How Leaders Can Help Their Remote Workers

By Dr. Francis Eberle

What can we do when it feels like inertia is holding us back? These days, I have noticed during recent video calls that some of the people who are normally high energy seem to have much less energy. Staying motivated when working remotely involves more than just setting up a work area and logging into a video call. The stresses of accomplishing tasks without your colleagues close by, distractions at home, news of the world, fear about safety when going out, and the desire to do something other than sit at home can be exhausting. In addition, some people are also experiencing uncertainty about future wages.

When I first decided to write about motivation, I didn’t want it to be all about working from home because of the COVID-19 virus. Remote work existed before all of this. It’s just more widespread now.

In a survey between 2010-2015, remote workers reported being less motivated than workers in the office, according to McGregor and Doshi in their book Primed to Perform (2015). Motivation of team members is something leaders should be concerned about all the time, whether we are sheltering in place or not.

McGregor and Doshi also noted that remote workers were concerned about emotional and economic pressures, which are now likely soaring because of the uncertainty around COVID-19. The expectations others have of you (or that you have for yourself) while you are working from home can make focus difficult.

McGregor and Doshi uncovered three positive motivators for remote workers: play, purpose and potential. Play can be seen in the context of playfulness. When a team meets in person there can be kidding and banter during the meeting. Hey found that this factor has the greatest effect on improving motivation. The second, purpose, is always important. When team members are not together in person, the purpose of what they do can begin to decrease over time. Finally, when team members are not interacting regularly, their growth potential can decrease because of a decline in peer support, coaching and general learning about new things.

What can leaders do while we “shelter in place” (and afterward) to help remote members of a team?

  1. Resist making work tactically focused with more rules, processes, and procedures. Some boundaries are necessary, but too many can be demotivating. Instead ask:
    • How can we better deliver fantastic service to our customers?
    • What do you see that is broken and how can we fix it?
    • What do you think will drive growth, even now with COVID-19?
    • Why should we consider these problems as mission critical, valuable and interesting?
  2. Be careful what you measure. It is the strongest signal of what you value. Instead ask:
    • Describe how this current situation is affecting you now.
    • What is it you value and how does it connect to the company’s values? How we can track that?
    • Do you have any tips to help motivate yourself or others on the team?
    • Can you find opportunities for play and purpose in this current situation? Then act on them.

Teams that are empowered to try things and experiment are more motivated than those that are not. This is the leader’s opportunity now, and after this pandemic, to listen and create new or different ways to interact with all team members.

Teams with emotional support are more productive. Emotional intelligence experts say that motivation is driven from a person’s self-awareness and self-regulation. Acknowledging what is happening, even when you have no control over it, is OK. Help team members reflect on and respond to concerns, then build in sustainable emotional support activities, such as weekly meetings with the whole team and with each team member. Use reflection as a tool for identifying concerns and successes. Celebrate those successes. Ask team members: What impact did we have last week? How can we help each other this week? What are we going to try this week and who is the point person?

In times of crises or uncharted territory, a key question to ask is, “What is in our control?” There are so many things outside of our control, and those can often cause emotional and physical stress. Focusing on the individual, teams as people and what you as a group can do, will help weather a crisis and improve performance those working on a remote team. Increasing motivation, even in a crisis, creates the environment for greater success.

To chat with Dr. Eberle about what you and your remote team are doing to improve motivation, email him at