Dealing with the burnout caused by remote work

Requiring remote work caused lower motivation and burnout

As companies began to shift their workers to work from home at scale, we published an article in the Harvard Business Review that shared our research on the motivation levels of remote workers.

The short story was that our research shows that as people are forced to work remotely, their motivation levels will drop considerably. Lower motivation will ultimately lead to burnout. As you can see from the chart below, some of the drop in motivation came from working from home, but the vast majority of the drop came from the lack of agency — feeling like you had no choice in the matter.

Unfortunately, this prediction has played itself out, leaving companies around the world scrambling on what to do to improve motivation. One large tech company calls it their war against burnout and attrition.

WORK ANYWHERE IS HERE TO STAY

To demonstrate how easy it is to work from anywhere, Citrix, the networking, virtualization, and security experts, were gracious enough to loan me their recreational vehicle as a mobile worksite. I wanted to personally experience the joys and pains of working as remote (and as secluded) as possible.

With the Citrix RV and my pandemic coif

There are a number of reasons why remote work will be with us for the foreseeable future.

  • Prior to the pandemic, 63% of companies had remote workers already.
  • In a survey of 2000 knowledge workers, Citrix found that 25% relocated or planned to outside of the city. Among those, 37% said their job is now 100% remote and will be permanently. 25% said they only need to go the office once per week.
  • As the workforce shifts to greater expert-based work, companies will increasingly be comfortable with hiring people without relocating them.
  • Globalization is resulting in even young companies forming presences around the world. Once a company goes from one office to many, the step to supporting remote work is just a baby step.
  • As Citrix demonstrated to me with their wifi-enabled RV, the state of connectivity and technology supports knowledge work anywhere. Having spent the day in two problem-solving meetings with my colleagues, two video-conference-based coaching with executives, and getting into more focused work, there was no aspect of knowledge work that I couldn’t do fairly easily. Even internet connectivity was more than adequate.
  • For the foreseeable future, companies will need a resiliency plan against pandemics that allows people to be productive at work.

If we’re going to be in a world with hybrid-location work for the foreseeable future, how do we solve for motivation and performance?

WHAT IS MOTIVATION

The core of our research is on the science of human performance at scale. We can boil it all down to three questions with three answers. 1. What is performance, 2. What drives performance, and 3. What scales performance.

What is performance?

Organizations who seek to scale and grow have to realize there are two types of performance. The first is tactical performance, which is about getting people to converge or stick to their plan. The second is adaptive performance, which is about getting people to diverge or not stick to their plan. These two are definitional opposites — which makes it hard to drive performance, especially with hybrid-remote work.

What drives performance?

Quite obviously, motivation drives performance. The more motivated someone is, the better their performance. What’s not obvious is what motivation really is. There’s a fundamental difference between motivation and coercion that few leaders understand.

To understand what motivation is, you have to start by understanding what motives are. A motive is a reason why you do something. Think about it — every human action is first driven by a motive, a reason. But few people stop to think about those reasons.

There are six human motives:

The direct motives — inspiring performance

1. Play — you do an activity simply because you enjoy doing that activity. As you can see from the chart above, play is about the work itself. Play is the manifestation of curiosity, novelty, and experimentation. Think about it in your personal life. When you’re bored, you seek novelty. Play at work is not about ping pong tables and tequila shots. Play is about the work itself being inherently interesting. Put differently, if you want people to be engaged in their work, make their work engaging. The opposite of play is boredom.

2. Purpose — you do an activity because you value the immediate outcome of that activity. Purpose, as you can see from the chart above, straddles the line between the work and your identity. To be clear, purpose is not about big mission statements. Purpose is about you believing that the immediate outcome of your work matters. The opposite of purpose is fungibility.

3. Potential — you do an activity because you value some eventual outcome of that activity. Potential is much further from the work than play and purpose. Potential may come from the big mission statement, or it may come from the work furthering your personal growth. The opposite of potential is stagnation.

