The Big Idea: Beating those “back to school” blues

As the long summer holiday draws to an end and September approaches, you may be experiencing a slight “back to school” feeling. Or perhaps you’re feeling anxious that your staff may take a while to get back into gear? So what strategies should employers use to motivate their employees after a stint away from the office?

Research shows that there are three key things that motivate employees. Firstly they want to be recognised as individuals. Secondly they want to be shown appreciation. And thirdly they want to be given opportunities to grow and develop. So what does that mean in practical terms for you as an employer?

As the head of an organisation, however big or small, it’s essential to lead by example. So the first person who needs to get motivated to make the transition from beach to business mode is – you. It cannot be underestimated how important the behaviour of the leader is in influencing the morale of everyone around him or her. Even your arrival in the office can set the tone for the day – so be positive and dynamic. Do the simple stuff – greet people as you come in. Walk with energy and purpose. Look as though you’re looking forward to the day. Positivity is infectious. You can’t expect employees to be committed and enthusiastic if their boss is lacklustre and looks as though he or she would rather be sipping cocktails in Mauritius.

Another important element for staff motivation is that everyone is clear about the vision of the organisation. So however small you are, why not bring everyone together at the beginning of September? Take them through how the company was formed, its history, its aims, its plans for the future and why you believe it’s a special, different and a great place to work. Lots of people re-evaluate their personal goals over the summer so use this chance to remind them why they should rather be working for you than anyone else.

And use this forum to share information, gather some new ideas and pull together feedback from staff – what obstacles have they faced over the past year? What tactics have worked well for them in their jobs? Where can improvements be made? Let them feel they’re part of an organisation with a clear sense of where it’s going, based on a strong foundation and facing a positive future, where their voices are heard.

Jim Collins, in his seminal work on personal development “Good to Great” believed that successful organisations are made up of “disciplined people doing disciplined things”. Consistency is central to success in business. One way to help staff performance remain consistent and motivated is to set clear expectations for them. Research has identified that one of the biggest failures of management is not undertaking this most basic task, so that staff lack direction and purpose and quite simply don’t really know what they’re supposed to be doing.

In order to ensure your staff are on track, one tactic is to take a little time in early September to sit down for ten minutes with everyone individually (depending on the size of your organisation of course) to have a discussion with them about the requirements of their roles and their targets, remind them what’s expected of them from their duties, and ask them about any extra training or development needs they may have. A short “start of term” interview allows staff to again feel their voices are being heard, their needs are being noted and that the organisation is open and transparent. It also helps you identify any potential problems that may be bubbling beneath the surface after some time away.

Remember as an employer it’s essential to match “tasks to talents”. Try to ensure you’re maximising your employees’ key skills in the areas where they will most flourish, rather than trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Again by interviewing people personally you’ve got more chance of recognising their specific abilities and picking up on hitherto unseen talents – whilst they feel they’re being recognised as individuals rather than simply being columns of words and qualifications on a CV.

Continued learning and education are essential for people to feel they can grow in their role. In these tough times though, it might be too much a stretch to send people on training courses. So, one way of providing training is to develop an internal mentor scheme. This may be happening informally in your organisation, but formalising it gives it value and status. Employees who are particularly proficient in one area can be encouraged to teach their colleagues the skills they might be lacking or wish to acquire, with some sort of incentive for doing so.

It’s a win-win idea because whilst you save on the cost of using an external provider to conduct the training and train your employee on the job, the more experienced employee benefits both financially and may feel more valued and respected within the organisation for his or her skill set being acknowledged.

Why not also make it a September resolution to delegate more and take a few educated risks? Some of these won’t pay off – it’s a gamble, of course. But for staff to grow and continue to be motivated, they need to be pushed slightly beyond their comfort zone. That’s part of the art of management. Feeling trusted empowers people and allows them, again, to feel recognised as individuals – and it frees you up to do more of the stuff you want to do, such as focusing on growing the business.

Richard Branson once said, “If you look after your internal customers, you don’t have to worry about your external ones.” There’s certainly a lot of truth in the fact that a happy workplace is a productive one. Incentives, for example, are a good way to enthuse people and get them back on track after time away. But these don’t have to be particularly lavish or financially onerous. Taking staff out for a pizza lunch on Friday after a good week; post-work drinks; recognising and celebrating birthdays or other landmarks; vouchers for the cinema or local restaurants are all cheap and cheerful ways to reward people for good performance.

Also think about personal touches, such as sending flowers to someone’s spouse or partner when they’ve been working all hours in the office or putting a hand-written thank you note in with someone’s pay packet to acknowledge their contribution. Sometimes these small but personal gestures are far more meaningful to people than a pure cash incentive, which just goes straight in the bank via electronic transfer.

Nonetheless there’s a balance to be struck. Focusing on motivation and creating a positive workplace doesn’t mean you have to be a soft touch. In fact one of the biggest demotivational factors in a workplace is when productive, dedicated staff sit alongside colleagues who are swinging the lead. Instituting a culture of fairness is essential to keeping staff motivated. So don’t be scared to warn people and ultimately even fire people if their performance isn’t up to scratch (as long as you follow the proper procedures of course!) Make sure the reasons why this has happened are communicated internally, so everyone understands what’s happened and why. You may find, somewhat counter-intuitively, this increases motivation rather than depresses morale. No one likes carrying passengers (apart from the passengers). And it’s hard to respect a boss who’s a pushover.

So in summary, there’s lots to look forward to and everything to go for in September. A few reminders:-

• Be passionate, lead by example and communicate clearly and regularly with your staff.
• Get them involved, fire them up and listen to their views.
• Set out your expectations and push them to fulfill them.
• Match tasks to talents.
• Provide training where you can – consider a mentoring scheme.
• Take a few risks.
• Be tough but fair.
• Show appreciation and recognition for exceptional work.
• Create a consistent and disciplined yet also a positive and supportive working environment.

If you manage all that, I’ll look forward to hearing how it’s going when we “break up” again for Christmas!

Deborah Done, the author of our Big Ideas, is founder and director of Nab Communications, a freelance public relations agency which provides sensible and value for money PR advice to regional and national businesses.
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