Keeping remote employees motivated and productive requires a different approach. What works to improve motivation for on-site employees often fails in remote settings. While offering benefits in terms of flexibility and access to top talent, remote work requires leaders to rethink their approach to communication, motivation, and format. 

Where collaboration happens naturally in an office setting as employees pass each other in the hall, grab lunch, or carpool to happy hour, more effort is required to ensure individuals don’t become siloed and demotivated as they work from home. Research supports this idea, with Harvard Business Review (HBR) reporting a decrease in motivation when remote work is the only option available to employees

That said, some companies—Infosys, Siemens, Shopify, and Zillow—are seeing so much benefit from a remote-first workforce that they’re extending this practice indefinitely. So, is remote work good for productivity or bad? The answer is: It depends on how well your company helps employees stay motivated. 

Your best in-office employee could quickly become your worst through no fault of their own. Discover how you can adjust your management style to improve motivation and productivity outcomes across remote teams.    

Face Motivational Drivers and Roadblocks 

There’s no dearth of quick tips available to increase motivation, but before diving into the ‘how’, let’s first examine the ‘why’ by answering these questions: What affects motivation? What helps it increase? What demotivates? It’s easy to blame employees for failing to take agency of their productivity and attitude; however, there’s often more at play than meets the eye. 

According to HBR, there are six factors that affect employee motivation: three drivers and three detractors. Understanding these is essential to helping teams pull out of motivational ruts and move in a productive direction. Simply incentivizing behavior won’t necessarily drive the desired results if these underlying factors aren’t addressed. 

Before we can increase motivation, we must first understand its driving factors. What increases and hinders motivation? According to HBR, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia negatively impact motivation, while play, purpose, and potential increase motivation. 

We see evidence of emotional and economic pressure impacting employee engagement from this 2020 HBR survey, which examines datasets collected during COVID-19’s arrival to the United States and the widespread migration to remote work it sparked. The study illustrates rapid dips and record highs in employee engagement over the span of a few months. Work from home employee burnout is a common issue most organizations face—more so now than ever before as parents balance homeschooling alongside remote work.  

Practice Gratitude with Employee Recognition 

There’s plenty of research to support the connection between gratitude and resilience. In an office setting, it’s easy to thank a colleague in passing or celebrate accomplishments at a happy hour, etc. But how is this activity carried into the digital space? Emails aren’t going to cut it. As the number of emails increases, their impact lessens. 

‘Thanks’ should be personal and encouraged at the peer-to-peer level. More than just management callouts or awards, getting accolades from peers is important. Gratitude strengthens relational bonds and neuroplasticity. Instead of firing off another email or direct message, consider changing the format of your team meetings. 

It’s one thing to say: “Make gratitude a habit.” But what does that look like in a remote business setting? Thankfully, organizational leadership expert Simon Sinek shared a video of a recent team huddle to demonstrate what gratitude looks like in practice

After a brief grounding exercise, the first few minutes of each weekly meeting is dedicated to gratitude. Individuals can raise their hand and spend a set amount of time (1-2 minutes) expressing gratitude for exceptional efforts of another colleague and end with a virtual high-five. The two take-aways here are: (1) lead with gratitude and (2) time-box this activity to ensure there’s enough time left to discuss key business activities.  

Reframe Failure as a Learning Experience 

As organizations reshape policies with market conditions, failures are inevitable. With so much change happening at once, it’s unrealistic to expect flawless performance from the get-go. For this reason, it’s important to reframe shortcomings as learning experiences. This shift is an important predecessor to empowering experimentation, which can improve motivation, engagement, and job satisfaction among remote teams. 

Discover the Relationship Between Experimentation & Motivation 

There’s one activity HBR found across productive teams that boosts motivation by as much as 45 points. Experimentation returns the greatest motivation gains when 50% of each workweek is dedicated to meaningful problem-solving and experimentation. 

found when 50% of the workweek consists of experimentation and meaningful problem-solving motivation rises. Scientists creating a vaccine don’t expect to get it right on the first try. It’s a process—sometimes taking thousands of tests before a viable solution is found.  

