The three pillars of employee motivation

We all know that happy employees are productive employees, but what truly motivates employees today?

Employee motivation is a perennial challenge for businesses. We all know that happy employees are productive employees, but what truly motivates employees today?

For decades, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provided a foundational framework for understanding employee motivation. However, with over eight decades having passed as well as the rise of the knowledge economy, it’s clear that this model needs a refresh.

In this article, we’ll move beyond outdated models of employee motivation and explore what truly inspires and drives today’s workforce. We also share our seven tips to really motivate your workforce.

Maslow’s hierarchy: Rethinking a classic model

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has long been a guiding principle for understanding employee motivation. This theory suggests that people are driven by a basic need for survival and security, followed by social connection, esteem, and self-actualisation. However, it doesn’t fully capture the desires of today’s workforce.

Maslow’s model emerged in 1943, during a time when many workplaces in the manufacturing sector focused primarily on fulfilling basic physiological and safety needs. Today’s knowledge and service economies paint a different picture. Companies often provide amenities like meals and gyms, competing fiercely to be top employers and considered among the best places to work ( — or even seeking out happy workplace accreditations). In these environments, basic survival isn’t a factor, which means those lower levels in the model are less influential.

In addition, Maslow’s hierarchy proposes a linear progression of needs, where one need must be satisfied before moving on to the next. However, research suggests this isn’t always the case.  Employees can crave social connection while simultaneously striving for achievement and growth.

So, with a few holes in the model, let’s look at what really affects employee motivation.

Redefining motivation for the modern employee

In 2018, Facebook conducted a comprehensive study that provided valuable insights into employee motivation. The study surveyed a diverse group of employees across the company, ensuring the results captured the needs of a broad spectrum of workers, regardless of age, location, or job type.

The findings revealed a significant shift from traditional models of motivation.  While factors like compensation and benefits remain important, the study identified three core pillars that truly motivate today’s employees: career, community, and cause.


The three C’s of employee motivation


Employees crave opportunities for growth and development. Gone are the days of static roles with limited learning opportunities. Today’s workforce thrives on a sense of progress and the ability to continuously hone their craft.

This desire manifests in several ways:

  • An eagerness to learn new skills.
  • Seeking opportunities to take on challenging assignments.
  • The ability to see a roadmap for advancement.


While we tend to think of community as the place where we live, workplaces are a type of community as well, and often one where we spend a significant amount of our time. Craving social connections with colleagues is a fundamental human need. It’s more than just grabbing lunch together; it’s about feeling like you belong, and that you’re part of a team working towards a shared goal.

In fact, a 2020 study by Cigna found that having a strong community in the workplace has been shown to fend off loneliness and improve retention.


Employees want to feel like their work is positively impacting the world. This isn’t just about altruism; it’s about aligning personal values with the company’s mission. Millennials and Gen Z, in particular, place a high value on working for companies with a strong social mission. (See: What’s important to a young workforce.)


How to cultivate the three C’s in your workplace

So how can you create a workplace that fosters these three core motivators?

1. Invest in skill development

Employees are eager to learn new skills that enhance their value and keep them relevant in the ever-evolving job market. Companies can provide access to training programs, workshops, and online learning resources to foster continuous skill development.

2. Create clear career paths

Employees need to see a roadmap for advancement and understand the skills and experience required to progress within the company. Providing mentorship programs and regular performance reviews can help employees map out their career trajectory and feel invested in their long-term future with the company.

3. Recognise great work

Recognise and appreciate individual and team achievements. This can be done through public acknowledgements, awards programs, or simply offering sincere thanks for a job well done. Recognition reinforces positive behaviours and strengthens the sense that everyone’s contribution is valued.

4. Invest in internal communication platforms

Utilise platforms that encourage informal communication and team interaction. This could include internal social media groups, instant messaging tools, or online forums where employees can connect and share updates.

5. Create space for social good

Whether it’s environmental sustainability, community development, or charitable initiatives, demonstrating a commitment to social impact resonates with today’s workforce. Companies can create volunteer opportunities, support social causes, and integrate these efforts into the company culture.

6. Articulate a clear company mission

When employees understand and connect with the company’s mission, they feel a stronger sense of purpose.  Companies should clearly articulate their mission and values, not just on a website, but through everyday actions and company culture. Employees who see their work aligned with the mission are more likely to be invested and motivated.

7. Track and provide measurable results

Feeling the impact of one’s work goes beyond simply believing in the mission.  Employees want to see tangible results of their efforts. Companies can implement metrics and feedback loops that showcase how individual contributions translate into positive social or environmental impact. This reinforces the connection between daily tasks and the company’s broader mission.

Employee motivation isn’t a one-time fix; it’s an ongoing journey. By understanding the evolving needs of your workforce and focusing on career development, community, and cause, you can create a work environment that goes beyond just a paycheck.


Related insights

Access the latest on hiring trends, people + culture and putting your best foot forward.