Applying the Science of Motivation to Improve Mobile Work

ITA Group
ITA Group

Change is here. And likely here to stay. The COVID-19 pandemic is altering nearly every aspect of how we live, play, learn and work—and long-term impacts are inevitable. Predictions and research are already being circulated about enduring changes to working environments. A recent survey by Gartner indicates that 74% of companies surveyed plan to permanently shift to more mobile environments post-COVID-19. With such a swift move to remote work and an outlook for greater mobile work in the future, it is more important than ever to tap into what we know about human behavior and the science of motivation to maintain a workforce that is happy, connected and productive no matter where they are working from.

The good news is that what we’ve already learned about human behavior and work habits doesn’t need to be thrown out the window. The most foundational aspects of human needs and motivators can be leveraged in times of crisis and built upon with more modern strategies as we move through and past the thick of change.

Motivation Starts With Needs & Sustains With Chemistry

Remember Abraham Maslow from Psychology 101? His 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” (better recalled as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) pointed to a hierarchy of needs that starts with physical and security needs—food, shelter and protection from harm. With our current climate of uncertainty, many people may feel their basic human needs are threatened—making those needs priority one. Also at work in this situation is brain chemical activity that alters our motivation. The fear and stress caused by crisis releases cortisol that sends people into a protective state. This cortisol inhibits the chemical, dopamine, which is what creates a want or desire for a reward experience. Without dopamine, a lack of motivation is sure to arise.

Fulfilling the most basic needs and overcoming motivation-draining brain chemistry can start simply with communication. Communication from leadership and individual connection with managers and supervisors is key during crisis to help employees and channel partners feel more secure and informed about the company and their position. Knowing the value they bring and the direction of the company as a whole enables a stronger sense of security and further motivates employees to bring their best to work. Many companies are implementing virtual all-hands calls with employees to hear updates straight from executives. Regular touch-bases with management add to those larger messages with individualized content and general well-being checks, ensuring employees maintain connection with the mission.

Approaching the new work arrangement with additional flexibility will also appeal to employees who are currently more motivated to fulfill their basic needs. Flexible scheduling options rose to become highly favored benefits for employees even prior to the pandemic. Such options allow for greater balance between professional and personal responsibilities and support feelings of autonomy that trigger oxytocin in our brains—another chemical important for motivation.   Increased flexibility won’t just benefit now, but will have a return moving forward. According to one survey, about two-thirds of the workers said they are more productive working outside of a traditional office environment, citing “fewer distractions and interruptions, reduced stress from not commuting and minimal dealings with office politics” as their main reasons.

Tapping Into Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivators

After caring for physical and security needs and influencing the release of the right brain chemicals, addressing individual motivators—both extrinsic and intrinsic—will keep employees engaged and working more productively as they tackle the top portions of Maslow’s hierarchy. Here, where human needs center on social acceptance, belonging, esteem, achievement and recognition, remote working arrangements force us to get more creative with how we motivate employees.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivators such as social contact, belonging, praise and social recognition can be more difficult in remote settings, but there are methods to accomplish impactful external and personal outcomes from afar.

Extrinsic Motivators

Praise & Recognition Possibilities Are Virtually Endless

Receiving praise and social recognition are two big motivators for those seeking external outcomes for a job well done. Inside the workplace, this extrinsic motivation often takes the form of a shout-out in a meeting with peers or a formal presentation with a trophy at a large company event that puts oxytocin in overdrive. In mobile work scenarios, such praise and recognition can be transitioned to virtual or digital delivery for similar effect. Publishing recognition on the company intranet or in an e-newsletter is a great way to accomplish social recognition. Make it even farther reaching by leveraging engagement platforms that allow for digital socialization through likes and comments on published recognition.

Alternative strategies for large gatherings where praise and recognition occur are also emerging. New technologies to bring people together virtually without losing the excitement and engagement factors of in-person events are in full force, and can be designed to appeal to various motivators outside of just recognition. Think about how competition motivates a sales force or mastering a specific task or topic drives people. Infusing leaderboards, games and training into virtual events or ongoing mobile working environments are perfect for triggering the release of dopamine and oxytocin that activate the unique mixes of motivators across your employees and channel partners. 

intrinsic motivators

Learning & Sharing Keeps the Spirit Calibrated

Mastery, as mentioned above, is one of many intrinsic motivators not to lose sight of with widespread remote work arrangements. Unlike the extrinsic motivators called out, learning and developing motivate individuals through personal growth and fulfillment. Perhaps you have many people on your team driven to apply their knowledge and offer new ideas. An innovation challenge managed remotely can keep these employees motivated in the right way while leading to creative ways to strengthen your business. These can be done in shorter sprints or longer, phased methods to drive engagement as needed.

A sense of belonging and social contact are paramount to internal motivation as well, but they are  arguably the biggest risk with remote work. We as humans need connection. Group bonding, friendship and affection all contribute to social acceptance that comes right after our need to feel secure. These same things also activate oxytocin that optimizes motivation. Forbes describes literature on the science of connection that states “in essence, human beings have a basic need to establish and maintain connections to others and the deprivation of opportunities to do so has a range of deleterious consequences”—productivity at work the least of these consequences.

Communication of various forms and frequency are key to achieving the connection necessary for a strong and motivated team. And it doesn’t have to be all about business. Virtual coffee breaks and happy hours or even co-working with your webcam on for casual back-and-forth cultivate connection and social belonging no matter where you sit. And these are strategies that span the globe as well as long-term mobile work arrangements.

In times of change, our brain chemistry and what might normally motivate us are subject to change as well, but there are strategies and tactics to appeal to any motivational factors if you lean into the science. Download our ebook below to learn more about motivation theory and its relationship with today’s diverse workforce as well as how you can effectively motivate even the largest, most complex group of people.

50+ Ways to Motivate Your Employees for Measurable Results