Working Remotely During a Pandemic

Staying motivated by monitoring your psychological needs.

Posted Apr 23, 2020

 Crew/Unsplash
Source: Crew/Unsplash

Like many of you, I found myself working from home a few weeks ago. I mentioned in a previous post how “virtual teamwork” is quickly becoming the new normal, but the pandemic situation we find ourselves in has completely thrown many workers full time into this reality. While I have been enjoying some aspects of working from home, it has also raised other challenges, leaving me more scatterbrained and more depleted than I was before.

For one, organizing work and coordinating it with other activities in the house, including my family's work and study activities, takes some time to work out. Though I used to spend some days working from home before, I chose the types of tasks I would do at home and at the office. Now everything needs to be done remotely, and I must try to be as efficient as I can. Though the type of work I do is amenable to being done remotely, when I think about it from a motivational standpoint, I need to think about what keeps me both performing and mentally healthy.

In an older post, I mentioned how feeling competent, autonomous, and related to others contributes significantly to motivating us. We can use these principles again to think about how working from home may have changed the satisfaction of these three universal psychological needs. Insights from research on work motivation, teamwork (including virtual), and management indicate a few things we can focus on.

How is your sense of competence affected?

If you used to figure out your daily role and responsibilities from social and physical cues in your work environment, you might feel at a loss working from home. You will need to seek clarity from managers and colleagues about your daily role and responsibilities working from home.

These social and physical cues may have offered you the feedback you needed to know if you were efficient in your work and sufficiently contributing to team or organizational success. You may still be able to get some feedback through IT systems or by seeking it through colleagues and managers.

Finally, do you feel like you are facing a mountain of work? If you did not do this before, perhaps you can try a project management tool (e.g., Trello) to help you set daily work goals. Consider breaking down your tasks or projects into sub-tasks to make them more manageable. I always find it satisfying to see what I have accomplished at the end of a day or a week.

How is your autonomy affected?

The amount of autonomy people have in their work varies tremendously. You may have had a lot or little autonomy before in choosing how, when, and with what/whom to accomplish your work. You may have been able to make decisions or your own about tasks, projects, tools, etc., or maybe you did not.

Now that you work from home, what has changed? Have you been given more decision power because your organization had to make very fast changes to keep products and services afloat? Did they leave you to make it happen in your own way? How did that feel to you? Did you enjoy this new responsibility and did you innovate as a result? Or did you feel overwhelmed and under-resourced?

And once this was set up, did your organization seek to take control again? How did that feel after tasting a bit of freedom from control systems? Overall, do you feel trusted by your organization to competently make decisions yourself?

How are your work relationships affected?

As social animals, we need to feel connected to others, and our work is often a source of connection and belongingness. Many organizations provide communication systems to maintain communication and the coordination of work, but they can also be used to check in on colleagues and ensure their well-being is being maintained.

You will need emotional support from colleagues, managers, or team members. This emotional support could be related to work challenges, but could also relate to exchanging thoughts and feelings about how the pandemic is affecting other aspects of your life (e.g., family, health, finances, etc.). Make sure you know how to access other resources, such as employee assistance programs, to obtain more professional help if you need it.

At a minimum, use technology (phone, email, video-conferencing) to regularly connect with colleagues; for example, by organizing coffee breaks and end-of-week catch-ups in addition to the work meetings you may have during the week. At the Future of Work Institute, we used to run one to two presentation seminars per week to brainstorm about projects. We moved these online and people appreciate being able to hear about what others are working on. It helps energize everyone.

I did not mention other non-work aspects that might also be affecting your psychological needs, such as tending to kids and financial stress, which cannot be neglected. Whether it is work or non-work related, you can remember two key points:

  1. Monitor your own psychological need satisfaction when you feel your motivation is going down to figure out what is lacking.
  2. Find creative new ways to fulfill your psychological needs in this situation. I would love to hear about how you are doing that (you can comment below this post).

For a manager’s point of view on how the satisfaction of our needs can be affected when working from home, Leah Pezer from the University of Calgary has produced this resource.

Sharon Parker at the Centre for Transformative Work Design (which is part of our Future of Work Institute) has also produced a suite of resources for people working from home that you might find helpful. You can also take a survey on how the design of your work has changed by working from home.