With $11 billion lost annually to employee turnover, it’s clear that we need to step up our game to retain top talent. But keeping employees around amidst stress, burnout, and growing job dissatisfaction is no small task.

Motivation is the secret to harnessing the brilliance of your employees and inspiring them to perform at their highest potential. Over 80% of executives say having motivated, engaged employees are the most important factor for company success. 

But employee appreciation shouldn’t feel forced or fake. Here are 20 unique ways to encourage self-motivated employees who feel inspired to come to work every day.

Why is Employee Motivation Important?

Employee motivation is how you incite enthusiasm and ambition for better performance in the workplace. It is the “level of energy, commitment, and creativity that a company’s workers bring to their jobs,” according to Inc.com. In other words, a motivated team could be the secret to more profit, less turnover, and a more positive workplace.

Basically, it’s getting employees to feel like this about your business: 

Motivation is difficult to quantify but easily recognizable when it’s absent. The benefits of motivated employees include:

  • Higher profits: Companies with actively motivated employees earn an average of 25% higher profits. 
  • Better employee engagement: According to Dale Carnegie, only about 30% of the American workforce is engaged in their work, meaning they care about their job and feel connected to the company’s mission.  
  • Increased productivity: A motivated employee is a self-starter that demonstrates superior time management and less procrastination because they prioritize work that is important to them. 
  • Happier employees: Low pay, absence of opportunities for advancement, and feeling disrespected at work are key reasons why people quit their jobs in 2021. Motivating your team with different forms of incentives can create a more joyful, inspiring workplace. 
  • Higher employee retention: Employee turnover can cost your company 6 to 9 months’ salary per employee! When people feel valued by their team, they are more likely to stick around. 

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20 Science-Backed Ways to Motivate Employees In the Workplace

The most effective ways to embolden creative, autonomous employees rather than robotic, indifferent ones begin with addressing the psychological roots of human motivation.

Promote More Intrinsic Motivation

Many workplaces are driven by monetary motivations like raises, bonuses, and compensation rewards. But there’s a surprising amount of evidence that too many external incentives can actually reduce peoples’ inner motivation, harm employee relationships, and cause a greater turnover

Outdated theories on employee motivation are centered around “carrots and sticks”. In other words, offering carrots (rewards) when employees do something good and giving sticks (punishment) when they do something wrong. 

However, the most successful and innovative companies are fueled by employees who are self-motivated to do their best work because they genuinely care about the results.   

Intrinsic Motivation Extrinsic Motivation
Motivation comes from within  Motivation comes from outside 
Drive to complete tasks because it’s personally rewarding  Completing a task to avoid punishment or get a reward 
Best for long-term goals and fulfillment Beneficial for short-term or unpleasant tasks
Increased efficacy over time  Reduced efficacy over time
Can lead to greater job satisfaction and more creativity Can lead to burnout
Value-driven  Reward-driven

Don’t be mistaken: these two forms of motivation can (and should) exist together in most scenarios. 

For example, if you are working on completing an intriguing project for an upcoming conference, you are intrinsically motivated by your own interest in the topic and desire to proudly display your work. 

But you are also extrinsically motivated to finish in time to meet the team’s deadline and avoid any embarrassment of incomplete tasks.

Similarly, a top performer may be excited to reach a $5,000 quarterly bonus for meeting a sales goal (extrinsic motivation). But they may be intrinsically motivated by their personal connection to a product they can stand behind because it has helped them overcome a struggle in their own life.

To boost intrinsic motivation, you first need to find out who your employees are and what they want.

Action Step

  • Get to know your employees through a personality test and assign projects based on their characteristics and interests whenever possible.
  • In a one-on-one meeting, ask each employee “what kind of work do you enjoy most?” and “what recent assignments were your favorite or least favorite?”
  • Understand your employees’ goals. Ask “is your job in alignment with your career goals?” and “what can we do to help you on your career path?”
  • Create quarterly employee surveys with some of these employee engagement questions.
  • Follow up each project assignment with a quick check-in about what went well and what they enjoyed or disliked most about the assignment. 

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Promote Workplace Friendships

Getting along with coworkers can make or break a job. According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, 70% of employees say that having friends at work is the most important aspect of a fulfilling workplace. 

Stronger social connections at work are linked to more productivity, job satisfaction, and employee engagement. But how do you promote more office friendships without encouraging mindless chit-chat or gossip on the job? Try a few of these simple office hacks and rituals: 

Office Action Steps

  • Install larger communal lunch tables. Round tables are more inviting and more likely to encourage conversation. 
  • Promote employee-led interest groups such as a book club, gardening group, or sports team. 

