Struggling to motivate remote employees? Keep the three Ps in mind


Setting up a social event over Zoom isn’t enough to motivate remote employees. To create a truly engaged virtual workforce, you need these three foundational elements.

Are you noticing employees’ eyes glazing over during virtual meetings? Getting less attendees than usual for your after work trivia sessions? Is the quality of people’s work starting to wane?

If you answered yes to any (or all) of these, chances are you’ve got a demotivated workforce on your hands. This isn’t necessarily a reflection of how they feel about your company per se, it’s a product of the world we’re living in. People are over the pandemic, and some might be over remote work, which could mean they’re a little over work in general.

As the HR manager or leader, it can be frustrating when you try everything in your power to reignite employees’ spark: you encourage them to take time off; you facilitate more social events; you ease the pressure by reducing the amount of in-house meetings. 

Still, your efforts are fruitless. Your people are still bringing a lacklustre energy to the virtual workspace everyday, which can lead to a long-term decline in their adaptability, creativity and work quality.

This doesn’t necessarily mean employees don’t need more time off or social events to connect with their colleagues. It could just mean that you’re missing out on the foundational elements needed to motivate remote employees: play, purpose and potential.

Before we dive into what each of these points mean, it’s worth understanding some of the research behind why motivation levels decrease in a remote environment as this can help you design solutions that will actually work.

Want to skip to the part that interests you most? Here’s what we’re covering:

  • Research to demonstrate why motivation levels are low right now (no, it’s just because we’re living through a pandemic).
  • The definition between tactical and adaptive work, and why you need to strike the right balance.
  • How to think about purpose, play and potential to motivate remote employees.
  • Quick tips to put our expert’s insights into action.
  • A call to action for HR to treat this as “the single biggest trend in work right now”.

Less choice, more rules

Put simply, when you take away employees’ choice about where they work, motivation levels drop. This was the finding that Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor, Co-Founders of Vega Factor, arrived at when they surveyed 20,000 global employees between 2010-2015.

Remote workers who chose to work from home already experienced lower motivation levels than their in-house counterparts, they found. However, the difference in motivation levels between those who had no choice about whether they worked remotely or in-house was even more significant (see graph below). When employees’ autonomy is low, so too is their motivation.

Image: HBR.

“The pandemic has essentially stripped away [employees’] choice,” says Doshi, who is also a former Partner at McKinsey & Co.

Most employers don’t have an intentional strategy around employee motivation, says Doshi. In the physical workspace, we encountered a lot of accidental motivational factors.

“Learning, for example, is a big driver of enjoying your work. In the office, people might have learned through eavesdropping,” he says. 

“They hear the person next to them say something interesting or they have a random conversation in the hallway… all of our accidental strategies are no longer viable. So we need to replace them with an intentional strategy. That’s missing in too many organisations.”

Motivation is highly predictable in driving performance for all employees, says Doshi. The universality of this should signal to employers that they need to take this seriously. So why does formal structure around motivation fall to the wayside? It’s because we’re designing work in the wrong way.

Tactical versus adaptive work

When working through a crisis, employees tend to hunker down and focus on their tactical work. What they need to be doing, however, is spending at least 50 per cent of their week engaged in adaptive work, says Doshi.

Doshi and McGregor describe the difference between the two types of work in this handy 2-minute video. Tactical work is how well you stick to your strategy, and adaptive work is about how well you can deviate from your strategy to create an environment where new ideas can flourish.

“Imagine you’re cooking and following a recipe to the letter. That’s tactical performance,” says Doshi. “Novice cooks, like myself, have to stick to a recipe because [we] don’t know how to adapt, but a master will adapt all the time. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have all the ingredients because they’re experimenting. That’s adaptive performance.”

Too much tactical work prevents people from feeling inspired to try new things (and feel motivated as a result), but too little can impact employees’ ability to produce consistent work at scale. 

“Without the adaptive [work] you don’t solve problems, you don’t innovate or grow. There’s no creativity… but in moments of genuine crisis, tactical work [allows you to] know the path out.”

Doshi uses the example of a building fire. You don’t want someone to empower you to find the exit, he says. You just want to get out.

“The issue is that many organisations misdiagnose the moment they’re in. They always think the building is on fire.” 

And so they might become overly prescriptive, double down on rules and potentially start to micromanage, which is highly demotivating.

What they should do, according to Doshi, is present the facts to people. Tell them you’re facing a big challenge to work through in a relatively short period. Be honest that you’re not entirely sure of the way out, then invite people to engage in collaborative work to arrive at a solution. Make your end goal is clear, so they have a vision to work towards, but let the in-between problem-solving come from them.

