energy which rubs off onto others. Whilst this is true for positive feelings, the opposite is too.

This is why, as employers and managers, ensuring that employees stay engaged and motivated at work will set your business up for success in the long run.

Let’s look at ways to do that…


How Can I Improve Employee Motivation?

It all starts with acceptance and empathy. With everything that we’ve all collectively been through these past few months, it’s normal for employees to lack motivation and energy at times. This is a human reaction.

Starting by acknowledging that it is OK to feel unmotivated is essential. As psychologist Susan David mentions in her TED Talk: “when people are allowed to feel their emotional truth, engagement, creativity and innovation flourish in the organisation.”

On the other hand, thinking that there is a “one-size-fits-all” approach would be foolish. Each and everyone one of your employees are unique and will therefore respond differently to any given situation.

In order to help you boost employee motivation within your own workplace, as well as tailor different strategies to different personalities, we’ve gone ahead and highlighted 8 actions to set in motion today for positive outcomes tomorrow.


1. Invest In Your Leaders

Leaders are the glue that holds teams together. In difficult times, pandemic or not, they are responsible for leading, managing and supporting their teams as well as keeping business needs top of mind, all whilst navigating unknown waters.

As costly as it can be, investing in leadership development will have long-term positive ripple effects for your business. Not only will it equip them with better tools to lead and therefore foster employee motivation, but it will also enhance their own.


2. Praise & Acknowledge Effort

A study from OfficeVibe reports that when a manager recognises employee performance, it increases their engagement by 60%. And this is even more important in times of crisis when employees are often expected to go above and beyond to adapt to increased workload or new demand.

At a time where extrinsic rewards might be difficult to offer, feedback and expressions of gratitude cost nothing and often go a long way in “compensating” employees who are still giving their all despite the situation at hand. 

If your workforce is mainly working from home, giving praise doesn’t have to be a complicated affair. Sometimes, a simple public recognition of a job well done in a company newsletter or public chat channel can do just the trick. Want to go one step further? Organise for a one-on-one coffee catch-up to share your feedback “face to face”.

Regardless of how you choose to do so, fostering a culture of recognition has shown to positively impact a business as a whole. In fact, the same OfficeVibe study mentioned above showed that peer-to-peer recognition is 35% more effective than manager-only recognition.

Investing time in recognising employees may seem like common sense for most leaders, but is often so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. Don’t make this be your case.


3. Foster Collaboration

Being part of a team and feeling a sense of belonging provides intrinsic rewards for employees because it fosters a stronger sense of meaning and responsibility.

Yet in times of crisis, whether employees work remotely or not, there is often a tendency for people to close themselves off rather than foster a sense of community. This is explained by the general feeling of fear and uncertainty that makes people worry about their own personal conditions.

To counterbalance this distancing, and therefore keep your team members motivated, encouraging and finding ways for them to work together will be beneficial for all.

United by common goals, not only will they have reason to work together and therefore connect better, but they will also find more meaning in what they do and how they do it. 


4. Keep Their Work Interesting & Meaningful

Has your business been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis? Were you forced to make some of your staff redundant, lower salaries and / or stop extrinsic rewards and incentives?

If this rings true for you, some of your remaining employees may start to feel overwhelmed and unsupported due to their increasing workload. Some may even doubt the validity of their contribution to the business.

This is completely normal and should be acknowledged. Regular catch-up sessions are a good start in assessing where your employees are at, as well as showing them that you care and want what’s best for them.

The key here is to listen. There may be times when you won’t be able to action change straight away, but by taking the time to truly listen, you’ll give yourself the chance to gather feedback and ideas so as to think outside of the box to find solutions that suit both your employees and your business.

Whether it be shifting responsibilities around or offering learning opportunities, there are plenty of ways to ensure your employees’ work stays as meaningful, challenging and interesting as possible. 


5. Focus On Upskilling

Not all people will necessarily need to be continually learning to stay highly motivated. However, when in limbo (as many of us currently are), encouraging your employees to learn new skills can be beneficial for all.

In fact, with many businesses switching to remote work and increasing or improving their technology use, upskilling is particularly important right now. While some employees might feel right at home embracing new tech, others may feel overwhelmed by this digital disruption.

With that in mind, investing time (and funds) towards developing new skills is not only important for your employee’s morale but also to ensure the smooth run of your operations.

Although upskilling can come in handy to adapt to the current situation, it’s also a way for your business to prepare for the future. Indeed, by offering your employees learning opportunities now, you give them the chance to learn the skills of tomorrow

This of course will go a long way towards strengthening their capabilities as well as make a considerable difference to your business.


6. Be Inclusive

If the COVID-19 crisis has done anything, it has given us all the opportunity to rethink the way we operate. This is especially true for businesses.

Encouraging your teams to speak up and share ideas will create a feeling of belonging and therefore, more engagement.

For instance, businesses that wish to become more agile should involve their teams in this decision making process. Why? Because it will ascertain a higher level of investment on their part, which in turn, will result in heightened motivation to make it a success.

When developing this inclusive approach, building psychological safety will be equally as important in ensuring employees feel safe enough to share their views without the fear of being criticised.

All in all, the more your teams will feel included and valued, the more motivated they will be.


7. Enhance Internal Communication

We can’t stress this one enough. Communication is at the centre of any successful enterprise and is even more crucial in times of crisis. 

In times of change and uncertainty, people seek comfort and reassurance. To meet this need, regular relays of information are essential in making sure there are no grey areas nor doubts regarding the situation at hand.

Share the decisions you make as well as why you make them. Share your vision and goals, both short- and long-term, even if they may change or evolve in a couple of months. Executives too often believe that information needs to be siloed and squeaky clean in order to be shared. This couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Employees are human beings, just like you. They understand the necessity to adapt in times of change and turmoil, especially if you are honest and upfront about it with them. Being vulnerable and showing that you are doing your best in times of uncertainty will instill trust and reinforce engagement in your company culture. 

In order for this to work though, communication must go both ways. This means that whilst sharing important information and updates is crucial, giving a voice to your employees and answering their questions is equally as important. 

Whether it’s launching Q&A sessions once a month, a suggestion box or an anonymous survey, make sure to create a conversation.


8. Set Clear & Achievable Goals

Someone once said that “goals are the oxygen to our dreams”. Although it might be tough to find employees whose sole dream is to make your company succeed, this analogy shows how important goals are in people’s mind.

Too often we get caught up in the rat race and accomplish tasks one after the other, feeling as though we’re not adding any value. This happens when we work “freestyle” with no clear direction or set of expectations. Working in this manner may work on the short-term but is unlikely to be successful on the long-term.

To perform well and feel like they contribute to the company, employees need to have clear objectives. Instilling and sharing OKRs may be your best way to go as they complement traditional KPIs by showing how each task relates to the company’s vision and strategic goals.

By setting clear goals on a weekly, fortnightly, monthly or quarterly basis, you ensure that your employees have targets to meet and work towards. Not only will this enhance their motivation but will also bring them a sense of achievement once they reach that goal.


As we all navigate this “new normal”, having a holistic understanding of all the factors that impact and contribute to employee motivation is essential to your business’s survival post crisis.

At the end of the day, employees are human beings that experience the ups and downs of life, same as you. By being authentic and treating them with empathy and kindness, not only will their motivation increase, but also their commitment in helping you navigate potentially one of the toughest moments in your business’ history.


Celine Senior HR Advisor

About the Author:

With over 20 years' experience in Human Resources, working across both government & private sectors, Celine is an expert at her craft. As a Senior HR Advisor, Celine has extensive experience working across different industries, advising clients on a wide range of HR topics.
Read more about Celine Rethore.