New Study Reveals Critical Factor for Motivating Employees

Managers are increasingly supervising employees with whom they seldom have face-to-face interactions. Unfortunately, employees who work remotely 100% of the time are among the least engaged.

Gallup has recently released a study looking at engagement levels of remote workers. The study found some fascinating, and unexpected results. Gallup measures engagement using their Q12 modela list of twelve questions that their research has determined has the largest impact on what is commonly defined as Employee Engagement. For the sake of this post, I’m going to define Employee Engagement as “how much does the employee want to be doing the work that they are required to do.”

With a highly engaged employee, they are excited and energized by the work that is required of them.  They are more creative, they are more focused, and they are more likely to find opportunities for innovation (such as ways to save money, be more efficient, or find novel solution) within the tasks they are doing. With a disengaged employee, they are going to avoid effort, not be constructive, and generally not contribute in a meaningful way. Most people, in most workplaces operate in the middle, where they do enough work to get by, but Friday afternoon is the happiest time of the week.

As managers we want our employees to be engaged. Beyond the benefits listed above, engaged employees will raise the energy levels in the office, be more invested in the culture of the company, be less inclined to leave the company, and are just more fun to be around. Engaged employees will be more interested in investing in themselves, taking time to read up on emerging technology and taking courses that will further their career development, and they will do this for fun. It’s the difference between people working at Google, compared to people working alongside Dilbert (I’m hesitant to single out any one company, but I know many people who’ve worked for many large corporations who all say that Scott Adams gives a very accurate portrayal of office life).

Looking at Gallup’s research over the years, there has been a perceived importance on the factors of; having a clear job description, feeling like you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day, and having the right tools and resources to do your job. From an intuitive standpoint, if you don’t have a clear expectation for what your job is, you don’t have the tools to do that, and you feel that you are wasting your talents, it certainly stands to reason that you will feel disengaged in the office. But, what this study suggests is that even while the remote workers show a statistically significant increase in these three important factors, remote workers have a demonstrably lower level of engagement.

So, while they look better off then local workers, what is causing them to feel disengaged?

The two factors that are noticeably lower in remote workers are that they do not feel they get meaningful feedback from their co-workers, and that they don’t have conversations with their management about achieving their goals.

Gallup in their interpretation of this data suggest that:

Fully remote workers may have a foundation for success, but managers must make a continuous effort to motivate the performance of employees they never see.

It’s not as easy for managers to stop these employees in the hallway to see how their days are going, give feedback or ask how they are progressing on projects. Without this constant contact, managers are faltering on providing fundamental development opportunities — and perhaps increasing the risk that their fully remote employees will leave for better opportunities with other companies.

But if managers begin to intentionally grow their relationships with these employees, they might find themselves with a powerful group of high performers.

Positive Psychology might have a better answer as to what is causing these remote workers to feel disengaged. Looking at Martin Seligman’s 5 Elements necessary for people to Flourish (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning & achievement), it’s clear that remote workers are feeling an absence of relationships. I also wonder how well managers are also supporting the ability for their employees to feel positive emotions, build relationships over the distance, experience meaning in their work, and feel a sense of achievement. These other factors are often not considered even with people in the office, but they can be experienced incidentally through friendships that naturally occur in the office. What might happen if they were all measured, for both remote workers and local workers?

There are a lot of things I would love to further understand about how this study was performed, such as: when people say that “they have the opportunity to do what they do best”, do they consider that work enjoyable? I certainly remember a time when I was doing tasks that I would have rated high on the “work I do best question”, but I also hated because of how repetitive they were and that the effort didn’t have any impact on decision making.

The other factor that should be explored is: how safe do remote workers feel about their position? I know of one software company that would ramp up and ramp down staff by hiring remote people to write software on contract, making it easy to lay them off later when things got tight. If people don’t feel like their role is safe and secure within the company, I’m sure that will also lower their sense of engagement (because they don’t feel a sense of meaning out of their work if they are able to be laid off at any moment). Remote workers are likely to feel the most exposed at times when the company is considering lay-offs.

If nothing else, this study suggests that Relationships are more important than “the tasks” that an employee is required to do. For a fully engaged workforce, ideally both are balanced, where Relationships are nurtured, and the tasks performed by employees are relevant and meaningful to their strengths.  And, as a manager, Relationships are something that you can take action to develop. You can commit to finding ways to connect with your employees at a meaningful level, making them feel like an important part of the team.

What do you think keeps you more engaged, the work you do on a daily basis, or the relationships you have with your colleagues and manager? Comment below and let me know your experience with this.

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