Purpose, play and potential: ingredients to motivate remote employees

Doshi’s last point on co-creation speaks to the three Ps: play, purpose and potential.

Play isn’t about the destination but the journey you took to get there. It’s about curiosity, novelty and experimentation.

“If you feel like you have a job where you can try new things, see what works, try again and feel creative, you will be much more motivated to do that job.”

Doshi and McGregor’s research shows how powerful experimentation can be. The graph below demonstrates a dramatic increase in motivation levels for both remote and in-house employees when play is factored in. And Doshi says it has not only helped to create a highly engaged workforce, but also to encourage employees to come up with revenue-generating ideas.

Image: HBR.

A highly motivated team also needs a strong sense of purpose.

Purpose isn’t necessarily reflective of company goals that align with employees’ personal beliefs – although that’s important. In this case, it’s about people believing that the work they do matters. By inviting them to co-create solutions to pressing challenges, you’re giving them an opportunity to feel like part of the bigger picture. 

When employees feel fungible, they’re not going to give 100 per cent. While certain industries risk higher levels of fungibility – such as call centres or production lines where employees have a set script or process to follow – it’s still present in other roles too. Think of the employees who are constantly engaging in menial administrative work.

Doshi encourages leaders and HR managers to help employees find novelty in their roles. Do they have to stick to the script all the time? Or could they help to redefine the script from time to time? Even if their work is relatively tactical, could they be looped into side projects that require them to tap into their adaptive thinking? 

“Now more than ever, we have to get this right. Not just because of the pandemic, but if you look at the secular trend of work, tactical work is getting automated at lightning speed. All that’s left for people is the adaptive [work].” – Neel Doshi, Co-Founder Vega Factor.

The third P, potential, is a longer term motive. 

“It’s something you do because you value the eventual outcome,” says Doshi.

“Take running for instance. Play is saying, ‘I enjoy running’, independent of outcome. Purpose might be, ‘I’m running to get somewhere or I’m part of a running club and I like the sense of community I get from it’. Potential would be, ‘I’m running because I want to stay physically fit.”

That’s why something like sticking to a diet can be so hard, he says, because the motivating factor present in this situation is potential. It’s the weakest of the three main factors. This is why you don’t just want to focus on the long-term benefits that employees will contribute to, it might not be enough to maintain the motivation to continue doing a good job.

Putting motivation into action

To get you started on improving (or starting) your motivation strategy, Doshi shares the following tips.

1. Teach everyone to understand the common language and framework for motivation and performance. Use this as an opportunity to both educate your people as well as listen to their ideas on what would increase their state of play or purpose.

“Don’t feel the need to throw out everything you’re doing. If you did that, paralysis would prevent you from ever changing. Just start small with some experimenting. People will see those experiments and get excited to try it themselves, then you get momentum to keep going.”

2. Don’t be overly prescriptive with rules. Put up guardrails instead that allow for optionality and flexibility.

“A world with no rules is just as stressful as a world with overly constraining ones. There has to be a world in the middle, [and] that has to be built on choice… while also creating the right degree of team-to-team interoperability and collaboration.”

“If we didn’t have any guardrails, we would all be working in ways that are so arbitrarily different from each other that collaboration across the organisation would disappear.” 

3. Bring learning to the fore. Don’t tie bonuses, promotions or firing decisions to performance metrics. Instead, set learning goals that allow employees to take the reins of their own upskilling experience. This will result in far more innovative ideas as people aren’t holding back due to fear of punishment.

 

4. Move away from too much tactical work. If tactical work is currently taking up a solid chunk of your people’s time, you might consider redesigning how you ask your people to approach work. To start this process, Doshi suggests the following:

Step one: Every team should have clarity on their near-term goals.

Step two: Recognise that those goals are going to change.

“Often businesses set annual goals only to find that three weeks into the year most of [those goals] are obsolete because the world changes.”

Step three: Develop habits. They’re a great way to motivate remote employees without creating pressure.
“One of those habits needs to be around constant, continuous weekly goal clarity. The goals aren’t going to change 100 per cent each week, but they might by around 5 per cent.”

Step four: Distribute work in a way that gives people time back to engage in adaptive work. This can be done by helping them priortise the tasks that align with their goals through rank ordering, and delegate or pause work that doesn’t ladder up to those goals.

“Prioritising isn’t the same as planning – that’s tactical work; it’s too micro – and prioritising is far more important but done far less often.

