The massive shift to remote work has caused a lot of whiplash in terms of lifestyle changes, work-life balance and general thoughts about work. Remote work can seem like both a blessing and a curse at times. There’s no more energy-zapping commute, and more time to spend at home with the family.
On the other hand, without being in the physical office space, surrounded by colleagues and reminders that you are “at work”, it can be hard to stay on task. Plus, there is the alienation that you can feel while working for long hours online without interacting with people in real life. All this can lead to a drop in motivation over the long run.
With remote and hybrid models for teams becoming more and more common and normalized, we thought it would be good to discuss some of the issues around staying motivated and remote work. At Invite Japan we switched to working completely remote quite early in the pandemic, so we have experienced a lot of these same issues firsthand.
Being motivated vs. being productive–what’s going?
While doing research for this post, I came across something interesting. According to a PWC survey, most remote workers feel that they have become more productive since switching to remote work. On the other hand, research conducted by Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi between 2010 and 2015 shows that over the long-run, motivation can decline more in remote workers than in office workers.
What’s going on here? Why is there an apparent gap between motivation and productivity? First, it’s important to note that there is a lot of different and conflicting data about motivation and productivity. There certainly hasn’t been enough time to measure what’s been going on recently in a completely accurate way.
A lot of the data on productivity comes from early on in the pandemic. The people most likely to have switched to remote work back then were those for whom it was easier to work from home due to technology, skills, or the nature of the work–think tech workers and writers/journalists. These types of jobs were already primed to be more productive remotely from the beginning.
There may also have been a surge of productivity as people initially switched to remote work and felt like they were doing something new and exciting. We certainly felt it too. We know that this initial excitement dropped at some point, but the question we need more data on is if the trend moves downward over time, in which case productivity and motivation are moving together.
However, I think that really both of these trends are correct–that remote work can cause increased productivity and lack of motivation.
What does it mean to be motivated?
Productivity is somewhat easy to define and measure because it is mostly based on results and action–it’s about how much you get done. Motivation is more tricky. It’s based on emotions and is highly subjective–only you know when you are really motivated to do something.
It’s also hard to define. Only you know when you are motivated, and it seems like one of those things where you know it when you see it. That being said, let’s say that motivation is the sense you get when you really want to do something and you want to do it well.
Defining motivation as a sense or feeling doesn’t undermine its power or make it less worthy of attention. But it does mean that there’s no one way to deal with a lack of motivation–it may come in waves or stay around for a while.
But I think this might explain why motivation among remote workers is declining despite increasing productivity–it’s a subjective assessment, not a factual one. This means that it may be influenced by things like general anxiety about the pandemic, our financial situations, and our social connectedness, regardless of how productive we are at work.
Which is all to say that it’s not hard to imagine that many of us remote workers are finding that we can actually get a lot done from home on our own, without other people, noises or drama to distract us. It’s easy to get into a routine and consistently produce work. What may be missing though (and maybe not even all the time), is that extra, hard-to-describe feeling of motivation that pushes us to go beyond.
How does remote work influence motivation?
It’s clear that motivation is influenced by a lot of factors, many of which may not be work-related. However, there may be particular aspects of work that are being affected or dampened by remote work, and which may lead directly to lower motivation at work.
In the same Harvard Business Review article from above where they described their research, McGregor and Doshi identified three “motivators” that were negatively impacted by remote work:
•Play–this is the “joy” you get from work, maybe from problem-solving with other people. I would also say that it’s the joy you get from just chatting with colleagues and interacting with them casually. Obviously, with remote work these opportunities for interaction are less likely.
•Purpose–this is how you visibly impact your company and the feedback you get about your work. Again, with remote work, there is less ability to see your impact on the final product or end stage of the project up-close an in-person.
•Potential–this is about how you view future opportunities at your company and your continuing development and training. What’s changed with remote work is that many don’t feel like they have the same access to mentoring and chances to advance into other areas of their company. This can have the effect of making many remote workers feel “stuck in place” in their current jobs.
The main throughline in all the above is that remote work leads to lower motivation by specifically affecting people’s relationships at work.
Motivation, especially at work, is really intricately connected to our relationships and how we relate to others. We get a lot of our sense of self-worth from our jobs and positions, and we define ourselves in many ways by what we do. We carefully craft reputations and statuses that are linked to who we are at work and how our colleagues view us and respect us (or look down on us).
With remote work, we’ve lost many of those social ways of relating to our jobs through others, and the validation that comes with it–there are just not as many ways of getting it from coworkers, bosses, or even clients while working remotely. So it’s no wonder that many of us feel less motivated.
Of course, our self-validation doesn’t only come from other people at work. We have our own sense of self-worth, and our own conceptions of our work ethic and what we can achieve. This is based on our past experiences and what we’ve achieved, as well as our relationships outside of work. So even though many of the motivators that we gain from our social relationships at work are constrained while working remotely, it doesn’t mean the end of motivation.
Once we are aware that we may be feeling a lack of motivation, we have the agency to change the situation and reconstruct how we are working and living in order to make ourselves more motivated–or rather, to make ourselves more open to becoming motivated. We can also use the motivators above as a guide to figure out where our lack of motivation is coming from. It isn’t impossible to regain those beneficial social motivators, it just takes a little more effort.
I think a lot of how we work remotely now is based on the habits that we formed when we first switched early in the pandemic. So we often don’t think about revising those habits and seeing how we can improve them, or how we can think about remote work differently.
With that in mind, here is a list of some ways of thinking or re-thinking about remote work and your own motivation.
1. Try to see the potential for new opportunities
Remote work can be a really good opportunity to rethink how you work and to learn how to “manage yourself” which can transform your life. And while it’s harder to get training from other team members, there are countless ways to gain new skills while working from home.
2. Understand that motivation fluctuates
It can be really hard when you hit a low point in terms of motivation, but like other feelings, it doesn’t last forever. You can use that low motivation to search for reasons why it’s happening (it’s not always about work), which may allow you to grow stronger and overcome it.
3. Take it one day at a time
While working remotely, it can often feel like the same day is being repeated over and over, or that the days mesh together into some kind of time-mush. Try to treat each new day as something special and unique, both professionally and personally, and try to face each day with a fresh feeling, even if you were feeling down the day before.
4. Reach out
Remote work can be lonely, and we can actually end up normalizing this loneliness so that we don’t want to communicate as much as before. Force yourself to reach out to coworkers as much as possible, and communicate with people around you and your support system as often as possible. If you can, talk to managers and superiors about finding more opportunities and ways of doing new things.
5. And know that you are not alone
Because remote workers are all alone, we can often feel like we’re in our own little bubble–just us against the world. But it’s important to recognize that everyone is going through similar things right now. All our anxieties and fears are not just unique to us–and that at least can give us all some comfort.
This is the first part in what will hopefully become a series on motivation and how to stay motivated while working remotely. In future installments, we’ll talk more about practical steps to raise your motivation and advice for managers and team leaders on how to increase motivation in their remote teams. In the meantime, check out Invite Japan’s services page for great team building programs for remote and hybrid teams!