What motivates the office-optional employee?

Liz Presson • 29 September 2014

Once upon a time, I convinced my boss to turn our startup into a distributed company. We had a grand office in the heart of the city, but it was expensive and everyone hated the commute: why not cut costs and enjoy some new freedoms? Since then, I’ve worked for multiple distributed companies, returned to traditional office life, and eventually came full circle. Today, I sit at a cafe in Seville, Spain, writing this post. Even though I’d consider myself an experienced employee and manager, I’m always thinking about what triggers great work. Not just what motivates people to excel in their work, but what motivates the office-optional employee in particular? How do people stay motivated without the buzz of an office, the hard-working guy in the next cube over, the faces of your colleagues anticipating your contribution in a meeting, or the charismatic manager wandering the halls and checking in with people one-on-one?

During our annual Yonder conference, we put this question out to our fellow distributed companies: How do you keep office-optional employees engaged?

Help your team understand where they fit in the big picture

The desire to find purpose in our work isn’t unique to distributed companies: people need purpose. As a manager, it’s your job to constantly communicate the “why” — especially in a distributed company where contagious energy isn’t absorbed by osmosis. That means you need to constantly find ways to communicate and reinforce your vision.

Lullabot, a 50-person distributed agency, does this in a few different ways, with an open books policy for the company’s finances and regular updates from the management team that could otherwise feel distant. A monthly “Weather Report” discloses the company’s monthly financial performance with notes on how strategies are affecting the bottom line. A monthly executive update is used to communicate the company’s vision. By covering topics like, “Why the company is growing” and “How to combat isolation,” the executive update also helps guard Lullabot’s unique culture. Lullabot’s frequently-cited Core Values document serves as a foundation for both. “The core values are a statement of who we are and what we stand for as a team. It’s the compass we use to navigate our work, and it outlines the things that make us… well… us,” said Jeff Robbins, Lullabot CEO & cofounder.

How important are these messages? According to a Gallup poll in 2013, over 25% of employees said that better performance would come from more clarity on why and what they’re doing. That’s a quarter of your workforce that could be performing better, if only they knew the point.

Simulate serendipity

So you’ve got people who are in-the-know and understand why they matter. How do you get them to connect with each other? Project and task-driven phone calls and video chats get work done, but it’s easy to overlook the casual get-to-know-you conversations that happen naturally in an office environment. Luigi Montanez, founding engineer at Upworthy, shared a tactic they use: the synchronicity call. Each week, a randomized spreadsheet pairs Upworthy team members for half-hour conversations. There’s no set agenda, just a required call. One week you might be paired with the CEO, the next you might be chatting with the intern.

The intent is to talk, get to know one another on a casual basis, and let synchronicity do its job. These calls apply to the leadership team, too. It’s a great opportunity for directors to hear about employees’ personal goals and aspirations, giving critical context to more official job evaluations and feedback.

Provide real-time feedback & recognition

When everyone understands what they’re doing and team members are communicating effectively, it’s time to focus on effective feedback. Steven Kotler, best selling author and entrepreneur, focuses on teaching athletes and professionals how to create flow states. “If we know how to improve performance in real time,” he says, “the mind doesn’t go off in search of clues for betterment. We can keep ourselves fully present and fully focused and thus much more likely to be in flow.” That kind of realtime feedback can be a difficult to deliver when teams are distributed. Difficult, but doable.

Feedback has to be built into a distributed company’s daily routine. Chat systems like Slack can offer huge value: they give managers and team members a space to offer recognition and virtual pats on the back. It’s casual, it’s simple, and it only takes a few seconds — but that public, real-time recognition can go a long way.

More formalized recognition tools include regular “props reports”: a scheduled newsletter that goes out to the whole team, letting everyone know what awesome things team members have accomplished recently. Fire Engine RED, a marketing and technology company, does REDcognition and “look who loves you” reports. “It’s the little things that can make a big difference,” said Dana DeLaurentis, EVP, Design and Innovation at Fire Engine RED.

In addition to top-down kudos, Lullabot encourages employees to call out each others’ excellent performance. One topic for their regular 5:15 reports is a call for peer feedback: “Tell me something good a Lullabot co-worker has done this week.” According to Forbes, companies that build a ‘recognition-rich culture’ have 31% lower voluntary turnover rates. That’s a huge improvement!

The money question

Talking about about recognition leads us to a touchy topic: should excellent performance be rewarded with money? The consensus among companies at Yonder is that bonuses, commissions, and other monetary carrots don’t provide long-term motivation. Everyone appreciates a bonus or a commission, but simple “if/then” incentives can shift the focus to tasks that produces the most reliable payoff rather than what matters most. Monetary awards can also turn into entitlements that outlast the motivation they were supposed to inspire. If you’re going to use money as a motivator, connect it to the broader goals and success of the entire team, and avoid obvious “gift-giving” times like Christmas, birthdays, or hire dates.

Carl Smith, founder of nGenWorks, believes in keeping nGenWorks salaries generous, flat, and transparent to the whole company. With open salaries everyone knows what everyone else makes and what each position is worth. “No rockstars come in and make way more money than the people who actually earned the money in the first place,” Carl explains.

Be picky about the people

No matter what your method is, creativity and innovation aren’t things you can buy: they’re qualities you cultivate. Developing those qualities relies heavily on to the culture you’ve built, and that in turn depends on the people you choose for you team. Let’s get real: if you make bad hires, dissatisfaction will spread quickly among your team. If you do make a hiring mistake, it’s important to correct it quickly. As Johnny LeHane, Founder of WAKA Kickball put it, “People don’t voluntarily leave distributed companies, they *submarine*. So you have to prune.”

In addition to pruning, identify who you want on the team in advance and let employees do the same. nGenWorks identified a group of people they call the “Army of Awesome” — people they bring on as contractors when they need to expand for a large project. Then, when it’s time to hire, they go to that list of vetted candidates first. Patti Chan and the crew at Indtredia also use the “try before you buy” method. All full-time employees start as contractors who work on a specific project to see what the fit actually feels like. This approach is echoed in Upworthy’s mantra: “Hire slow, fire fast.”

The big picture

Leaders of distributed companies have the opportunity to run a new kind of organization, where *everyone* is treated like a founder. Picture it: It’s midday. You’re at a cafe writing an email. You can move about freely, and you’re empowered to run your own day. When your work is finished, you know you’ll get feedback from people you trust and respect. You’re compensated for doing so — not just with cash, but with fun perks and recognition from your peers. You’re a part of something bigger than yourself, and you contribute to a collective culture that we grows and changes everyday.

How does that sound to you? I know that it’s something I feel incredibly proud to be a part of. I’m feeling motivated — Time to get to work!

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