Motivating remote workers
By Madison Hanscom, Ph.D.
A team of researchers recruited 1135 participants to take place in a study that collected information on their work experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic over time. The data collection began in April of 2020 and will continue to run for 6 months. Initial findings were recently shared by the researchers (1). Among many results, the researchers uncovered that managers are feeling uncertain about employee motivation in a remote work setting — 41% of managers agreed with the statement “I am skeptical as to whether remote workers can stay motivated in the long term” and 17% were unsure.
This stimulates an interesting conversation. As we all know, motivation is a main predictor and determinant of job performance, so it would be important and timely to address motivation in remote workers (or teleworkers) as this population is larger than ever. And it is intuitive to think that motivation can suffer when people are no longer interacting in a face-to-face environment. We know that social interaction, feedback, and rich communication are important to having engaged employees, so suddenly working from home in an isolated environment (or surrounded by your children) can certainly be a motivational damper.
This begs the question – are employees less motivated in a remote work environment? Researchers would say, the answer to this question is “it depends” (2). If you have employees who did not want to work remotely but were forced into this arrangement, it is more likely they will experience lower motivation. If you have leaders struggling to give adequate feedback to employees in a remote setting vs. a face-to-face setting, it is likely employees will experience lower motivation. The list goes on.
So, motivation will depend on whether the flexible work strategy was designed and implemented well. Motivation can suffer both in an onsite or a remote working environment. It is all about the factors that contribute to a successful work arrangement that will determine whether your workforce suffers from low engagement or thrives in a highly motivating environment. For instance, when done right, research has demonstrated that flexible work arrangements can succeed. People enjoy flexible work from a wellbeing perspective (3), employees typically have higher job performance in these settings (4), and companies enjoy financial benefits from flex work (5).
Employee motivation should always be at the forefront of a leader’s mind in any type of work arrangement and within every maturity level of an organization. Thus, consider the tips below when it comes to motivating employees working in a flex work model:
• Ensure the issue is actually motivation. Sometimes “low motivation” is the wrong diagnosis. Instead the employee might be dealing with other barriers — like the wrong resources (e.g., inadequate internet connection at home, poor equipment), low ability (e.g., lacking the proper training to understand the tasks required), or other contextual constraints. Before labelling the problem as motivation, adequately assess the situation.
• Take a close look at the work. The way in which work is structured has a direct impact on motivation. A great place to focus is on autonomy. When employees feel they have the ability to make decisions about their work (e.g., how, when, where) this is extremely motivating. Another area to explore is the degree of task variety someone has. Over time, people need stimulation and will not enjoy doing the same thing on a loop. Consider ways to create more variety in what employees do regularly. The right balance is going to determine largely on the type and nature of the work, but some companies have found it successful to distribute tasks and skills across a few roles. The idea is to give people varying responsibilities and duties to break up the monotony. Another successful method includes rotation — where an employee might work on a certain task for several hours and then rotate to another.
• Encourage job crafting. ‘Job crafting’ is exactly what it sounds like – crafting your job with purpose of increasing fit between your work and your interests. Having interesting, engaging work is important to motivation. There are different ways you can encourage employees to craft their work to be more motivating. They can seek out personal development, find new challenges, strengthen and loosen social ties, and learn cognitive framing strategies. For more, see (6).
• Mutually set goals. Researchers have established goal setting to be one of the most well-established motivational tools for employees (7). If you haven’t already, consider integrating goals into your performance management plans with employees and monitor them often. Remember, goals shouldn’t be too difficult, but they should still be rigorous. Ensure the goals are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time bound). Employees should be committed to the goals, so involving them in the process can help buy-in. Goals create engaging conversations about where employees want to be long term, what it takes to get there, and how to work on it. Growth is a very important motivational tool, and employees will feel connected and inspired when you schedule regular one-on-one conversations about their development.
• Communicate strategically and often. Pulling off great communication with virtual workers will take more planning and forethought than in a face-to-face setting. We recommend devising a communication plan that includes all of the nuances like frequency, method/format, time zones/timing, and the purpose behind different types of communication. Be sure to consider communication on every level — from micro meetings (one-on-ones) to larger meetings ( “all hands meetings” ). Feedback becomes even more critical in a remote environment. It is demotivating when individuals do not have knowledge of how they are doing or the results of their work. Ensure employees have clear, specific, and actionable feedback about their performance or work.
• Reflect on trust. This goes both ways. Your employees need to trust you, and you need to trust your employees. Gain trust from employees by listening to them, following through on your words, and creating a psychological safe environment where people can speak up without any negative consequences. It is also important for the leader to trust their people in order to sustain an effective flex work model. For instance, a conventional notion that must be challenged when operating as a leader of virtual teams is that employees need to be seen to be considered productive. An employee can no longer symbolize their commitment by staying in the office late — they now have to show up in other ways, and leaders need to trust that employees are getting the job done. If you are micromanaging a virtual team, this is not going to be successful. Instead of trying to manage employees by closely following how they are doing their jobs (i.e., process focus), leaders should focus on monitoring the results or outcomes employees are producing. This can include an emphasis on deliverables or accomplishments.
• Show them purpose. When employees feel connected to the work they are doing and committed to the company, they are more likely to perform well in a flexible work setting (8). Help employees feel connected to their work and the values of the company by illustrating for them specifically how their contribution is related to larger goals and the bigger picture. This helps give them meaning behind what they do on a daily basis and lets them know they are valuable in a concrete way. This is particularly important for high performers — because you want them to stay with the company as long as possible. Too often people work on a component of a broader project or goal and do not understand how their work is connected to something larger.
• Recognize. Keeping workers engaged who are working remotely or partially remote will be more effective when there is a solid plan for recognizing good performance. This should be a top priority. Recognition is motivating, and it also reinforces what the company values. It illustrates both to the individual receiving the recognition and to others what the company values and what behavior should be continued. Consider setting goals for yourself to give out verbal recognition (e.g., in person, email, “shout out” on a team call) to an employee each day.
• Consider justice perceptions: Perceptions of inequity kill motivation. If employees do not perceive fairness in the work environment, this will deteriorate trust. When any individual or group of individuals feel they are being treated differently or have different opportunities than others in the company, this has the potential to stir up conflict and lead to decreases in performance and motivation. Consider the different types of justice when leading a virtual team: distributive justice (Are the outcomes such as pay and opportunities fair?), procedural justice (Are the processes that lead to the outcomes fair?), and interactional justice (Are people treated with respect and equality?). For more on this, see (9).
At Propulo Consulting, we partner with you to improve the world of work. Our team has the expertise to help your business implement a sensible Flex Work strategy without pain. We work with you to ensure your company culture and processes develop accordingly during or after a Flex Work transition so you can continue to deliver results for your organization and customers. Please visit our website for the latest insights and research into flexible work.
(1) Centre for Transformative Work Design survey: https://360e1fd0-be66-41c9-867d-7a6618e5d7fe.filesusr.com/ugd/bd06d8_7d3fc9d8e05449cca8e8ff4d5873e977.pdf
(2) Sardeshmukh, S. R., Sharma, D., & Golden, T. D. (2012). Impact of telework on exhaustion and job engagement: A job demands and job resources model. New Technology, Work and Employment, 27(3), 193-207.
(7) Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1984). Goal setting: A motivational technique that works!
(8) Raghuram, S., Garud, R., Wiesenfeld, B., & Gupta, V. (2001). Factors contributing to virtual work adjustment. Journal of Management, 27(3), 383-405.