Essentially, there are two types of performance: tactical and adaptive. Tactical performance measures how well employees adhere to the “proven” methods of doing things that your company teaches. Adaptive performance measures how well things go when employees diverge from the plan. In other words, if employees adapt and change the way things are done, does productivity and performance improve or decrease? When you micromanage employees you will get high compliance in tactical performance but miss out on the innovative gains that naturally occur with adaptive performance. Encouraging experimentation will strengthen your organization’s adaptive performance muscles. 

5 Ways to Add Experimentation to Remote Work 

Increasing experimentation among teams is a great goal, but to be successful you’ll need an implementation plan that includes benchmarking, dedication of time, and accountability. Here are five simple steps you can use to commit to motivation-improving experimentation and problem-solving activities:  

1. Measure Motivation & Productivity  

Before jumping directly into experimentation, measure current motivation and productivity first. Organizations often have productivity metrics in place, but engagement and motivation are less likely to be analyzed unless productivity drops or there’s a mass exodus. Instead of waiting for a crisis, consider adding ‘motivation’ to the activities you measure quarterly.  

For a simple survey template, you can adapt for your purposes and use with your team, check out Inc.’s Motivational Employee-Satisfaction Questionnaire. This gives you an easy way to get started quickly. You might also want to read Primed to PerformHow to Build the Highest Performing Cultures through the Science of Total Motivation by motivation researchers Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi.       

2. Discuss Results  

If employee results are especially high or low, it’s worth closer examination in a one-on-one setting. We know that emotional and economic disruptions negatively impact motivation. Before going gung-ho into an experimentation project, check in with employees to make sure they’re in the right place to move in that direction. These changes are significant and expecting them to take hold overnight could cause motivation to hemorrhage rather than grow.  

Tailor the transition to realistic timeframes based on your team’s current workload and productivity expectations. Instead of ‘adding one more thing’, find a way to transition to this new format at a pace that’s sustainable for your team. Introduce and practice experimentation and problem-solving starting in your weekly team meeting, and then as colleagues become more comfortable with this format, encourage its roll-out to other relevant areas.  

The key for managers is leading and demonstrating how to apply this mindset shift. Lead the change you want to see.  

3. Brainstorm Experiments  

Invite employees to participate in coming up with ideas of not only where to focus experimentation efforts, but also how to manage this transition. Including employees from the beginning helps give them a sense of ownership in the process, thereby increasing engagement and adoption rates—as well as helping new managers avoid repeating predecessors’ failures.       

4. Set Goals with (not for) Employees   

A recent Gallup study proves that employees are 3.6 times more likely to feel engaged when they’re included in goal setting. After problem-solving focus areas are set, it’s time to set some meaningful goals to drive the process forward. Don’t be afraid to focus on big problems. Some of the greatest profit-transforming ideas come from individual contributors, not the C-Suite.  

In fact, many tech companies see so much value in company-related passion projects that they dedicate time—a day per month or week per quarter—for employees to focus on solving the problem they’re most excited about. This format isn’t going to work for every employee. These programs work best when already high-performing employees opt in, but that’s a topic for another blog post.  

5. Review Results and Adapt Strategies    

Rolling out experimentation to teams is, unto itself, an experiment. As such, routinely review results and make the necessary adjustments to ensure both employees and the organization continue to benefit from the program. What works for one department or team, might not work for all. Lean on data and team feedback to refine processes and strategies. 

Empower Remote Teams to Thrive 

Motivation levels of remote employees without the option to work on-site is lower than that of employees with the option to go into an office. Amid COVID-19 pandemic mitigation, many employees don’t have the option of going into an office. Even so, many companies are reporting record-high productivity levels. How employees are supported clearly makes the difference between thriving and falling behind in remote working conditions. 

Beyond simply having talented employees and a good technical setup, research shows that practicing gratitude, reframing failures into learning experiences, and making meaningful problem-solving and experimentation a priority can improve employee motivation, engagement, and productivity outcomes.  

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