January 21, 2021
The past year will go down in history as one of dramatic change. One of the most notable upheavals was the almost overnight transition to full-time remote working for millions of ‘non-essential’ employees. With England now in its third national lockdown, many of us will likely not be going back to our offices until April 2021, over a year since we left them. Even when people are able to return to our old workplaces, just 12 percent of employees want to do so full-time, according to Future Forum. This leaves no doubt that, when we are finally able to leave the pandemic behind us, hybrid working (partially from home and partially in the office) will remain.
This means, therefore, that we are facing long-term, structural change to the way work is conducted. It is a shift that will result in additional pressure on managers to keep their teams performing at their best.
So far, many managers have done a great job of figuring out how to manage their teams remotely. However, with the uncertainty of how long the third national lockdown will last and what the rules will be once it ends, decisions and behaviours formed in the ‘eye of the storm’ may not prove sustainable in the long term. Organisations need to put support in place now, to help managers continue to drive motivation and performance in a new context.
Keeping the team motivated
Research we conducted in autumn last year revealed that 44 percent of employees under 35 years old think that a lack of motivation has been hindering their performance at work since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. Managers cannot exactly “motivate” someone else; what they can do is create an environment where people motivate themselves.
Over the years, we have seen the role of the manager evolve from being quite directive and outcome-driven to something much more pastoral and collaborative. During the pandemic, this transition has become paramount with motivation and trust lying at the heart of the new relationship between the manager and direct report.
Motivation is complex and unique to every individual, but it has a huge impact on how employees feel and perform at work. At Lane4, we believe that there are four key components that drive intrinsic motivation (i.e. not material rewards or fear of punishment):
- Autonomy – a sense of being in control so that behaviour is self-determined
- Belonging – a sense of fitting in and security
- Competence – a feeling of mastery and accomplishment
- Meaning – a sense of understanding and purpose
All of these factors have been affected by the pandemic in various ways. The most obvious hit has been to our sense of belonging because we socialise much less and with fewer colleagues when working from home. The rapid shift to new and unfamiliar working practices, plus the high pressure of crisis response management, also affects the competence component. Remote working can also lead us to feel estranged from why our job matters, limiting our ability to connect the meaning of our work to our personal values.
Even autonomy, which might at first seem to have increased as people ‘just get on’ with tasks, may have been adversely affected. Without a trusting relationship with managers, the pressure to be constantly available and responsive – even late into the evening – could be forcing employees to forgo the main benefit of working from home: flexibility. Managers need to be able to tune into the unique circumstances of their people in order to understand what factors might be affecting their intrinsic motivation. But being able to do this is a skill that needs to be developed. Organisations should look for ways to help their managers do this.
This could include HR organising online lessons on mastering the art of remote managerial skills or a brainstorm session where managers share their top tips. It is also vital to remember that managers will also experience their own challenges and therefore need the support from their leaders too.
In the hybrid working world, trust is going to be the foundation of performance at an individual and an organisational level. In fact, over 85 percent of employees we surveyed agree that there is a positive impact on their performance if their manager trusts them. As a result of remote working, some managers may have felt a loss of control over what their team were doing, which can result in micromanagement tendencies. This is something that negatively impacts performance and motivation. In the new context in which we find ourselves, managers must find the balance between having a sense of control while still empowering their teams with trust and independence.
Employees are more likely to trust managers who are similar to themselves, so managers should aim to connect with staff on a personal level
High levels of trust are vital within a team, especially in the context of 2020 and the start of 2021. When employees feel the trust of their manager, they are more likely to be proactive, have increased focus on task output and are more optimistic. In turn, managers may provide more productive feedback, all of which contributes to greater team performance.
Similar to intrinsic motivation, trust has four psychological components: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-interest. The first three improve trust as they increase, and the latter damages it: someone could be great at what they do but if everyone knows it’s just a front to further their own agenda, trust will be low.
Employees are more likely to trust managers who are similar to themselves, and so, in a remote and hybrid working world, managers should aim to connect with staff on a personal level. Organisations could encourage managers to dedicate time at the start of their remote meetings to sharing some personal and professional highlights of the past week, for example. Similarly, private conversations go unnoticed (either with clients or within the business) and so it is the manager’s role to continuously remain transparent with their team and keep everyone in the loop of the bigger picture.
To improve trust long term, managers should create a culture of disclosure and feedback within their teams. When I work with struggling teams, one of the biggest barriers to trust is the suspicion that members aren’t honest with one another. Encourage your employees to discuss what is affecting their mood, and therefore performance. By making people feel more comfortable, they will share their motivational and developmental feedback. In turn, this will create a more open and intimate working environment where people will trust that their differences will be acknowledged and their voice will be heard.
Every business has faced challenges to performance during the pandemic, and will continue to do so as they work through the third national lockdown. It is important to ensure manager and direct report relationships remain strong, motivated and trusting. As such, organisations must prioritise support and training for managers to help them adapt to the difficult working environment the pandemic has brought with it. Failure to do so risks leaving employees confused and damaging performance in what is already a challenging environment.