The indirect motives — coercing performance

1. Emotional pressure — When an external force acts on your identity to get you do do something. In the chart above, this is why the motive straddles the line between the external force and your identity. Guilt, peer pressure, trying to show up well to your bosses, are all forms of emotional pressure. The opposite of emotional pressure is psychological safety.

2. Economic pressure — When you do something to gain a reward or avoid a punishment. This is now all about the external force. The opposite of economic pressure is security.

3. Inertia — When you no longer have a motive, but are still doing the action. You’re doing it just because you’re doing it.

As we study performance through the lens of these motives, there are three simple conclusions:

  • Any set of motives can be used to create tactical performance. It’s relatively simple to get people to converge.
  • However, the direct motives increase adaptive performance, while the indirect motives destroy it. When people are inspired, they do their best work. When people are coerced, they check the box (or worse).
  • The closer the motive is to the work, the more powerful. Play is the most powerful motive. Inertia is the most destructive.

What scales performance?

Most of the work we do at Vega is about helping organizations scale high performance. The answer to what scales performance turns out to be quite simple — it is is building a highly motivating “operating model”, which we treat as synonymous with “culture”.

To understand why — consider this simple thought experiment. You and I decide to start a company. We hire ten people who are now just standing around the conference room, waiting to be told what to do. To get them to take action, we put into place various structures, systems, and processes. For example:

  • We define our mission
  • We define their roles and structure their teams a certain way
  • We give them goals and metrics
  • We put them into performance rhythms
  • We coach them
  • We pay them a certain way

However, remember, all human action is preceded by motive first. So all these structures, systems, and processes we implement to create action create motives first. Therefore, whether or not you realize it, your operating model, which encompasses all those structures, systems, and processes, is your motive machine. It is the machine that creates motives in your organization.

Unfortunately most organization’s machines are not built to create play, purpose, and potential. They are built to create emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia.

MOTIVATION MISCONCEPTIONS THAT HARM REMOTE WORKERS

As you see performance through the lens of human motivation, there are a number of critical misconceptions organizations need to understand if they are to solve for remote work.

Too many companies are missing the point of autonomy.

If you ask the average leader what “autonomy” means, you’ll get an answer like, “leaving my people alone,” or “giving my people a lot of freedom.” For the sake of motivation, these definitions are not only inaccurate, but are motivationally destroying. These definitions have led to a generation of “hands-off” leaders who only swoop in where there’s a problem. The issues with hands-off leaders include:

  • They signal with their disengagement that the work doesn’t matter (less purpose and less potential).
  • They don’t help colleagues find the curiosity and novelty in their work (less play).
  • They don’t take steps to help colleagues deal with the sources of emotional and economic pressure in their work.

Generally, hands-off leaders have the second-lowest motivational outcomes we’ve seen.

Instead, consider this alternative definition of autonomy from Wikipedia: Autonomy is the capacity to make an informed, uncoerced decision. Do your colleagues have real decisions to make? Are they uncoerced, in other words, are they free of indirect motives? Are they informed? Are they being developed so they have the capacity to succeed?

Many organizations have not invested in teaching their leaders how to inspire and create true autonomy. Instead, their strategy for autonomy was the natural osmosis and eavesdropping that happens in an office environment. In a hybrid work environment, leaders need to be more intentional to create the kind of autonomy that increases motivation.

Too many companies are missing the point of psychological safety.

What is psychological safety? It is the opposite of psychological danger — that which destroys autonomy. In other words, “coercion” or more technically, the application of indirect motives to compel action.

What most organizations are getting wrong is they are blaming leaders for creating psychological danger (ironically reducing the psychological safety of their leaders). While this is true some of the time, the more common reality is that the performance systems of the organization worsen psychological safety. For example, here are just some of the ways that organizational systems harm psychological safety by creating emotional pressure and economic pressure:

  • Systems that hold people accountable for actions that they cannot control
  • Systems that use shame and blame tactics (e.g., high-pressure pipeline reviews)
  • Systems that rate employees or worse still, rate them against each other
  • Systems that are based on how much leaders like you, or how well you show up in meetings
  • Systems of micro-management where colleagues feel like they have no choices to make

With hybrid-remote work, these systems will exacerbate emotional and economic pressure. Not only will colleagues feel like they don’t personally know their teams and leaders, but colleagues will increasingly lose the context and learning that came from organizational eavesdropping.