Virtual Action Steps:

  • Begin each virtual meeting agenda with 5 minutes for casual discussion, including asking each team member a question about their weekend activities, their current favorite movie, or how their families are doing. You can check out a list of more interesting conversation starters here.
  • Advertise one-on-one or group employee chats on Slack or similar platforms so coworkers feel comfortable connecting throughout the workday. 
  • Create more cross-team collaboration by assigning projects to teams who do not regularly work together. This can create more opportunities to get to know new people.
  • Connect members of your team who live in nearby locations. For example, you can offer low-budget Starbucks gift cards to encourage geographically-close employees to meet each other outside of work. 

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Create a Company Culture of Encouragement and Appreciation

An encouraging workplace culture is the foundation of a motivated workforce. This begins with appreciation, recognition, and robust initiatives for acknowledging a job well done. 

For example, if an employee consistently goes above-and-beyond yet never gets recognized for their efforts, they may feel that their hard work is going unrecognized. 

“Thanks for your hard work” and a pat on the back are nice gestures, but the real secret to boosting motivation is creating a system of appreciation that can be replicated at all levels of management.

Psychologist Beata Souders reminds us that “feedback satisfies the psychological need for competence. When others value our work, we tend to appreciate it more and work harder”.

Action Step: Train all levels of management to regularly appreciate and encourage the team.

  • Begin weekly meetings by highlighting specific ways team members excelled in the previous week. 
  • Encourage peer-to-peer recognition and appreciation. For example, before each quarterly meeting, you can request that employees write down praise about a colleague that will be publicly shared in the meeting. 
  • Create a “Staff Shout Out” bulletin board where employees can post anonymous or signed sticky notes to recognize their coworkers’ achievements. 
  • Celebrate small wins by expressing gratitude for your team’s efforts on a regular basis. 

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Use Memorable Incentives

Rewarding good performance is a no-brainer. However, cash isn’t always king for getting employees motivated.

A study from the Incentive Marketing Association found that over 60% of surveyed employees preferred non-cash incentives like travel and experiences. 

Moreover, the overall reward experience tends to have a stronger impact than the award itself. When surveyed employees won an office contest or sales competition, between 40 and 70% of the participant’s award experience was linked to presentation factors, for example:

  • Who gives the award (the right level of management tends to be someone who is personally involved in the employees’ daily activities yet at a high enough level to create a sense of prestige) 
  • How the award is communicated (ceremonial and presentation aspects)
  • What professional impact does the award have
  • Whether or not the award is personally meaningful 

To create a memorable incentive, think beyond just dollars and gifts. What will your employees cherish and remember? What will keep pushing them to deliver their 110%? 

Action Step: Create your own internal competition using this epic guide to employee appreciation. Pay careful attention to how your experiential or travel incentives can match the interests of your employees.  

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Get Work Done Outdoors

Spending time outdoors with nature reduces stress, improves focus, positively affects mood, and improves energy. Taking work outside can motivate people to feel mentally clearer during their workday and reduce the risk of burnout.

  • Create a pleasant outdoor seating space. Check out this creative space by LL Bean:
Creative outdoor space by LL Bean
  • When the weather is nice, host outdoor meetings. 
  • Try a walking meeting at a nearby trail or park.
  • Do employee check-ins and reviews outdoors. People are more likely to feel relaxed and open to discussion when they are outdoors versus sitting across from their boss in an office.  
  • Host an employee hike at a local trail one afternoon per week. 
  • If you can’t get anything outdoors, bring nature inside. Decorate the workspace with indoor plants, terrariums, or images of natural places. 
  • For virtual teams, create a #workoutside challenge by gifting your team an anti-glare screen protector and having them share a photo of their outdoor office in the team chat. 

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Model Your Strategy After Similar Companies

In a 2021 report comparing 70,000 U.S. companies’ worker satisfaction, Adobe was ranked the No.1 company with the happiest employees. 

Some of the most intriguing employee feedback included: 

  • They get positive feedback every week
  • They have a “comfortably fast” work pace
  • The average employee has 4+ meetings per day 
  • There are unlimited paid vacation and sick days
  • 85% of employees report being happy with their work-life balance
  • 95% of employees look forward to working with their team every day
  • The leadership team are always available to talk to
  • The CEO regularly stops in to say hello

Of course, what works for a tech company like Adobe won’t apply to a brick-and-mortar retail store, eCommerce brand, or accounting firm. To properly model your company’s employee motivation strategy, find inspirational businesses that you would like to mimic. 

