Play podcast

How to find your remote motivation

A potential lack of motivation has long been a false thorn in the remote work movement. Managers and leaders failed to see how employees could possibly be motivated without someone standing over them, monitoring their day-to-day work. This is a certain type of motivation, but not really the kind we are interested in. We are primarily concerned with productive motivation – something deeply enhanced by remote work.  

What is motivation? 

Motivation is a state where you have the desire to accomplish something. 
It’s an intrinsic state, where the desire comes from a connection between who you are and what you are doing. It’s a combination of joy, energy and fulfillment that feels almost like the high from a drug. Motivation is the difference between success and failure. It’s the difference between happiness and misery. It’s a large reason so many love remote work, and yet a few struggle with it. 
Most of us know this, and yet we fail to optimize and consciously build on our motivation. We forget to check in with ourselves and our teams to see how motivation levels are doing. This is particularly easy to neglect in an office setting, where false flags of motivation are more common. As with most aspects of work in the office, optics are given more attention than results. 

What does real motivation look like, then?

When we are motivated, we are powerful. Superhuman even. We are in our best states both in terms of performance and mental clarity. A motivated individual is at their best. 
Motivation gives us a deep sense of confidence and courage. We feel we are in our own domain where we belong. This confidence gives us the inertia to take calculated risks that result in massive wins. The fear of failure slips away. 
But it’s also fragile and fleeting. It is not a resilient state of mind the human brain falls to easily. When it does, it doesn’t stay for long. Motivation must be nurtured and fed to reach its full potential. 

When motivation is absent

We have all experienced a lack of motivation. Most likely, most of us have experienced it recently. Perhaps today. Maybe we feel unmotivated to do dishes or sweep the floor. Perhaps we’re unmotivated to go to work. Even worse, some don’t feel motivated to get out of bed. 
The range of extremes is wide, but on all levels, the absence of motivation kills any effort put forward. There’s no passion or creative energy put into what we are doing. Without any motivation, tasks are miserable and arduous. 

Long-term effects

Perhaps the worst part of living and working without motivation is the effects over time. If you work on something without motivation for too long, you will inevitably start to burn out. There are many ways this can happen. Maybe you have no control over what you are working on, so you stop caring. Or you don’t believe you can do something, and this forces you to burn out from anxiety and give up. 
Once you become burned out, it’s extremely difficult to heal. Just as motivation takes effort and work to upkeep, burnout is a deep hole to dig out from. It takes time. A lot of time. Preventative care is the best prescription for burnout. 
All of this is magnified when you are working remotely. Because we are not sitting next to our team, we rely more on ourselves for motivation. This is a good thing – after all, you should be self-motivated. But motivation does require care, and neglect can pull you into a period of motivational despair. 
So, how do we avoid this state? 

How to build motivation

Knowing the destination you want is important, but knowing how to get there is perhaps more so. Similarly, we all want to be motivated, but few know how to consciously create motivation for themselves and those around them. Thankfully, nurturing motivation is not so complicated once it moves out of the subconscious. 

Step 1: Know the work is important

It might be obvious that knowing your work is meaningful is a key driver of motivation. And yet it’s perhaps the most forgotten principle in practice. Besides, what does “important” mean with regard to our work? 
Start with the big picture. Think about the mission of what you are working on. Do you believe in the importance of what your company or business is doing or trying to accomplish? If the answer is no, sustaining long-term motivation will be challenging. In these scenarios there isn’t much you can do to change your role to be motivating. Find a mission you want to embrace fully. 
Now look at the granular level. Are your day-to-day tasks and responsibilities impactful towards that mission? Your company can be trying to solve world hunger, but if your job within the organization is meaningless, it won’t be very motivating. Perhaps your role is theoretically important, but you aren’t taken very seriously, or your work is often scrapped. This is also de-motivating, but both can easily be fixed with some direct conversations.
Motivation is also about responsibility. You need to recognize that YOU are the best person to reach a particular goal. This is key. Something can be done well and successfully by a member of a team, but if they feel they aren’t the best fit or someone else could have done it better, it won’t be motivating. This is why autonomy and responsibility are close allies of motivation. 
Advice on keeping motivation high in remote teams from Gareth who is managing growth at Parabol!

