Why employee motivation drops when working from home and what you can do about it

The end is coming into view. Several COVID-19 vaccines have been approved and rollout of the vaccination programme is starting in earnest. But does that really mean we will all flood back into collaborative, physical workspaces? 

Perhaps WFH will remain the norm. Some would confidently say yes. But that is a hasty conclusion. As a recent report by Harvard Business Review highlighted, people need ‘play’, that is, the joy of problem-solving and decision-making with others in a room. It is just one of 3 key motivators the physical workspace has going for it. 

Just think about the Chief Executive of BioNTech, Ugur Sahin, one half of the husband-and-wife team responsible for the first effective COVID-19 vaccine to hit the headlines. Clad in jeans, with bike helmet in hand, Ugur attended lab meetings focused on BioNTech’s goal of creating anti-cancer drugs using the biological messenger molecule mRNA. Then one day in January he read about a virus in the Wuhan province of China and a seed was planted — could their mRNA approach be used to create viral vaccines?

Now, what do you think happened next? Do you think Ugur locked himself away in his office brainstorming on his own, weighing up the pros and cons of his novel idea? Or, do you think Ugur grabbed a few of his nearest colleagues in the lab to see if they thought his idea could work and how they could make it happen? 

Odds are he went into ‘play’ mode. Ideas rarely live in a vacuum. They grow and evolve as others feed into them. Play is often easily missed with teams working from home. But it is not the only ingredient easily left out.  

Play, purpose and potential

The recent Harvard Business Review report, ‘How to Keep Your Team Motivated, Remotely’, found that motivation levels clearly drop when people work from home. This was based on surveys of thousands of US workers across several years, pre-pandemic. Worse still, motivation when working from home dropped off even more sharply if employees had no choice in the matter, as has been the case this year. 

But this story is not all doom and gloom. The report goes on to highlight 3 key motivators that are taken for granted in physical workspaces but can work just as well with teams working from home, if you take the time to actively promote them: 

1. Play

We’ve already touched on the human desire to collaborate, to bounce ideas off each other and solve problems together. This can be done formally or spontaneously. With others there to instantly validate good ideas and breakdown ineffective ones, productivity gets a boost. 

2. Purpose

When you complete a task and get to see satisfied clients or colleagues, your role however small, holds greater meaning. It’s why when JFK asked a janitor at NASA what he was doing, the man replied “Well, Mr President, I’m helping put a man on the moon”. That’s purpose — seeing that you are all pulling together in the same direction to make an overarching goal become a reality. 

3. Potential

In a physical workspace, we can often take for granted the instant access we have to colleagues, coaches and mentors who teach us. Daily microlearning moments speed employees on the road to becoming highly productive members of the team. 

Getting WFH to actually work

When working from home, employees can often find themselves disconnected from people to ‘play’ with and nurture their potential. Without the bigger picture that is inherently seen, felt and understood with teams physically working alongside each other, tasks in isolation can begin to seem meaningless and of little impact. 

The solution is surprisingly simple — video conferencing and virtual workspaces. One offers formal, scheduled opportunities (e.g. Zoom) to ‘play’ and plug into the bigger picture. This reinforces purpose. Meanwhile, the other (e.g. Slack and Sococo) enable spontaneous interactions for those microlearning moments that steadily expand an employee’s potential. 

Looking forward

When you embrace the digital solutions out there, working from home can become a productive, profitable and positive experience. 

As to the future of working from home, it’s likely a hybrid model will take hold. Employees will return to their offices but will also be more open to the idea of working from home as and when convenient. 

Working from home was a growing trend long before the pandemic hit. It will continue to grow, not least with companies trying to reduce carbon footprints and cater to a more digitally connected generation. So, it’s time to get onboard with play, purpose and potential the digital way.