Action Step: Think about 3 large companies in your industry that you admire for their purported workplace culture and employee satisfaction. Search them on Comparably.com and explore the employee reviews and rankings. Make a T-Chart comparing your company culture to your inspiration. Look for key specifics like frequency of meetings, workspace environment, and pace of work. 

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Create a Pleasant Work Environment

Research shows that an enjoyable work environment is directly linked to higher performance and motivation. Dingy cubicles and messy file cabinets simply don’t cut it anymore. Factors like infrastructure, decor, lighting, cleanliness, and air circulation play a major role in how employees feel and act in the workplace.

If you are able to create a space where people feel physically comfortable and creatively inspired, they are more likely to be motivated to show up and do their best work. 

You can get as creative and earthy as Google: 

Google workspace
Source: Archello 

Or as chic and modern as Lululemon:

Lululemon workspace
Source: iDesign Awards

Action Step: Whether you have a remote work team or an office, small changes to the ambiance can profoundly impact motivation. 

  • Install standing desks to promote more movement and better posture.
  • Peruse these office interior design ideas and share them with your team. Ask team members to pick out one of their favorite things to implement.
  • Install hanging planters of easy-to-care-for indoor plants like Jade Pothos
  • Gift your employees laptop stands to aid with neck and back pain.

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Remember and Celebrate Employee Birthdays

You know that warm, fuzzy feeling when somebody remembers your birthday even though it’s not publicly posted on social media? 

While it may seem small, science shows that birthday celebrations make people feel more valued and special. Thoughtful actions speak volumes in showing your team that you genuinely care about your relationship with them.

Action Step

  • Use Apple Calendar to input every team member’s birthday into the team calendar.
  • On the “repeat” drop-down menu, select “every year”.
  • On the “alert” menu, select “1 week before”.
  • Add a bullet point to your onboarding and offboarding process protocols to add or remove birthdays as people are hired or let go.
  • Purchase a stack of birthday cards to keep in the supply office. Alternatively, create a Slack channel specifically for employee celebrations.
  • One week before each birthday, have other team members sign the card and optionally prepare a small gift.
  • Publicly wish the team member “Happy Birthday” through email, social media, or in person.

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Introduce and Welcome New Employees

It can be incredibly socially awkward to walk into a party with a friend who doesn’t introduce you to anybody. Throwing a new employee into the workspace without an introduction can compound that feeling of alienation. 

Psychology tells us that team inclusion intrinsically motivates people to be engaged and excited by their work. Make new-hires feel included by publicly welcoming them with warmth and encouragement. 

Action Step:

  • When you begin onboarding a new hire, send out an organization-wide new employee announcement that welcomes them to the team. Include their name and position as well as a few fun facts about them like their favorite food, hobbies, and birthday.
  • In your weekly meeting, introduce a new hire to the team so that everyone knows their face and name. However, pay careful attention to your new employee’s personality. If they are shy or reserved, avoid making them stand up or be the center of attention for too long.

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Give Constructive Criticism With a “Compliment Sandwich” 

Providing negative feedback can be one of the hardest parts of your job as a manager. The wrong type of criticism can lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment. Sometimes it feels impossible to find a balance between ensuring the job gets done right without hurting anyone’s feelings. 

A “compliment sandwich” offers the best of both worlds because it buffers constructive criticism with positive recognition. The critical comments are sandwiched between positive feedback.

How to Do It:

  • During weekly or quarterly check-ins, always begin by listing 1-3 things that the employee is excelling at. For example, “I noticed your team’s sales are up and you really nailed it on last week’s presentation. Amazing job!
  • Next, move into the constructive comments of where things can be improved.
  • Use “I statements” instead of “you statements” to ensure that criticism doesn’t sound aggressive or accusatory. For example, instead of saying “you messed up the quarterly budget”, say “I noticed that the budget had a few errors and it is going to be fairly time consuming to fix. I’d like to go over how we can prevent this from happening in the future.”
  • Ensure that you request a specific change in the future rather than focusing on the fault in the past. Instead of saying “you have been late to every meeting this week”, say “the team only has limited time to meet each week, so we’d like to make sure you arrive on time from this point forward”. 
  • Cover the sandwich by ending on a positive note. Emphasize the positive elements of the person’s work ethic and make sure they feel recognized for their efforts.  

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Provide Big Picture Goals and Vision

In one survey, over half of employees said they could perform better at their job if they had a better understanding of the company’s overall direction. In another study, over 40% of workers said they don’t get the company’s vision or never saw it.  

No wonder so many employees are unengaged and uninspired! 