When we focus on planning, we’re taking more autonomy away from individuals. This is employees’ opportunity to think creatively, so let them take the first stab at the plans, says Doshi, so you’re “building skill [and] creating choice, which will drive motivation and eventually lead to a higher degree of ownership and performance.”

5. Don’t leave it up to leaders. Perhaps the reason formal motivation strategies are few and far between is because there’s a misconception that the responsibility lies with leaders alone.

Everyone is responsible for motivation at work, says Doshi. Leaders play an important role, but teams and individuals need to buy into it too.

“[Play and purpose] are the most powerful drivers of motivation, but they’re specifically driven by the work you do. They’re not driven by your company’s mission statement. They’re not driven by HR policy. And so, they are definitionally local, so they have to be managed locally. But organisations don’t equip their teams or leaders to manage motivation locally.”

6. Remember what motivates people. Excluding the personal impacts of an individual’s emotions or exhaustion levels, shifting motivation isn’t usually about their company, their leader or themselves, because those things don’t usually change. What does change, however, is the type of work they’re engaging with. That’s what influences the ebb of flow of motivation.

“This is the biggest motivational blindspot for most organisations. It’s the piece of the puzzle that has been missing for eons. When you crack that code, you solve for motivation of scale.”

Why you should act now

For organisations with high levels of burnout, attrition rates are rising, says Doshi. HRM points to this research often, but it bears repeating: Microsoft has found that 40 per cent of the global workforce is looking for a new job this year. What are you doing to make sure your people aren’t part of that statistic? 

“Now more than ever, we have to get this right. Not just because of the pandemic, but if you look at the secular trend of work, tactical work is getting automated at lightning speed. All that’s left for people is the adaptive [work]. That is the future of human work. That’s a good thing. At the end of the day, that’s the fun stuff.”

“As long as we teach people how to do the fun stuff properly, that’s an incredible future of work. The old tactical, sweat-shop style of working is done. We’re going to be done with it in a matter of years,” he says.

“If you’re not learning a motivation strategy [and] if you’re not starting to experiment, you’re missing the single biggest trend in work right now. You won’t be behind, you’ll be out of business.”


Want more tips on engaging and motivating remote employees and in-house employees alike? AHRI members can access a checklist and a range of information sheets here.


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Struggling to motivate remote employees? Keep the three Ps in mind


Setting up a social event over Zoom isn’t enough to motivate remote employees. To create a truly engaged virtual workforce, you need these three foundational elements.

Are you noticing employees’ eyes glazing over during virtual meetings? Getting less attendees than usual for your after work trivia sessions? Is the quality of people’s work starting to wane?

If you answered yes to any (or all) of these, chances are you’ve got a demotivated workforce on your hands. This isn’t necessarily a reflection of how they feel about your company per se, it’s a product of the world we’re living in. People are over the pandemic, and some might be over remote work, which could mean they’re a little over work in general.

As the HR manager or leader, it can be frustrating when you try everything in your power to reignite employees’ spark: you encourage them to take time off; you facilitate more social events; you ease the pressure by reducing the amount of in-house meetings. 

Still, your efforts are fruitless. Your people are still bringing a lacklustre energy to the virtual workspace everyday, which can lead to a long-term decline in their adaptability, creativity and work quality.

This doesn’t necessarily mean employees don’t need more time off or social events to connect with their colleagues. It could just mean that you’re missing out on the foundational elements needed to motivate remote employees: play, purpose and potential.

Before we dive into what each of these points mean, it’s worth understanding some of the research behind why motivation levels decrease in a remote environment as this can help you design solutions that will actually work.

Want to skip to the part that interests you most? Here’s what we’re covering:

  • Research to demonstrate why motivation levels are low right now (no, it’s just because we’re living through a pandemic).
  • The definition between tactical and adaptive work, and why you need to strike the right balance.
  • How to think about purpose, play and potential to motivate remote employees.
  • Quick tips to put our expert’s insights into action.
  • A call to action for HR to treat this as “the single biggest trend in work right now”.

Less choice, more rules

Put simply, when you take away employees’ choice about where they work, motivation levels drop. This was the finding that Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor, Co-Founders of Vega Factor, arrived at when they surveyed 20,000 global employees between 2010-2015.

Remote workers who chose to work from home already experienced lower motivation levels than their in-house counterparts, they found. However, the difference in motivation levels between those who had no choice about whether they worked remotely or in-house was even more significant (see graph below). When employees’ autonomy is low, so too is their motivation.

Image: HBR.

