As the credit crunch bites and pitching for client work becomes more competitive, every creative studio needs to keep staff motivated, happy and rooting for success.

When faced with a tough economic climate, it’s understandable for companies to reach for the ‘crisis mode’ button, batten down the hatches and seek to weather the storm.

Yet for creative studios, a culture of uncertainty, suspicion and survival can plunge staff into developing a studio-closing unmotivated streak. Unmotivated creative staff spell bad news for business.

Design flair can begin to fray, and relations with clients can become strained and the studio atmosphere can become tense. Talented staff – catching the whiff of despair in a studio – may begin to look elsewhere.

The fact is that the best designers are always valuable, no matter how the economy is performing. Not only are sharp creative minds vital to successful campaigns and helping in retaining lucrative accounts, but any studio needs creative stars for the longer term.

The best staff aren’t just there to help battle through a difficult patch – they should be there to help propel your studio upwards when you begin to hit the upturn.

But what can a cash-strapped creative studio, faced with financial uncertainty and tightening client purse strings, do to not only halt the slide in morale, but actively reverse it?

Follow our selected motivational tips to help ensure your studio is brighter, happier, and more creative – whatever the economic weather.

Rewards for successful work, or simply continuing to perform well, don’t have to be purely of the financial kind. There are plenty of low-cost and no-cost alternatives that show your appreciation for work well done – which is the biggest morale-booster of all.

At a basic level, a ‘thank you’ approach to work shows staff you value them, rather than communicating a ‘you’re lucky to have a job’ culture.

Low-cost rewards are many – and often fun. Tickets to an art exhibition or museum, Krispy Kreme doughnuts on a Friday, an iTunes music voucher, or time off to help with community activies that staff are passionate about but otherwise wouldn’t have the time for.

You can even bring in a outside help, such as a yoga instructor twice a week, as an inexpensive way to reward staff, relax them and lower stress levels. See ‘low-cost rewards’ boxout for more ideas.

Smaller studios in particular can benefit from encouraging staff to be involved in all aspects of a project – and a good way in is to start at the beginning.

Don’t limit creative brainstorming sessions to your most senior talent – invite your accountant, office manager, coder and anyone else you normally wouldn’t, to join brainstorming sessions.

This does more than simply foster a sense of community and open communication within a studio: often ‘non-creatives’ are brimming with left-field ideas that can lead to better execution of a project.

Ensure that all ideas are owned by everyone, no matter how junior, and acknowledge creative input from usually reticent staff.

You have a talented pool of creative staff – even if you are a small studio – so put them to work solving the immediate problems that the company faces.

If you’re faced with financial difficulties, such as a large client walking away or work drying up, then make your staff stakeholders in the solution. One way of doing this is to present the problem as a creative challenge: a client has bailed, and you need to win new work in a short timeframe.

By involving staff, everyone feels motivated in tackling the problem, buoyed by a successful conclusion, and you may even identify new ideas that you hadn’t considered.

Lack of training or access to training is often cited as one of the key reasons behind staff motivation dropping off, regardless of studio size. Investing in the careers of your designers shows a healthy interest in their growth, and it needn’t cost much.

There are plenty of free seminars, networking lunches, screenings, discussions, and exhibitions for designers that are geared at developing skills. Trade show exhibitions often feature free training seminars on software such as Photoshop, while cultural workshops in art skills are a great outlet.

Alternatively, allow staff an afternoon a week to devote purely to learning software skills by following tutorials online. You can also ensure that staff subscribe to creative magazines (such as this one) and have the time to study tutorials, projects and case studies.

The worst thing a studio can do in a challenging environment is operate with a closed-door policy, with whispered conversations and short-notice meeting cancellations.

This only gives the impression that something bad is happening, and employees are likely to add suspicions up and come to their own conclusion. Instead, you need to control the message and update staff clearly, quickly and honestly.

Don’t leave it to the rumour mill, and keep lines of communication open so that staff feel involved.

Hard times often see studios getting their heads down and following the same old safe ideas and executions. A challenging way to boost morale is to seek to break new ground creatively – either by taking on small, but intensely creative projects, or by encouraging designers to pitch ideas and solutions to projects that can be as radical as possible.

Fostering a ‘let’s try it’ attitude is healthy for creative thinking – but it’s important to give feedback on all ideas, even if it’s a ‘no’, otherwise staff will be unwilling to toss them around.

