What is the best way to motivate employees?

Sabrina Khan, Dennis Lee and Derek Yuen

Experts chime in on the latest topics in accountancy and business

Text size: A+A-

Sabrina Khan, Dennis Lee and Derek Yuen


Sabrina Khan, Chief Financial Officer, Aptorum Group and an Institute member 

There are many lessons to be learned from this pandemic. One such lesson is that a good understanding of human behaviour can be key to implementing staff management strategies. We can see that with the right motivation, some staff members can be productive working from home – but what separates the motivated from the unmotivated? There are four main factors that motivate individuals and teams to engage, increase effort, and achieve goals that go beyond a higher monetary remuneration.

Progression: This refers to an individual’s ability to learn and develop himself or herself, to be challenged, and to acquire a sense of achievement. Some require a clearly laid out career path, knowing that their hard work is leading to, for example, a promotion. But for others, progression may be increased responsibility. The perceived level of responsibility delegated to a member of staff gives them a sense of worth and drives them to deliver expected results.

Recognition: From a young age, people are conditioned to experience joy from recognition for their hard work and praise for their achievements or good efforts. People want affirmation that they are acting or doing things correctly; they want to know that they are on the right track. Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool to drive people of all ages to push harder in seeking further recognition or praise. Recognition in front of peers further multiplies the level of joy attained from such recognition.

Oversight: While this strategy is not on trend in the modern world that we live in, there’s no denying that negative reinforcement techniques do work when used in moderation. The likelihood of being punished or penalized may encourage individuals to put in the additional effort to get a task done. It cannot be used in isolation and must be used sparingly. A mix of positive and negative reinforcement can be considered, depending on the situation at hand.

Accountability: Teamwork has multiple benefits within a corporation, and one such benefit is that of accountability. Individuals, when highly integrated within a team and given a key role to play – at least perceived as a key role – will be highly motivated to play their part within that team and in project work. Accountability is a powerful tool whereby a team member feels they cannot let the team down and is even more powerful than the fear of letting themselves down. Bear in mind that this is another form of negative reinforcement, but one that is self-inflicted.

“Teamwork has multiple benefits within a corporation, and one such benefit is that of accountability.”

Dennis Lee, Senior Consultant, Total Rewards, Hong Kong, Mercer

When talking about motivating employees, what usually comes to mind is undoubtedly salary, promotions and bonuses. While pay has always been critical to motivating employees, is it still sufficient for the workforce today and the future?

​According to Mercer’s engagement studies, employees are motivated when they can accept the new norm while feeling supported, developed, recognized and rewarded fairly and competitively by their employers.

In the past 12 months, employees have been scrambling to understand and come up with new ways of working. As a result of rapid changes in the business environment, job roles and responsibilities have shifted with the creation of new roles to support remote business models. Some of these include e-commerce, data analysts and work-from-home facilitators. Some roles have also been combined to overcome cost constraints. Amid these rapid changes, companies need to proactively review job designs, identify associated gaps in skill sets and provide support and training accordingly. This will allow employees to gain more confidence and security in their jobs and therefore increase motivation at work.

Simply benchmarking employees or positions against the market without linking pay and performance is another area companies should be mindful of, especially when motivating top-performers in tough times. While companies may view a bonus as an ample reward for top performers, our recent study shows that the average bonus difference between a high and average performer is just shy of one month’s base salary. Only 23 percent of companies apply more than 50 percent weighting to individual performance as part of their performance evaluation. This could disincentivize top performers from giving their best, especially in roles high in demand roles like data scientists, cybersecurity specialists, etc. Their skill sets may be so unique that other companies are willing to pay a premium to recruit them for their future needs.

Motivating employees starts with listening, and companies need to look beyond salaries to design packages that take the motivational drivers of their multi-generation workforces into consideration. They should also rethink traditional compensation strategies to include pay-for-performance and pay-for-skills schemes, which may prove more effective in this new era of work.

“Motivating employees starts with listening, and companies need to look beyond salaries to design packages that take the motivational drivers of their multi-generation workforces into consideration.”

Derek Yuen, People Partner, Audit, Hong Kong, KPMG China and an Institute member

Motivation is a key driver of performance and employee satisfaction. As one of the firm’s People Partners, it is my role to establish a work environment that supports and motivates our people to deliver excellence.

At KPMG, most of our professional staff are from Gen Y or Z, with the average age in the mid-20s to 30s. Younger colleagues are more motivated in environments where their views are heard and their needs are understood. We focus on a few key areas to keep them motivated, including establishing an environment that encourages teamwork, enabling autonomy in the workplace, setting clear goals, providing support and recognizing achievements.

Our people enjoy working with colleagues in a supportive environment that helps them stay positive, despite facing a heavy workload at times. To create a caring culture, we encourage open and honest communication, which is key to promoting respect, and a more productive team. While the pandemic has limited physical contact, it has made communication easier as we stay connected via online tools.

In fact, we had flexible work arrangements in place way before the outbreak of COVID-19; the pandemic accelerated our colleagues’ adoption of this model, which offers staff the autonomy to deliver results in ways they deem best. Allowing autonomy at work keeps staff, especially the younger generation, motivated. In turn, they become more proactive in coming up with new ideas to solve problems.

​Our professionals are often required to multitask, and it is easy for them to get lost without a clear set of goals and coaching. To help them, we provide clear guidance, explain the objectives of each task and encourage staff members to voice out their difficulties. As for personal development, we help colleagues set clear development goals to achieve new milestones.

When good outcomes are achieved, positive reinforcement is valued and informal appreciation, such as a “good job!” becomes equally as important as formal rewards. The most effective way to strengthen a recognition culture is to lead by example – always respect and appreciate the work of others. We have also built a “thank you” culture with multiple platforms and awards nomination systems in place, to recognize good work.

Overall, we strive to provide the resources and culture for our people to succeed in achieving their goals and grow. In turn, employees will be motivated by a sense of accomplishment.

“Our people enjoy working with colleagues in a supportive environment that helps them stay positive.”

Add to Bookmark
Text size
Related Articles
January 2024
The President of the Institute on tackling the talent shortage issue, and the significance of the Institute’s role as a statutory sustainability standard setter
April 2021
Experts chime in on the latest topics in accountancy and business
February 2021
Barry Dempsey, Chief Executive of Chartered Accountants Ireland, on his key focus areas for CAI’s future growth
February 2021
Ken Chan, Director of Page Personnel Hong Kong, on the best ways to manage a team from anywhere in the world
January 2021
The Institute’s new President, Raymond Cheng, on his plans to steer the profession through big challenges and continue to help members succeed


We use cookies to give you the best experience of our website. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to the use of cookies for analytics and personalized content. To learn more, visit our privacy policy page. View more
Accept All Cookies