“The pandemic has essentially stripped away [employees’] choice,” says Doshi, who is also a former Partner at McKinsey & Co.

Most employers don’t have an intentional strategy around employee motivation, says Doshi. In the physical workspace, we encountered a lot of accidental motivational factors.

“Learning, for example, is a big driver of enjoying your work. In the office, people might have learned through eavesdropping,” he says. 

“They hear the person next to them say something interesting or they have a random conversation in the hallway… all of our accidental strategies are no longer viable. So we need to replace them with an intentional strategy. That’s missing in too many organisations.”

Motivation is highly predictable in driving performance for all employees, says Doshi. The universality of this should signal to employers that they need to take this seriously. So why does formal structure around motivation fall to the wayside? It’s because we’re designing work in the wrong way.

Tactical versus adaptive work

When working through a crisis, employees tend to hunker down and focus on their tactical work. What they need to be doing, however, is spending at least 50 per cent of their week engaged in adaptive work, says Doshi.

Doshi and McGregor describe the difference between the two types of work in this handy 2-minute video. Tactical work is how well you stick to your strategy, and adaptive work is about how well you can deviate from your strategy to create an environment where new ideas can flourish.

“Imagine you’re cooking and following a recipe to the letter. That’s tactical performance,” says Doshi. “Novice cooks, like myself, have to stick to a recipe because [we] don’t know how to adapt, but a master will adapt all the time. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have all the ingredients because they’re experimenting. That’s adaptive performance.”

Too much tactical work prevents people from feeling inspired to try new things (and feel motivated as a result), but too little can impact employees’ ability to produce consistent work at scale. 

“Without the adaptive [work] you don’t solve problems, you don’t innovate or grow. There’s no creativity… but in moments of genuine crisis, tactical work [allows you to] know the path out.”

Doshi uses the example of a building fire. You don’t want someone to empower you to find the exit, he says. You just want to get out.

“The issue is that many organisations misdiagnose the moment they’re in. They always think the building is on fire.” 

And so they might become overly prescriptive, double down on rules and potentially start to micromanage, which is highly demotivating.

What they should do, according to Doshi, is present the facts to people. Tell them you’re facing a big challenge to work through in a relatively short period. Be honest that you’re not entirely sure of the way out, then invite people to engage in collaborative work to arrive at a solution. Make your end goal is clear, so they have a vision to work towards, but let the in-between problem-solving come from them.

Purpose, play and potential: ingredients to motivate remote employees

Doshi’s last point on co-creation speaks to the three Ps: play, purpose and potential.

Play isn’t about the destination but the journey you took to get there. It’s about curiosity, novelty and experimentation.

“If you feel like you have a job where you can try new things, see what works, try again and feel creative, you will be much more motivated to do that job.”

Doshi and McGregor’s research shows how powerful experimentation can be. The graph below demonstrates a dramatic increase in motivation levels for both remote and in-house employees when play is factored in. And Doshi says it has not only helped to create a highly engaged workforce, but also to encourage employees to come up with revenue-generating ideas.

Image: HBR.

A highly motivated team also needs a strong sense of purpose.

Purpose isn’t necessarily reflective of company goals that align with employees’ personal beliefs – although that’s important. In this case, it’s about people believing that the work they do matters. By inviting them to co-create solutions to pressing challenges, you’re giving them an opportunity to feel like part of the bigger picture. 

When employees feel fungible, they’re not going to give 100 per cent. While certain industries risk higher levels of fungibility – such as call centres or production lines where employees have a set script or process to follow – it’s still present in other roles too. Think of the employees who are constantly engaging in menial administrative work.

Doshi encourages leaders and HR managers to help employees find novelty in their roles. Do they have to stick to the script all the time? Or could they help to redefine the script from time to time? Even if their work is relatively tactical, could they be looped into side projects that require them to tap into their adaptive thinking? 

“Now more than ever, we have to get this right. Not just because of the pandemic, but if you look at the secular trend of work, tactical work is getting automated at lightning speed. All that’s left for people is the adaptive [work].” – Neel Doshi, Co-Founder Vega Factor.

The third P, potential, is a longer term motive. 

“It’s something you do because you value the eventual outcome,” says Doshi.

“Take running for instance. Play is saying, ‘I enjoy running’, independent of outcome. Purpose might be, ‘I’m running to get somewhere or I’m part of a running club and I like the sense of community I get from it’. Potential would be, ‘I’m running because I want to stay physically fit.”