Step 2: Be heard

Once you’ve established that what you are doing is important, and you are the best person to be doing it, you become a specialist in that specific area. Experts should be listened to, and not dismissed. This is vital for fueling motivation. 
Imagine a movie where a team gets sent into space. Everyone has their own unique skill or area of expertise. There are hardware and software engineers, ensuring all systems keep functioning. There are pilots to fly the spacecraft. Scientists to study materials wherever they land. There is no personnel waste on a spacecraft, so everyone has an essential role only they can perform. 
Companies (should) operate in a similar way, but usually with more people. There is a mission with specialists who are uniquely qualified to tackle challenges. Everyone should be able to voice their opinions, which will be weighted against the goals of the mission. The leader has the final say, but they should genuinely take into account the opinions of the team. 

Step 3: Be seen

Tactics on motivation are universal, whether you are in an office or not. But the application is different, and arguably much better with remote work. When it comes to being seen, there is a practical difference. 
Being seen means receiving encouragement, acknowledgement and celebration for the contributions you are making. In an office space, this could be a literal pat on the back as a boss walks by someone’s desk. Perhaps it’s more personal but less public, and people get called into a private office for some kind words. Maybe it’s public yet inauthentic recognition, like the classic ‘employee of the month’ boards. 
Remote work provides more opportunities for genuine ways to be seen. Somewhat ironically, this makes positive feedback more explicit and defined. It’s done over team calls during reviews and feedback sessions. It can be done during team gatherings or in an appreciation channel on Slack. 

Things to avoid

  • Fear: Fear of failure is not the same as motivation, even though it technically gets the job done. The problem? It’s not repeatable. Contributions made out of fear will create a lull after things are accomplished, and an aversion to the next challenge because it was uncomfortable and unpleasant. 
  • Infeasibility: Not believing the plan is realistic, or even possible is never good. It’s important to build a track record of successfully completed projects that are finished and actively being used. Start small to build a rapport. You’ll see exponential returns in motivation down the road. 
  • Meaningless work: This usually manifests in doing tasks that anyone can do, that require no creativity, and no “you”. Detailed instructions and micromanaging instead of guidance, collaboration and support will kill motivation. 

How to motivate your team

First, you need to agree on the why. Why does something need to be done? Why is it important? Once the importance of the goal is established, talk to team members about what they enjoy working on the most. Ensure they get to spend the bulk of their time on this. 
As the team works, encourage and celebrate their accomplishments. Encouragement should be done through a combination of private and public methods at different steps in a project. Celebrate big wins and let everyone know about the success. 
Avoid criticizing when things don’t turn out as expected, and instead give constructive feedback. Failure can shake confidence, but motivation is only killed when someone is criticized for it. Make sure they rest assured you’re still confident in their skills. 
Finally, be extra involved when things are particularly challenging. The last 10% of a project is often the most challenging part to stay motivated through. This is when leaders need to take a more active role in giving attention to the team as the deadline nears.

How to motivate yourself  

Whether you lead a team or not, it’s important to stay motivated as an individual and leader. The same advice given above applies in the reverse direction. 
Communicate what you enjoy working on, and what you feel is your most impactful contribution. No one knows what you love quite like you. Participate in setting goals as a team. Having a goal that you didn’t set or can’t control is frustrating. When things are going poorly it’s anxiety-inducing, and when things are going well there is no sense of ownership. 
After a particularly stressful or hectic time, remember to take breaks. Ensure the breaks you are taking are real and “pure”. Don’t work a few hours a day on vacation, and don’t check Slack and Email once your workday has officially ended. 
Finally, encourage others. It not only helps those around you to stay motivated, but also enforces the same values in yourself. It ensures everyone keeps their eyes on the prize when things get tough. 

About the author

Sam Claassen

Head of Growth
SafetyWing
Sam Claassen is the Head of Growth at SafetyWing and a serial advocate for remote work. A longtime nomad himself, he has been to 65 countries while doing growth and remote work consulting for startups and accelerators. Through his work at SafetyWing, he is working with a team to create BuildingRemotely.com – a podcast, online resource and soon to be book on building a thriving remote company.