To get people to feel motivated by a vision beyond their day-to-day tasks, they need to know how they are contributing to a larger goal. This classic story about three bricklayers perfectly embodies the importance of this philosophy:

  • Once there were three bricklayers. Each one of them was asked what they were doing.
  • The first man answered gruffly, “I’m laying bricks.”
  • The second man replied, “I’m putting up a wall.”
  • But the third man said, enthusiastically and with pride, “I’m building a cathedral!”

We all want that third man on our team, so how do you help the “bricklayers” see the bigger picture? 

Action Step: Build specific rituals into your monthly operations to give employees a broader view of the company’s goals.

  • Remind everyone why the company exists in the first place. Ensure that your company’s key goals, mission, and vision are reiterated in meetings on a regular basis.
  • Emphasize the broader impacts of how frontline work contributes to larger goals. Create a list of “frontline” or low-wage employees and brainstorm how to articulate their unique purpose and contribution. For example, an hourly cashier at a pet store may be motivated to be kinder to customers when they are praised for being the face of a company. Their customer service is helping the brand to transform the relationships people have with their pets. 
  • Create a skip-level mentoring program where managers can meet on a monthly basis with higher-level executives to learn about their bigger-picture challenges.
  • Host a design contest on 99 Designs to create an aesthetically-pleasing graphic or poster that presents your company’s vision and mission. 

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Share Customer Reviews and Thank-Yous

People are highly motivated by feedback that makes them feel like their work is meaningful. Customer reviews are uniquely beneficial because they come from a third-party perspective. 

As social animals, we are inherently wired to place a high value on things that others have tried and reviewed. For example, look at these reviews of Vanessa Van Edwards’ latest book Cues: Master the Secret Language of Charismatic Communication:

Vanessa Van Edwards' book feedback
Vanessa Van Edwards' book feedback
Vanessa Van Edwards' book feedback

Printing these out and sharing them with our team is a huge motivator to keep moving forward with our mission of teaching science-backed people skills that help people improve their communication in the workplace and beyond. You can use the same method for team motivation in your workplace. 

Action Step: When there are positive reviews posted on Yelp, Google, or social media, highlight them and print them out or send them via email. Don’t forget to shout out specific people or actions that are mentioned by customers. 

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Learn About Employee Interests

It’s no secret that people love to talk about themselves. In fact, talking about oneself triggers the same parts of the brain as food, drugs, and sex. 

If you want to create a culture of teamwork and mutual support, it’s important to get to know your employees’ interests. What lights them up?  

On the surface, this makes for fun conversation and demonstrates that you are interested in their life outside the office. Deeper down, this can help you more closely understand what motivates the people who work for you and what kind of incentives you may want to offer as awards for quality work. 

Action Step: Create a Google Form survey and send it out to the whole team in an email titled “Let’s Talk about You!” Be sure to ask for their consent to share the information. Ask them about their basic favorites, for example:

  • What food could you eat every day for the rest of your life? 
  • What is your favorite type of music or your favorite band?
  • What is your favorite season and why?
  • Where is your favorite place you’ve ever traveled? Where do you dream of traveling?
  • Who is your biggest inspiration? 

You can also compile thought-provoking career questions to delve deeper into their motivations: 

  • What motivates you to come to work every day?
  • What is your work or life motto?
  • What is your proudest accomplishment?
  • What is the greatest challenge you’ve overcome in your career?
  • What lessons have you learned in your role?
  • What is the key to your success?
  • What is the best advice you can give to your colleagues?

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Create a Health and Wellness Challenge

Employee fitness programs improve productivity and job satisfaction. Add in a little friendly competition and you have a reliable means of motivating your team to get moving at work. A health challenge has the added benefit of improving employee wellness and even team-building opportunities. 

Action Step

  • Use this guide from IncentFit to organize a fitness challenge that uses employees’ Apple Health app, Apple Watch, or FitBit to track their steps for a month. 
  • Use the PlayPass app to start an office sports league to boost team morale with physical activity.     
  • Hire a local yoga teacher or HIIT instructor to host a weekly workout class for employees and track who can attend the most classes.

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Celebrate Milestones

40% of employees say they would put more effort into their work if they were recognized more often. Whether it’s a work anniversary, project completion, or promotion, don’t forget to give employee appreciation for major career milestones.

Action Step: Use an app like Caroo to keep track of important employee milestones. You can use it to input calendar reminders and send personalized gifts or letters for specific occasions. 

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Give Positive Feedback that is Specific and Timely

When people don’t feel their efforts are being recognized, their motivation can quickly decrease over time. Studies show that employees can feel more resentful and less satisfied with their job when they aren’t appreciated.