That’s why something like sticking to a diet can be so hard, he says, because the motivating factor present in this situation is potential. It’s the weakest of the three main factors. This is why you don’t just want to focus on the long-term benefits that employees will contribute to, it might not be enough to maintain the motivation to continue doing a good job.

Putting motivation into action

To get you started on improving (or starting) your motivation strategy, Doshi shares the following tips.

1. Teach everyone to understand the common language and framework for motivation and performance. Use this as an opportunity to both educate your people as well as listen to their ideas on what would increase their state of play or purpose.

“Don’t feel the need to throw out everything you’re doing. If you did that, paralysis would prevent you from ever changing. Just start small with some experimenting. People will see those experiments and get excited to try it themselves, then you get momentum to keep going.”

2. Don’t be overly prescriptive with rules. Put up guardrails instead that allow for optionality and flexibility.

“A world with no rules is just as stressful as a world with overly constraining ones. There has to be a world in the middle, [and] that has to be built on choice… while also creating the right degree of team-to-team interoperability and collaboration.”

“If we didn’t have any guardrails, we would all be working in ways that are so arbitrarily different from each other that collaboration across the organisation would disappear.” 

3. Bring learning to the fore. Don’t tie bonuses, promotions or firing decisions to performance metrics. Instead, set learning goals that allow employees to take the reins of their own upskilling experience. This will result in far more innovative ideas as people aren’t holding back due to fear of punishment.

 

4. Move away from too much tactical work. If tactical work is currently taking up a solid chunk of your people’s time, you might consider redesigning how you ask your people to approach work. To start this process, Doshi suggests the following:

Step one: Every team should have clarity on their near-term goals.

Step two: Recognise that those goals are going to change.

“Often businesses set annual goals only to find that three weeks into the year most of [those goals] are obsolete because the world changes.”

Step three: Develop habits. They’re a great way to motivate remote employees without creating pressure.
“One of those habits needs to be around constant, continuous weekly goal clarity. The goals aren’t going to change 100 per cent each week, but they might by around 5 per cent.”

Step four: Distribute work in a way that gives people time back to engage in adaptive work. This can be done by helping them priortise the tasks that align with their goals through rank ordering, and delegate or pause work that doesn’t ladder up to those goals.

“Prioritising isn’t the same as planning – that’s tactical work; it’s too micro – and prioritising is far more important but done far less often.

When we focus on planning, we’re taking more autonomy away from individuals. This is employees’ opportunity to think creatively, so let them take the first stab at the plans, says Doshi, so you’re “building skill [and] creating choice, which will drive motivation and eventually lead to a higher degree of ownership and performance.”

5. Don’t leave it up to leaders. Perhaps the reason formal motivation strategies are few and far between is because there’s a misconception that the responsibility lies with leaders alone.

Everyone is responsible for motivation at work, says Doshi. Leaders play an important role, but teams and individuals need to buy into it too.

“[Play and purpose] are the most powerful drivers of motivation, but they’re specifically driven by the work you do. They’re not driven by your company’s mission statement. They’re not driven by HR policy. And so, they are definitionally local, so they have to be managed locally. But organisations don’t equip their teams or leaders to manage motivation locally.”

6. Remember what motivates people. Excluding the personal impacts of an individual’s emotions or exhaustion levels, shifting motivation isn’t usually about their company, their leader or themselves, because those things don’t usually change. What does change, however, is the type of work they’re engaging with. That’s what influences the ebb of flow of motivation.

“This is the biggest motivational blindspot for most organisations. It’s the piece of the puzzle that has been missing for eons. When you crack that code, you solve for motivation of scale.”

Why you should act now

For organisations with high levels of burnout, attrition rates are rising, says Doshi. HRM points to this research often, but it bears repeating: Microsoft has found that 40 per cent of the global workforce is looking for a new job this year. What are you doing to make sure your people aren’t part of that statistic? 

“Now more than ever, we have to get this right. Not just because of the pandemic, but if you look at the secular trend of work, tactical work is getting automated at lightning speed. All that’s left for people is the adaptive [work]. That is the future of human work. That’s a good thing. At the end of the day, that’s the fun stuff.”

“As long as we teach people how to do the fun stuff properly, that’s an incredible future of work. The old tactical, sweat-shop style of working is done. We’re going to be done with it in a matter of years,” he says.

“If you’re not learning a motivation strategy [and] if you’re not starting to experiment, you’re missing the single biggest trend in work right now. You won’t be behind, you’ll be out of business.”


Want more tips on engaging and motivating remote employees and in-house employees alike? AHRI members can access a checklist and a range of information sheets here.


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