Virtual Drive – Motivating Employees You Never See…

How do you motivate someone you never physically come in contact with?  It is a question many business owners and leadership teams are asking themselves for the first time. Are you one of them?    

Virtual employees have been around decades, but no one could have predicted the global transformation we’ve have witnessed over the last few months.  In 1972 Jack Nilles, a NASA engineer, was credited as the first person to label this type of employee when he called it “telecommuting”.   Although it really started before that – the invention of the telephone had already initiated various degrees of working remotely for decades, especially with sales professionals.

What’s makes the current situation unique is that is has impacted nearly every business to some degree.   Employees may only live a few blocks from their place of employment, but they haven’t physically been to the business in months and though some have returned, for others it remains fluid at best. One of the concerns many employers are struggling with is how to motivate employees they never physically see? Shifting face-to-face meetings to screen-to-screen is practical for management teams, but it can be challenging with larger groups of employees.  

A great book on this subject of motivation is Daniel Pink’s Drive.   Pink researched a multitude of companies across a variety of industries to uncover what really motivates people. One of his biggest discoveries is that money is only a motivator up to a certain degree. As long as the employee is making a wage that is fair for the given industry, increasing salary does little to motivate them.  Instead, the three components that impacted employee motivation the most actually have nothing to do with money.

Three motivation components…

  1. Autonomy:  Some degree of freedom.
  2. Mastery:  Ability to perfect and “master” something
  3. Purpose:  Making a difference      

The challenge with these three components is that Drive was released over 10 years ago.  The question is, do they still hold up today? Certainly the companies Pink researched were not working under the pressures and constraints of a global pandemic and software like Zoom and Teams were still years away from being released.   Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

Autonomy:   The interpretation of this is where most companies get themselves in trouble.  Autonomy is not turning someone loose and expecting them to succeed. Autonomy is best achieved when clear expectations and guidelines are identified and then the employee is allowed to accomplish the task.  The companies that have a clear value system in place with clearly defined roles for each team member already had autonomy long before they asked their employees to start working from home.

Mastery:   Thanks to the advancement in virtual training this component has been able to thrive in the last few years.   Thanks to easy access of on-line learning tools you can learn to do just about anything today. It is no different in business.  Though there are some skills that require hands-on training to actually master,  there is almost no limit to the number of skills you can learn on-line.   Regardless of the role an employee has in a business there should be something you can help them master.

Purpose:  Of the three this one may be the most at risk, without in-person attention. Companies that used to hold regular company meetings face-to-face are now engaging virtually, or not at all.  Employees may be getting stuck in their own silos and the bigger picture is hard to see.   Pink’s research in Drive clearly shows that employees who feel like they are working on something more important than themselves work harder, are more productive, and more engaged.   Find ways to communicate purpose to your team members.  Send an internal newsletter, share success stories, keep your team connected and you will keep them motivated.

What do you think?   Have you been struggling with how to motivate your employees when you rarely see them?  How do you think you are doing?  Do you think Pink’s 3 components are as applicable today as they were 10 years ago?   As always, we would love to hear your thoughts. 

Chris Steinlage Kansas City Business Coach