Develop your remote team through autonomy, mastery and purpose

Remote work requires that you let go of some of your control by empowering people to succeed, says Chris Dyer

A couple of important and positive insights emerged from the otherwise dismal experience of the Covid-19 pandemic.

First, many now believe that working at home is the ultimate in convenience, and second, technology makes it possible. However, a successful remote model takes a good deal of thought and effort. It’s one thing to send everyone home to work, and quite another to do it well.

There are four key aspects to designing a robust remote model: people, processes, tools and technology. Note that ‘people’ is first on the list, and for good reason. Your people are the key ingredient and the engine that drives success and growth. I recommend you start by considering your people. Who are they? What can they do? What can’t they do? What do they need to succeed? With that information in hand, you can develop processes, build or acquire tools and wrap it all in technology.

While you should monitor all four aspects on an ongoing basis, the one that deserves the biggest share of your attention is people. Remote work requires that you let go of some of your control by empowering people to succeed. You can do this, in part, through processes, tools and technologies, but the most powerful approach is through culture, and a great remote culture promotes autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy

Business thinker Daniel Pink believes that reward and punishment is not a great approach to performance. He cites studies demonstrating that encouraging individual satisfaction is actually the better motivator. The power of autonomy, mastery and purpose comes from the fact that they are all something that human beings naturally want and actively seek in life.

‘Autonomy’ doesn’t mean doing whatever you want. It means the license to work independently, in your own way, or to make certain decisions for yourself. To grant autonomy, you should lay out clear boundaries for a position and then allow freedom within those boundaries. For employees, those boundaries provide clarity on what to do, and on what defines success. The motivation comes from being trusted to work in ways that best suit them.

Mastery

If you give your people the chance to specialise in and master certain skills, rather than working assembly-line style or performing only part of a task, you will find that they are more motivated to seek self-improvement. Everyone has something at which they want to get better. Whether it’s in the context of work or not, overcoming obstacles and gaining mastery is a rewarding and fulfilling part of being human. In fact, we believe upward mobility should apply across all aspects of an individual’s life. Being unable to move forward in the skills or activities we are learning can be demotivating and unpleasant. As a leader, you should provide people with opportunities to master new work-related skills.

To help you understand your people’s existing skills as well as their aptitude and potential for new skill development, consider using DiSC and CliftonStrengths assessments. You’ve probably heard of both, but just in case, DiSC stands for dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness. The assessment reveals how strong an individual is in each area, which in turn indicates the kinds of tasks they will be good at. For example, dominance and influence are qualities associated with leadership and sales, while those strong in steadiness and conscientiousness are likely to be good at accounting, IT and other areas.

Originally known as Strengthsfinder, CliftonStrengths is unique in that it helps people focus on the positive. It helps them know what’s awesome about them. An assessment reveals an individual’s unique mix of 34 different strength themes, and also identifies that individual’s top five strengths. Strengths include things like ideation, command, responsibility, achiever, positivity and more. The top five strengths provide insight into a person’s work style and preferences, what energises them and how they connect with others.

Let me add that these summaries are very rudimentary, and I recommend you look further into both DiSC and CliftonStrengths to see how they might be useful to you and your organization.

Purpose

Defining an overarching purpose for what a company or staff member does is a key driver of self-motivation. In his book, Start with Why (2011), Simon Sinek argues that money should never be the sole driver behind achieving work objectives. It is actually a less powerful motivator than that amorphous sense of fulfilment we all yearn for. Sinek uses ‘why’ in the same way I’m using ‘purpose.’ Your company’s mission statement should have some trickle-down effect to every member of the enterprise.

People work for a paycheck, but it rarely is the primary why or purpose. More often they are driven by a desire to make an impact, contribute to something larger than themselves or challenge themselves to grow and learn. To develop great remote teams, you need to help each team member connect their personal sense of purpose with your company’s mission. In the absence of face-to-face interaction, this purpose-mission connection will help employees remain focused and motivated.

Be deliberate

The final piece of advice applies not only to developing teams, but also to other aspects of building out your remote model: be deliberate. Think about each aspect of the employee experience, including understanding the goal of each aspect. Then take a deliberate approach to shaping that aspect to get the results you want. Take onboarding, for example. Most companies have the employee fill out paperwork, meet a few people and maybe attend a training session.

But onboarding is about more than ensuring you’ve got the documentation in place. It’s an opportunity to express your culture – including purpose – and demonstrate your intention to promote autonomy and mastery. For example, make sure that each new hire’s tools and credentials are in place on day one. Assign them a culture buddy to help them learn the ropes and navigate the new waters. Schedule an online social hour to introduce the new hire and let other employees welcome them in a relaxed, casual atmosphere.

More good reasons

Of course, autonomy, mastery and purpose help motivate strong performance from employees, and that is probably the best reason to encourage it. But it also helps build employee engagement and loyalty. In addition, you could acquire a reputation as an employer who promotes empowerment and professional growth. That will help you attract top talent. Almost everyone would rather work where they are empowered than where they are micromanaged.

One of the most frequent objections I’ve heard regarding remote work is, ‘I can’t manage what I can’t see.’ It’s true — you give up a degree of control. But control isn’t management. Through autonomy, mastery and purpose, you nurture the self-control in your employees. They find the motivation to excel and grow within themselves. That frees you up to coach and mentor them at a higher level. They will assume responsibility for their own day-to-day performance, and you can focus on helping them – and your company – achieve longer-term growth goals.

Chris Dyer is founder and CEO of PeopleG2, a fully remote company that routinely is ranked one of the best places to work. Chris also is an international keynote speaker, company culture expert and consultant, Top 50 Global Thought Leader 2021 and co-author of new book Remote Work (Kogan Page).

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