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Cube Contentment: Five Easy Ways to Boost Staff Morale

Much of the media’s attention is devoted to the recent recession’s effects on unemployment: the lack of new jobs and the increasing number of careers that are now considered obsolete, leaving millions around the country struggling to make ends meet. These stories are important and need to be told, but there’s another story that’s also relevant and hasn’t garnered as much coverage: the recession’s effect on the employed workforce.

Countless offices around the country are dealing with massive layoffs, overwhelming workloads due to hiring freezes, postponed raises, loss of benefits, and so forth. Dwindling motivation and gloomy moods are big problems in companies all over the United States. In fact, a recent survey of five thousand U.S. households found that job satisfaction is at its lowest level in twenty years. With profits decreasing as well, handing out raises just isn’t feasible. Fortunately, there are multiple other ways managers can boost employee morale without dipping into shrinking corporate funds.

1. Give employees more of a say in their schedule.
Maybe you can’t increase paid time off, but you can let workers opt for four-day workweeks (working ten hours a day instead of the standard eight), or occasionally working from home if their jobs allow for that. Try it on a temporary basis to see how it affects productivity and motivation. Even giving employees more flexibility in terms of half days might work wonders for morale. If you can, let your staff take Friday afternoons off once in a while, or set up a system where at least one member of the staff takes a long lunch every week. Just having those extra few hours can provide an overworked team with much relief.

Many offices also let people take their birthdays off; that’s one of the nicest and most appreciated gifts you can give your employees on their big days. Cakes and cards are always nice, but the gift of free time really adds a personal, human touch.

2. Offer praise when it’s due.
Dr. Gerald Graham, a professor at Wichita State University, researches business management practices and their effects on employee well-being. One of his studies, which surveyed over 1,500 employees, found that what they wanted most—and what propelled them to work harder—was recognition from managers. Personal praise, like taking workers aside to commend them on a job well done, is the most effective. But people also like thank-you notes and emails, public acclamation in meetings, and receiving Employee of the Week or Month awards.

According to Bob Nelson, PhD, and author of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, 99.4 percent of the employees he contacted said that accolades from managers for good work were at least somewhat important to them. “The best personal praise is timely, sincere, and specific,” he advises in his book. “Create time to connect with each of your employees—even if it’s over coffee or lunch—to see how they are doing and to thank them for all they’ve done.”

3. Encourage employees to take more initiative in setting job goals.
If layoffs just happened within your company, the remaining employees probably wonder if they’re next on the chopping block, which means they might start focusing more on job searches than on their present work. Prevent that from happening by asking them where they’d like to see themselves within the company, and what goals you can set together to make that happen. Suggest that they enroll in classes or training programs relevant to their positions; that shows them that you’re making an investment in their careers, which should ease their fears about termination. Plus, you’re rewarded with better-skilled employees. If there’s no money for education costs, check for funding opportunities your business qualifies for.

4. Show your staff that you support them.
In a 2005 survey sponsored by the International Association of Administrative Professionals, 3,200 respondents ranked, on a scale of 1 to 10, how important certain qualities were in managers/supervisors/bosses. “Stands up for employees” came in at 9.3, making it one of the most important qualities of all. That means standing up for them when other departments criticize them, and keeping them abreast of what’s going on around the office. Rumors about job security circulate frequently in offices, especially in down times; regularly update employees about company goings-on to avoid that kind of damage.

If you’re unsure how to go about this, try scheduling time to sit down with employees individually to check in with them and allow them space to vent and/or share new ideas. Author Bob Nelson says this is one of the key ways to motivate employees. You may think you’re too busy, but ten minutes out of your day isn’t a lot to ask, especially if the result is increased morale.

5. Ask workers what they think needs improvement.
You can guess what might make employees happier or more motivated, but why not just go to the source and find out for sure? This can happen during the weekly chats I suggested above, or, if you suspect employees won’t be as honest face to face (and you’re probably right about that), send around an anonymous survey or put up a suggestion box. However, don’t do any of these things unless you plan on making changes, or at least addressing the requested changes if they’re not possible. Together, you can come up with ideas that can actually happen.

Keeping communication open and honest is the best way to keep up employee morale during tough times. Former Fortune 500 executive Liz Ryan agrees in a BusinessWeek article, writing, “Leaders who can’t stand to shine a light on their firms’ goals, strategies, and systems are all but guaranteed to spend a lot of money running ads on” I’d add that bosses who don’t offer up praise on occasion or foster proactive employees run the same risk. With enough effort and open-mindedness, these small (and affordable) tactics could make a big (and profitable) impact on your office.