HOW CAN WE BETTER SUPPORT REMOTE WORK

There are a handful of specific behaviors that significantly improve remote work:

Have some casual time with your team.

This doesn’t have to be after work hours, but having time with your team to just hang out and remember that we’re all human fills an important gap. In our organization, teams have a Friday “reflection” hour, where they just share stories or ideas, or really whatever. We do this during the workday, to avoid creating pressure to take time away from colleague’s other priorities.

Do a team health check every six weeks.

To make sure our colleagues are still motivated for the right reasons (inspired, not coerced), we have our teams each do a health check roughly every six weeks. The goal of the health check is to give the teams some insight and a nudge on whether or not they are motivating each other in the right way.

Teams must own their own health checks for some important reasons. First, how can we create total motivation, if the measurement tool itself didn’t feel like it was owned by the individual contributors? Second, play and purpose are local phenomenon, not global ones. A CEO would have a hard time creating play and purpose, because they have to be close to (or within) each person’s work.

A good team health check must:

  • Must be owned by teams (not the whole org)
  • Should measure total motivation, forward looking, not backward
  • Must trigger ownership, autonomy, and citizenship
  • Must not encourage complaining but instead encourage prioritization, ideation, and action
  • Must make it easy to take action locally

The health checks we use solve for all these needs. Have your teams give it a try.

Give every colleague a problem to solve, always.

To build an operating model that solves for inspiration, not coercion, don’t focus on the metric or OKR. Instead, focus on the problems to be solved at every level. The motion here is simple:

1. Every week, every team clarifies the problems to be solved the next week. Individuals own those problems, and share their own ideas and approaches on how to solve them. Any colleague can help with any problem, or pair up.

2. This set of problems for the week should be made transparent, to facilitate coaching.

3. Leaders and executives focus on fast cycle coaching to help individuals solve these problems. Coaching often takes the form of providing more context, new ideas, or connections to other parts of the organization.

4. Every week, the team works together (and often cross-functionally) to take ground on the problems to be solved.

This simple motion to manage growth through problem-solving can be very easily managed and measured in organizations.

Make apprenticeship a critical organizational capability.

Apprenticeship helps people gain the capability to feel play, purpose, and potential, while also avoiding emotional pressure and economic pressure. But few companies focus on real apprenticeship. Instead many organizations focus on classroom training, e-learning, tactical learning, and career mentorship. None of those are true apprenticeship, which is much more about on-the-job learning through experimentation and advice by the members and leaders of a team.

Organizations should implement a remote-friendly approach to apprenticeship that involves formal learning goals, easy-to-offer skill-based advice attached to work product, focus on adaptive skills, and real coaching of leaders to keep the system going.

Eliminate the high-pressure control systems.

Here’s the hard lever. Get rid of employee ratings, rankings, 9-boxes, hierarchical titles, and paybands. Instead implement algorithmic compensation and impact-based or role-based titles. The highly subjective and inefficient ratings-based talent system of the past is not compatible with the future of work:

  • Cross-functional, fast forming teams
  • People on multiple teams
  • Expert-focused (versus creating more generalists or leaders)
  • Remote workers
  • Diverse workforce

Instead, there are now pay systems that solve for all these dynamics, however, they do require real organization change. I could write another book about these kinds of pay systems, so unfortunately, I won’t go deep right now. If you want to learn more, a good place to start is our book, the bestseller, Primed to Perform.

Now is the time

If your top 5 organizational objectives for 2021 don’t include taking a big step toward the future of work, you’re leaving opportunity on the table. Too much is changing in how people work right now for organizations to stay with the status quo.

Neel is the co-author of Primed to Perform and co-founder of Vega Factor.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store