Positive feedback is the secret to motivating people to keep going, especially amidst stress or burnout. But not just any feedback will do. 

Souders emphasizes that “immediate, specific, and public praise focusing on effort and behavior” is the most effective form of positive reinforcement.

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Provide More Opportunities for Professional Development 

A study from the American Psychological Society found that just half of the surveyed employees feel valued at their job and only two-thirds feel motivated to do their best work.

The employees who felt undervalued reported a few commonalities:

  • Fewer opportunities to be involved in decision making
  • Less potential for advancement and growth
  • Fewer opportunities for flexible work
  • Not enough monetary compensation
  • Less non-monetary rewards in the workplace 

At the core of human motivations is the need to feel valued. People want to feel like the work they are doing is important and impactful. Giving people opportunities for growth shows that you want to see them succeed in their career and stick with your company over a longer period of time. 

Action Step:

  • Financially support employees in seeking new certifications. 
  • Always end meetings and emails by asking for feedback and providing people with a chance to voice their opinions. 
  • Host an inspiring guest speaker.
  • Provide free attendance for employees to relevant conferences or events.
  • Offer job advancement opportunities to top performers. 

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Allow Autonomy and Ownership of Tasks

People are more likely to take pride in their work when they “own” a task, versus when it is 

As a caveat, be careful not to assign tasks that are too daunting or intimidating for an employee’s skill level. This could have the opposite effect.  

Action Step

  • Provide more flexibility in employee scheduling.
  • Allow employees to craft their workload by assigning 3-5 tasks at once and letting them execute as they see fit. 
  • Find a balance between “micromanaging” and being too “hands-off”. Provide project outlines, an “open door” questioning policy, and periodic check-ins to see how people are progressing in larger assignments. Ask for their feedback about their level of independence and ownership of the task.

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Uniquely Recognize Employee of the Month

It might be one of the oldest tactics in the management toolbox, but recognizing an Employee of the Month is still relevant as ever (just maybe without the plaque). 

When you put somebody in the spotlight, it demonstrates that you are paying attention to the extra effort they are putting in behind the scenes. 

First step, Employee of the
Month. Next, I will takeover the world!

Why not put a unique spin on this classic motivational tool?

  • In an open meeting or internal newsletter, specifically, recognize the top 3-5 things they did to receive the employee of the month. 
  • Gift them a personalized experience or gift. For example, if your employee loves movies, host a family-friendly movie night. If they love craft beer, arrange a tasting at their favorite local brewery. Pay attention to their unique interests rather than providing a generic gift card. 
  • Create an employee spotlight document or poster to showcase their favorite things. Ask them for their favorite food, book, movie, inspirational quote, hobby, bucket list item, vacation memory, and photo of their family. 
  • Do a social media or blog takeover. Allow the employee of the month to create fun content for your social channels based on their specific expertise and interests (just be sure they are aligned with the brand voice and values before hopping on Instagram stories). 
  • Write a handwritten letter about your experience working with them.
  • Host a celebration lunch catered from their favorite restaurant.

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Build Loyalty with Team Swag  

People inherently want to feel like they are part of a group. You can find people repping their favorite bands and sports teams, you can tell they feel a sense of connection and loyalty to that group. Similarly, team swag creates a sense of unity and fun while allowing people to represent the company brand.  

Action Step:

  • If you don’t already have an attractive logo or design, hire a designer on Upwork or host a design contest on 99Designs.
  • Use Printify or a local screen printer to order t-shirts, mugs, stickers, pens, or bags.
  • Distribute the swag as part of a networking event or team celebration. 

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Key Takeaways: Motivate Employees by Showing You Care 

Infusing the workplace with positive energy is no small task, but motivated people are the backbone of thriving company culture. Some of the most important tricks include: 

  • Regularly show appreciation in both small and large ways. “Thank you” is great, but people also need consistent reminders that you see the work they are doing. Provide specific, timely positive feedback in both public and private to make your team feel encouraged and motivated. 
  • Create a positive work environment with an inspiring ambiance, and organized workspaces, and get your team outdoors more often. 
  • Show your employees that you value them by noticing and remembering the things that they like. Their birthdate, favorite food, and favorite topics are useful insights into the types of rewards and assignments they may enjoy.
  • People often value experiential rewards more than monetary incentives. Consider exploring travel, work outings, 

The secret to motivating people to be excited about their jobs comes down to fundamental human drivers of wanting to feel valued and connected to the bigger picture.

If you want to take your employee management skills to the next level, read our guide on How to be a Better Manager: A Guide for Every Personality Type

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