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How do you motivate a remote team?

As it turns out, we already know a lot more about remote working than we may be immediately aware of. There are historical parallels between the artisanal economies and the post-pandemic world of work that are hard to miss. With all their differences in purpose, technology, and execution, we are witnessing a historic return towards a world of semi-autonomous employees working remotely but in sync with their “employers” representing the modern-day guilds. The historical analogy is not only “interesting” but also helpful in our thinking and planning for the next world of work yet to come. There are at least five fundamental principles that address the remote working needs:

  1. The need for a personalized professional support. It is easy to become "invisible" from career development perspective when working remotely. Analogous to apprenticeships, career discussions and development have to be a part of ongoing conversations with the supervisor. Furthermore, we need to augment these conversations with focused coaching. We've learned over the past two years that at a time when most managers and co-workers were distant and unavailable, organizations tapped into online coaching services to fill the gap. These services blended behavioral science, the latest AI technology, and personal human interaction in any place and at any time - a compelling proposition for widely spread-out remote workers.

  2. The need for trust and autonomy. Working remotely requires a different management style relying on setting goals and expectations and providing the necessary support and coaching. Micro-management, and especially constant monitoring (whether by humans or surveillance tools) will back-fire and accelerate the disengagement, burnout and eventual resignation of best talent.

  3. The need to belong: Care and attention are to be given to distributed teams since their collaboration requires a more deliberate design and orchestration. While collaboration is key to enabling distributed teams, it also helps form shared team identity, create interpersonal bonds and long-lasting relationships

  4. The need for focused work. Best classical example is the fable from the history of science where Isaac Newton benefited from the autonomy of working from home during the outbreak of the 1665 bubonic plague and arrived at the scientific breakthroughs and his discoveries of the theories of gravity, calculus, and optics. Modern work environment with constant interruptions, solidly booked calendar with meetings and no time to barely eat lunch, not even take breaks or have time to process all the information are causing havoc to our ability to focus, elevating stress levels, and accelerating the burnout.

  5. Need for flexibility: With the pandemic at their doorstep, the sprawling early 21st-century corporate campuses overnight transformed themselves into virtual cyber communities of remote workers. The pandemic forced employers to relax legacy cultures of control and allow for flexible and remote working for full-time employees. After two years of distributed work, during which workers settled into new work habits, set-up their home work environments, or perhaps even relocated to a different state with a better quality of life, it will be nearly impossible to force workers to "return to the old normal" whether that requires physical presence in the office, strict hours, or rigidity in accommodations.

If we were to use one word to summarize the complexity of needed changes - we would choose the word "experience." The ultimate aim is to create a seamless work environment - whether that is the company headquarters, home office, or a beach on a remote island – every worker's experience has to be equitable and frictionless. To accomplish these objectives, we call for the use of human centric design practices, empathy for workers’ diverse circumstances and an understanding of their motivations and barriers in adapting the internal practices, systems and norms. Every company’s decision to go hybrid requires learning from their own experiences with remote working and choosing the appropriate flexible operating model. These models will not be effective without deliberate investment in more inclusive workplace practices supported by user-friendly collaborative technologies.

A great example of how to do this is shared in our upcoming book Humans at Work. "Microsoft research tracked the company’s remote workers from the start of the pandemic. It revealed the “unbearable inequity” of experiences among those working from home. It turns out that the isolation of the pandemic taxed the younger generation heavily, while the more senior, more established, more affluent, and better-connected cohorts embraced the autonomy and mostly “thrived.” Judging from the abundance of “working from home” reports, surveys, and informal data, it became clear that the key differentiator of employee experience for the most part was not the technology or daily convenience. What tipped the scale was the very human, often “soft” and “intangible” factors such as the quality and depth of the existing workplace and personal connections, the quality of employees’ living situations, and workers’ ability to maintain a work-life balance.”

Authors: Stela Lupushor and Anna Tavis, PhD

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