This sounds obvious, but if all talk and thinking in the studio is focused on survival, then staff will lose motivation. Instead of concentrating on the negative, show your appreciation for positive thinking and keep praise specific, timely and genuine. For anyone working for a living, there is no such thing as too much praise, especially when times are tough.

A great method of raising studio happiness is to introduce an element of creative play, preferably working in groups to build team spirit. Creative play isn’t an unfocused excuse to goof off – rather, it involves competition, cooperation in groups and creative problem-solving.

One example is to get a group of employees to build a tower out of odds and ends within a time limit, and it has to stand unaided for two minutes. Get them to guess what height they will achieve, then get them to build.

Afterwards, explore what they learnt and creative solutions. It’s amazing how creative people feel after this type of group exercise.

…makes for dull designers. Designers are passionate about their work, and will clock up weekends and evenings churning through projects. By enforcing a culture that advocates personal time, you’ll boost staff wellbeing.

You can also award extra time off when staff have been working extra hard, and introduce a culture of not working weekends: your clients are usually enjoying a two-day break, so should you and your staff.

Remember school trips? Remember the thrill of a day out visiting somewhere new, as a group and having fun? Recreate this on the cheap with an away day.

You can arrange for all your staff to take a day out and visit a museum or exhibition, or hire a minibus and head out to a theme park for some team bonding. Keep it cheap with packed lunches – the emphasis is on fun and team-building.

It’s tempting to mark the end of a project by heading down to the pub with your team once all the work is done, then buckling straight down to the next project the next morning.

This is fine, but can feel like something of an anticlimax after all your hard work. Break the tired routine and celebrate project conclusions with as much in studio fanfare as possible, no matter how small the project.

This should be as cheesy as possible, with music, nibbles and fun elements that reward staff with the recognition of hitting and business and creative milestone.

And not just jobs – any milestone or to do action should be collated informally and visually stored so the sheer amount of on-going progress can be shared. You could create a ‘Done!’ wall that you stick all to-do flipchart paper and lists as a project progresses, chalking up a studio-wide sense of achievement.

The economic climate is tough enough, without draconian ‘tidy desk’ policies. Instead, actively encourage desks to be used as creative playgrounds. Toys, gonks, tiny skateboards, doodles on Post-It notes, photos of friends and enemies, and stickers all create a sense of belonging and identity for designers. Even better, they can be used to find inspiration for a creative brief, sparking ideas and thinking.

Employees aren’t simply nine-to-five workers who are passing through. If you are open, transparent and accessible when it comes to your business plans and goals, employees will reward you with loyalty, input and motivation.

One idea is to keep your business plan visible at all times – on a wall or intranet – so it can be downloaded, blended into projects and goals, discussed and improved upon. Get staff to visually interpret your business plan, helping them have a vested interest in the ongoing vision for the business.

Mood boards are usually a means of visually capturing the look and feel of a project – but you can turn them inwards and make a studio mood board. This can be a gauge, chart, word board or any public device that allows anyone to change or add to it to best reflect their mood.

Moods can range from relaxed and productive down to stressed and unmotivated, with stages in between. It gives a studio a means of articulating feelings and moods, and is a useful heads-up for you so you can respond to unmotivated feelings as they arise.

Low-cost rewards

Strapped for cash, but still want to reward staff? Try our pick of low-cost and no-cost rewards that your staff will love.

Work from home days
Give designers a break from the grind of the commute and spend time at home with family while still working on projects.

Family days
It’s tough for designers with children when school plays or sports days beckon. Reward them with time off that doesn’t use up holiday allowances.

Movie days
Buy some group tickets to the latest must-see blockbuster – dress it up as studying the visual effects, motion graphics or art direction if you feel the need.

Bring a pet to work day
OK, it has to be the staffer’s pet, and mustn’t be dangerous, and dogs are ideal. This is a fun morale booster, especially for smaller studios.

Negotiate discounts
From health club memberships to allowing staff the use of any company discounts (such as ordering computer equipment), letting your staff benefit from perks is a good idea.

Pass on the perks
Studios can often gain bonuses when they order products, such as Air Miles, so pass these onto staff so they feel that anyone can benefit.

Bonus days
Allocate extra holidays for staff who do something exceptional for your studio – this could be anything from recommending a new recruit who stays for six months, to landing a new client, no matter how small.

Breakfast to beat the blues
Greet staff with free breakfast once a week – strong coffee freshly brewed, bagels, muffins and Danish pastries are a good motivator.

Popcorn with a bang
Surprise the studio by placing fun treats such as popcorn, old-fashioned sweets, lollipops or other tasty treats in a bowl once a week for staff to share.