Employees come and go. But the general principals at work from the company perspective are, the longer you can keep an employee around and being productive, the more value he can create in your company. Hiring, and training someone to be effective in their job is a big investment, and if we just allowed workers to leave when they started to lose interest, it would be a huge waste. So therein lies the topic of this post, how to keep an employee motivated and working to push your company forward, and make the most of the value they can create over the long run.
My first company, was a dog walking business. I quickly grew the company from only walking a few dogs each day to having over fifty clients who had one or more dogs to walk at least once daily. From the early days, when I my client list grew, I hired people to support all the walks that had to be provided each day. Once I had created a route of 3-8 dogs for a dog walker to take over, he could earn somewhere between $800-$1,500 per month, which isn’t much considering the daily responsibility they had to my company. That being said they were all excited for the work, and at first very motivated by the job. I attribute this to the thrill of getting to see New York City in a new way while earning cash. And at least for some, the idea of going from apartment to apartment, seeing how other New Yorkers live, and taking out the furry clientele for an afternoon break while their owners were busy at work doesn’t seem half bad. I know I enjoyed it when I was the only dog walker for my company.
Nearly all of my new hires loved the job, but as time went on, I could tell they would get bored and tired of it. I guess all the early exciting parts of the job lost their glamour and the less attractive ones weighed on the walkers. For me, having never dealt with managing employees before, I wasn’t expecting their performance to go down hill. But as I accumulated experience I started to recognize the signs of an employee’s waning dedication. The pattern began to emerge and I adapted. I came to expect it, and look out for it. Most importantly, I started to imagine ways to prevent the effect or at least delay it, and hoped to be able to stop it in its tracks.
My initial attempts in solving the issue were to be ready to give extra support to an employee before their interest started to fade. And when I saw that a worker’s motivation had peaked, I reacted and started paying much more attention to him and his clients. Despite my communication and support, some of my dog walkers quit or had to be fired, and others thankfully were still with the company when I sold it and moved onto my next startup.
Going into my next projects developing websites for my startups or for other peoples’ companies, I often hired freelancers, and noticed that like the dog walkers, they also started with a period of working well, then they fell from grace, and required a more hands on approach. Fast forward to present day, since the dog walking company I’ve managed resources who worked across the room, and I’ve managed huge teams who were across the globe. I’ve been an employee for other companies and saw the strategy of others to manage me. Now as co-founder at a company with 40+ employees, freelancers, and other third parties, I have the greatest challenge yet. With so many roles, levels of responsibility, and perspectives – one on one communication is no longer my best tool in the shed. Keeping individuals and teams working together and performing well requires various philosophies of management, projects, activities, and programs to keep them happy, and motivated.
Breaking It Down:
To help understand and address what the underlying issues are, I’ve tried to simplify a worker’s emotional and motivational state of mind into phases:
Phase 1) New, learning, excited, and scared:
In this phase the worker is discovering all facets of the company at once, the work he is expected to do, with little knowledge of how others work, and the level of expertise expected of him. Most people try their hardest during this period, however their skills combined with company specific knowledge during this time makes it their least valuable time working at the company.
Phase 2) Understands the job, confident, and at ease if not excited to kick ass:
In this phase the employee has taken off his training wheels regardless of how much he really knows about his job. He has a feeling for the quality of work that is expected, and if all is good, he is making contributions and feeling respected for the value he adds. This typically sets in somewhere around two to six weeks all the way to several months or a couple years.
Phase 3) Expert, getting bored, getting by, or growing:
This is the long haul phase. For most companies that aren’t growing through the roof, or for some other reason are not able to move top performers quickly up the ranks, this is where things can go wrong. In the state of mind that he is an expert, the worker usually (unless very self-confident) decides he should be compensated more for his work. He no longer cares for tolerating whatever irritations there are, which were easy to pass off in the past. He might just need something new and stimulating. When these distractions kick in depends on how long it takes to get comfortable, if the employee is flipping burgers I bet it can happen pretty fast like as little as two or three weeks, but in a large team of very intelligent engineers working on extremely complicated projects it could take several months to more then one year.
What’s Really Going On:
From the employer’s perspective, as an employee passes into phase 3, the ROI for that resource has just turned positive. Now, keeping him around is where the dividends can kick in. If the employee stays, he can do any number of things to add value, by creating new services or products and improving existing ones, by passing on knowledge to other team members, by giving external entities an positive appearance in continuity by being a name and face of the company.
In many ways this can be a very fruitful time for the company. The catch is, the danger that can come sneaking along once the employee spends too much time feeling comfortable. For the employee, being good at something is a nice feeling, but with a mind no longer concerned with fitting in and getting the job done properly, there is room left for thought, the ambitious will seek out new challenges internally or at other companies, and the less motivated will just start to kill free time by searching the web and looking for ways to spend their time and money.
What You Can Do:
As the employer:
New Challenges: The single most important piece of the puzzle is cycling the employee back into phase 1, where things are new again, with different challenges, and there is some risk of failing. Don’t let their job become boring, and don’t limit their opportunity to improve their skills while working for you.
Rewards: You can and should reward the employee for good behavior, but rewards don’t solve the problem. Rewards – unless absurdly handsome – just encourage the employee to wonder if he was rewarded well enough.
Make It Fun: Introduce some activities and events that aren’t related to work, like a happy hour, team event, or outdoor activity. Provide games to play during slow times in the work place or when people have burned out and need to relax their mind with something different. Having a work environment where non-work related activities are allowed show employees you respect them and want them to enjoy their time on the job.
Wellness Programs: Provide a wellness program. This not only improves productivity, but reinforces the feeling for employees that you want them to see their job as a long term – sustainable path.
Growth Development Program: Also known as a “GDP” a Growth Development Program is a framework for employees to see how their role fits into the overall structure of the company. It helps them to learn what skills they need to develop to move up to a higher job title, by setting goals their can aim for and having regular meetings with supervisor to discuss the methods they can use to achieve those goals, a GDP demystifies the path to getting promoted and gives them constructive measurable steps they can take to get there.
Flexible Time Off: Giving your employees the ability to work from home if they need to, or take a random day off “just because” really lifts the ceiling on their sense of freedom. We’ve all had days when going to work was the last thing we wanted to do. Maybe your employee just need to catch up on sleep. Maybe they are re-doing their kitchen and need some extra time in their home. Giving them the ability to manage their time is a huge perk.
As the employee:
Communicate: Let your superiors know you feel like you’ve championed your current role and you want new challenges.
As For A Promotion: Nothing get’s a raise like asking for one. Maybe you’ll have to meet some objectives, or maybe you’ll find out there is no money to give out a raise. Don’t just expect it to happen.
Before You Look For A New Company: Tell your employer if you are getting bored, if you feel like you should be earning more, if you don’t like the people you’re working with. Whatever the problem is, unless your employer wants to get rid of you, giving them a big warning sign before you take a job from someone else should let them know they need to act if they want to keep you around.
I still feel like a young grasshopper learning from failures and pleased with signs that the different methods we employ are working. And I have doubts about my own actions to keep employees happy and motivated when I hear from friends about how their company’s benefits package. But we’ve done some things right, and look forward to continuing to find new ways to keep the balance.
If you found the post interesting, and want to read on, I provided a couple resources below. I hope you enjoyed the post.
- The following study is a good place to get more information: Motivation and Productivity in the Workplace
- I highly recommend reading Top Dog aside from the GDR workers study I mentioned, from the perspective of competition, it uncovers the science behind motivation.