Two years ago, if someone asked you how performance would be impacted if people started working from home, what would you have said?
This question was explored by Nicholas Bloom years before the COVID-19 pandemic. Across a two-year period, he partnered with a company to study people working from home versus in the office. He found working from home led to a 13 percent boost in performance, which is roughly getting six days of output for five days of work and a decrease in attrition by 50 percent.
Ten years later, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a replication of this study on a global scale and the findings were strikingly similar. Gartner found the percentage of high performers increased as workers’ flexibility increased; 36 percent of employees working regular hours in the office were labeled as high performers, while 55 percent of remote employees with more flexibility were labeled as high performers. That’s the equivalent of transforming an additional one out of five people on your team from an average to high performer.
What’s behind this jump in performance?
There are indeed environmental factors to these numbers. Some people find it easier to focus while at home, while others simply work more hours due to the blurred boundaries between work and home. The more interesting and powerful factor is grounded in psychology and motivation.
Incentive theory suggests people are motivated by extrinsic factors such as rewards and punishments. Self-determination theory, however, suggests people are motivated by intrinsic needs such as having autonomy and the ability to make choices.
The sudden shift to remote work drove us deep into the territory of intrinsic motivators. The Gartner findings show that giving an employee more choice in where, when and how they work taps into a person’s intrinsic need for autonomy, resulting in higher performance. Throughout the pandemic, whether by design, accident or necessity, managers and organizations experienced the benefits of aligning with intrinsic needs.
One number one for manager development
This finding has powerful implications for the correct strategy to drive manager development efforts. When developing a strategy, the most important question deals with strategic intent: what are we trying to accomplish and how will we know we’ve achieved it? As the saying goes, there can only be one number one. We must be judicious on which number one we choose because it guides the rest of our decisions.
Do the manager development efforts within your organization today look like a fine-tuned execution of a strategic intent? Or more like a laundry list of skills that seems to grow each year? The latter approach leads to an unwieldy list of competencies, and worse, a choose-your-own-adventure approach for managers. How many of us have encountered a different approach to being managed upon switching managers in a new role?
The lessons of the past year have provided crucial insight on where to focus our manager development efforts. In a hybrid world of work, outside of the structure and connection inherent in a physical office setting, manager development programs must equip managers with the ability to leverage intrinsic motivation to achieve results.
Some organizations have already taken steps in this direction. More than three years ago, Facebook developed a process to help managers create and reinforce a “psychological contract” that people have with the company, grounded in intrinsic motivations. Daniel Pink’s “Drive” — a mandatory primer on intrinsic motivators — details efforts at organizations such as Atlassian and Best Buy to tap into intrinsic motivators. And Gartner says understanding and aligning to internal drives within employees is the foundation of creating a new deal between employers and employees.
But manager development efforts are failing to keep pace. A recent survey found only 43 percent of learning and development leaders report their manager development efforts include intrinsic motivators as a major focus. Programs that do include it as a major focus risk having the importance of intrinsic motivators watered down when it’s listed as one of several important manager competencies.
Equipping managers for the hybrid world of work
As organizations look to better align their manager development efforts around intrinsic motivators, there are three considerations to keep in mind.
First, intrinsic motivation should be the aligning principle that guides what behaviors and competencies to prioritize for manager development. The number one objective of a manager development program should be teaching managers the ability to motivate their people to achieve results.
Second, programs must provide guidance on behaviors and processes so managers understand how to tap into the drives within their people. Let’s explore what this looks like for the intrinsic motivator of autonomy. A manager first must understand that performance, engagement and well-being all increase when people have more autonomy. How can a manager assess where a person is on the spectrum of self-management? How can a manager provide the best support for developing the skills for more autonomy without completely letting go of the reins?
Lastly, manager development programs must reframe managers’ thinking so they see themselves as a catalyst to increase performance and engagement. Gallup’s four decades of research on employee engagement is instructive: at least 70 percent of variance in employee engagement is caused by the manager.
Managers must avoid falling into an unproductive feedback loop where existing levels of employee engagement drive how managers treat and perceive their people. Managers are the most powerful lever within an organization to increase engagement and performance. Equipped with the skills to engage more hearts and minds via intrinsic motivators, a manager becomes the central touchpoint for an organization to fully engage and leverage their talent.
The lessons from the pandemic are clear: to develop managers who will succeed in a hybrid work environment, manager development programs must teach the skills needed to tap into the intrinsic motivators of their teams. With this focus, managers will succeed in the future of work and organizations will be at a distinct advantage in the ever-intensifying war for talent.