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How has motivation changed in UK workplaces from 2010s to the 2020s?

In June 2024, two colleagues from the Think Organisation were invited to attend the BPS Occupational Psychology Annual Conference to present their research output from a Decade of Data. As part of this, they shared insights into how motivation has changed across over hundred UK SMEs during the last decade. With data taken from 2010 to today, spanning eight key topics, the Think Organisation shared the insights gathered from this data to a packed room. The mission is to understand more about how business leaders can use data to prioritise their leadership focus. So we can have a world where everyone is empower to have better workplaces.

In 2010, when the first data was being gathered, Apple had launched this new technology called theĀ Ipad. This transformed (and founded) the tablet market. Horrific events, such as Deepwater Horizon occurred in the spring of 2010, impacting health and safety at work in far reaching ways. The after effects of the 2008 financial crisis were still impacting the world – especially in Europe.

The trend of well-known household brands disappearing from UK high streets has started, with Woolworths shutting their doors as many more followed throughout the 2010s. The instability was mirrored in the the political landscape. Gordon Brown was replaced by David Cameron and Nick Clegg in a hung parliament which made way for years of rapid, and frequent political change (Sky News, 2020).

On this backdrop, a Professor from a prestigious University started gathering data from UK SME firms to understand how they were performing against eight fundamental topics, motivation being one of them.

This rich data has provided invaluable insight into how organisational cultures have developed alongside the external changes we have seen over the last decade. Many are summarised below.

What correlations (if any) can be drawn between external changes and internal organisational performance and motivation?

The events highlighted above are a selection of newsworthy items, which may or may not, have influenced the changing course of motivation in the workplace. As discussed in our recent article, motivation is a complex phenomenon which Psychologists have spent years trying to decipher.

General consensus concludes that motivation is a psychological force, defined as ‘the reason, or reasons, why people act or behave in certain ways’. Being able to see how motivation has changed across over a hundred UK companies provides significant insight into changing organisational cultures over the last decade.

So what have we learnt?

Why has motivation hit an all-time low despite basic needs being more met today than in 2010?

Whilst everyone has basic needs, which appear to be being met more today than in 2010 according to some research (BMJ, 2022). Motivation has plummeted to an all time low in hundreds of workplaces across the UK. The Think Culture Measure (TCM) uses five factors as a measure of motivation in the workplace. Each of these factors are measured at a strategic, team, individual and actionable level to ensure the results can be triangulated across organisations and factors.

As shown in the graph below, motivation levels have declined significantly from 2010 to the 2020s across all factors, except for opportunities which have fluctuated and now remain slightly higher than in 2010s. Whilst a number of questions make up each of these factors, the data makes for interesting reading. Especially when combined with the external environment that UK SMEs are operating in.

Encouragement drives motivation.

Encouragement, done well and at the right time, can provide motivation to anyone. Humans need humans, and when things are difficult the action of giving someone support, confidence or hope, can fuel someone’s effort and bolster their resilience. In our research, the levels of encouragement in SMEs surveyed was at its highest in 2015 and then hit an all time low by 2021. This contributed to the overall decline in current levels of motivation and was mirrored closely by fluctuations in recognition that employees were receiving.

Fair Financial Reward is Vital.

In contrast, employee’s perceptions of receiving fair financial rewards has fluctuated significantly throughout the decade. Whilst this metric peaked in 2014, it was at its lowest in 2013 and then rose slowly until reaching its current all time low in the 2020s. There are many elements which contribute to an employees perception of receiving a fair financial reward so these changes can be anticipated in many organisations.

Performance Management Impacts Motivation.

Performance management, including ensuring employees meet required standards of delivery and behaviour, was at its highest in 2014 across the SMEs surveyed. By 2022 it was an an all time low, which is no surprise when you consider the landscape and changes in organisations over the last decade. Whilst our research paper (in review) and white paper (in production) do more to outline any potential correlations, it is difficult due to the nature of the data to suggest causation.

How can business leaders use this data to improve motivation in their workplace?

Whilst this research poses more questions it is vital that all leaders are aware of the trends to ensure they are benchmarking current employee engagement and motivation levels. If levels in your organisation have remain constant then this is cause for celebration, or if the decline has been less severe, as this indicates businesses are improving compared to the overall trends which have been happening over the last decade.

There is a paradox in that current motivation levels are at an all time low, despite research showing basic needs are being met at higher levels, across wider populations than ever before.

Data shows that over the past decade, motivation in UK workplaces has significantly declined, with the Think Organisation’s data showing a downward trend in motivation levels from 2010 to the 2020s. This raises concerns about how low motivation levels impact organisational culture and performance. The UK has been suffering low productivity for years – could this help provide an explanation?

Whilst, encouragement has been identified as a crucial factor in driving motivation, we can see fluctuations in encouragement levels, peaking in 2015 and hitting a low by 2021, have contributed to the overall decline in employee motivation. To address these challenges, business leaders need to prioritise using data to inform their leadership strategies, ensuring they focus on key areas such as encouragement and fair financial rewards to enhance motivation and employee engagement within their organisations.

Read our next article here to find out how.

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