As the pandemic begins to wind down (or at least normalize), many businesses are struggling with the question of what to do about the many employees they sent to work from home.
Many businesses want their employees back in the office so that they can focus on company culture, encourage new and creative connections, and, let’s face it, keep an eye on their employees and make sure they are doing what they are supposed to be doing.
Meanwhile, most employees, having had a taste of working from home, don’t want to give it up. While some people would be happy to return to the office part-time, they don’t see the need to be there every day. Many others want to continue working 100 percent remotely.
The result is that businesses now need to develop remote working policies that will satisfy both their employees and their business needs.
Trends in Remote Working Policies
Most businesses seem to be taking a hybrid approach when it comes to where talent can work.
For example, while Google is allowing some workers to continue in a fully remote capacity, they have announced that the majority will be expected to return to the office for around three days a week. The company sees these “contact days” as essential for business and will be earmarked for meetings, collaborations, engaging with clients, and building communities.
Microsoft is similarly taking a hybrid approach and giving workers the flexibility to establish what works for them in collaboration with their managers. But again, some facetime is expected from most workers, and they were given a 30-day window to close their negotiations.
To most people accustomed to the pre-pandemic ways of working, these policies probably seem quite generous and reasonable. But they might actually be missing an important opportunity to motivate teams and get the best out of them.
The approach of Gravity CEO Dan Price has been hailed as highly forward-thinking. He consulted employees to try and see what exactly they wanted. The internal survey found that only 7 percent of employees preferred to work from the office and that 31 percent wanted an office/home hybrid solution. However, perhaps surprisingly, 62 percent of Drive staff said that they would prefer to work completely remotely.
To Price’s credit, he listened to his staff and announced a (significantly abbreviated) version of his new working policy for Gravity on Twitter:
“Do whatever you want. As a CEO, what do I care? If you get your work done, that’s all that matters.”
This has been hailed as a highly emotionally intelligent way to deal with the modern challenges of where employees work. But more than that, it may tap into modern ideas of motivation, resulting in better results for the company.
There has been significant research into motivation in recent years as it has become apparent that the old idea of carrot and stick, or just paying employees more and more, doesn’t seem to get the results that companies are looking for in the modern work economy. It has become apparent that while fair compensation is important, it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what it takes to get the most out of your talent.
One of the most concise summaries of our new understanding of motivation is given by Daniel Pink in his book Drive. He refers to it as motivation 3.0 because it is the next evolution of motivation after primitive survival (1.0) and a reward and punishment approach, also known as carrot and stick (2.0).
Pink shows that, of course, compensation matters. People need to receive a decent salary, and it also needs to be perceived as fair both within their individual workplace and within their sector as a whole. Once these conditions are met, for most people, throwing more money at the problem will have minimal effect.
Need further evidence? Read this article on how Semco CEO Ricardo Semler let his employees set their own wages, and no, everyone didn’t just set themselves ridiculously high salaries.
Beyond a decent salary, what people need to feel motivated in their world is autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
We are going to come back to autonomy in a minute.
Pink refers to mastery as the desire to improve. People with this desire don’t tend to see limits on what they are capable of doing and achieving, and they are less likely to be overly restrictive on what they are willing to take on.
Purpose means understanding how one’s own contribution fits into the bigger picture and why it is important. This is probably the best understood of the three elements of motivation 3.0. For years, people have been talking about JFK’s visit to NASA.
The story goes that during a visit to the NASA, JFK introduced himself to a janitor and asked him what he was doing. The janitor responded that he was helping to put a man on the moon.
For what we are discussing now, autonomy is the most important of the three elements of motivation 3.0. Research finds that people work better when they are free to direct themselves. This means making their own decisions rather than following a strict rulebook for where to be when and how to achieve their goals.
Where do employees prioritize autonomy most in the workplace? The most important things that they want to decide for themselves is where and when they work, but it is also important that they can define who they work with, how they go about achieving those goals, and play a central role in setting goals and how they will be measured.
These priorities and desires reflect our need to direct our own life and work. People tend to feel more motivated when they are making the decisions, rather than following a strict rulebook about where to be when, and how to achieve their goals.
Most of the remote work policies that are being developed now are looking to deal with the first of these issues, where staff work. Considering the important connection between autonomy in this decision and motivation, letting employees work where they want is important. Also, it is likely that a policy like Drive’s that lets employees “do what they want” will probably result in much the same employee distribution as a more structured hybrid working policy. But Drive’s policy will leave employees feeling more autonomous, and therefore more motivated.
Companies that want to encourage employees to return to the office should think about establishing principles rather than policies. Rather than mandating that staff spend a minimum number of days in the office, establish policies that value both remote working and present contact to encourage employees to choose to spend some of their time in the office.
The Next Step for Remote Work Policies
But really, smart businesses might take the opportunity offered by the need to develop remote working policies to develop other policies that enhance workplace autonomy.
The most obvious next step would be to create new guidelines for when employees work. Removing general office hours and replacing them with established hours for meetings and reasonable expectations for response times to communications could give employees significant autonomy over their work schedule.
This would move contracts from focusing on established working hours (40 hours a week during designated office hours) to focus on deliverables. This would make regular goal-setting an essential task and give companies the opportunity to create more autonomy and consultation in this area as well.
Levels of Autonomy
The Harvard Business Review has defined five levels of autonomy and flexibility in the workplace.
- Level One: Low-Low: this is when people have minimal autonomy and flexibility since they are required to be in a specific place at specific times for all of their work.
- Level Two: Low-Medium:this probably reflects the situation more common pre-pandemic when staff could request to work some days from an alternative location, but the specific “work from home” days had to be approved by managers.
- Level Three: Medium-Medium: this most closely reflects the hybrid model that many businesses are trying to implement post-pandemic. While companies are letting workers set their own work locations and schedules, there are rules for the minimum number of days that they need to show their face in the office.
- Level Four: Medium-High: this reflects the situation for most people during the pandemic when workers were required to work remotely and did not have options for onsite working.
- Level Five: High-High:this is the ultimate goal that most of us would like, they we can work wherever and whenever we want as long as the work gets done. But this requires having support and infrastructure to work remotely, but also the ability to work in the office if so desired.
Prior to the pandemic, most companies functioned comfortably in the first three categories, while the pandemic pushed us into number 4. Post-pandemic, rather than trying to return to 1, 2, or 3, companies should be pushing toward number 5 and offering staff high autonomy and high flexibility.
Digital nomads are at the forefront of the industry when it comes to this type of working, and businesses can learn a lot about the best approaches from the practices of the nomad community.
The result could be more motivated staff, and policies that allow them to attract a wider range of talent, including from the digital nomad community.