Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
May 3, 2021

Why the “why” is so important for virtual teams — and how leaders can help find it

In a recent LinkedIn poll, we asked about the biggest challenge in a hybrid/remote working world. The answer for the majority (69%): Inspiring and motivating my people. While this is challenging for many leaders when most everyone is in the office, motivating people in a virtual environment is especially difficult.

Why it’s so hard to motivate people from a distance:

  • Leaders have to be deliberate about getting to know team members and really take time to understand their sense of purpose or values
  • Team members may not interact directly with customers or stakeholders to help see the link between their work and outcomes
  • Tendency to focus on tasks vs. relationships
  • Distance and reliance on technology
  • Hard to intellectually stimulate the team via virtual communications channels (think about how different it feels going to a live concert compared to watching a performance on YouTube)

Inspired teams are more likely to meet goals and demonstrate high levels of engagement with their work. This leads to lower instances of absenteeism, improved quality and increased productivity. Helping people understand the “why” of their work is one of the most effective ways to motivate and inspire them. In our conversations with leaders, we are finding that there is an even greater need for purpose when everyone is so disconnected. Although some research shows remote employees tend to be happier and more productive compared to their peers with less workplace flexibility, it can be more difficult for them to stay motivated if they don’t feel connected to a broader purpose and the rest of their team.

Are you doing enough to create a sense of purpose?

Here is a quick self-assessment to see how you’re doing in the area of creating a sense of purpose among your team. Rate yourself using the scale below:

5 = I do a great job of this.
3 = I do an OK job of this.
1 = I really don’t do this at all.

1. Organization

___ Help my virtual team have an explicitly clear understanding of our organizational purpose as a company or for our specific group (more than making money)
___ Communicate a very clear vision of where we need to go in the future; something to strive for as a company or for our specific group
___ Communicate, live by and reinforce a distinct set of values as a company or for our specific group
___ Help each of my people feel like they make a difference
___ Encourage continuous improvement and innovation
___ Keep my people connected to the “big picture” regularly

2. Team member success

___ Create a workplace in which people can pursue their personal values
___ Give people challenges that are motivating and realistic
___ Create, support and reinforce learning and development
___ Ensure people have what they need to achieve their goals

3. Relationships with others

___ Build a sense of community, despite being virtual
___ Champion collaboration, helping others and cooperation
___ Keep a constant focus on the customer
___ Seek to involve others to create a sense of ownership

How can you improve?

Most of us will rate ourselves as a “1” in some of these categories. We’ve talked to leaders and studied companies that do this well and identified a few best practices to help boost your score.

Take time to celebrate successes
Recognition matters more now than ever. Share videos or send weekly emails to spotlight success stories. One organization we spoke with hosts dedicated recognition sessions. In addition, recognition should always be specific and behavioral; for example: “Thank you for being proactive about doing competitive analysis. By sharing your insights, we were able to identify some new ways to help grow the business.” It’s also important to celebrate both individual performance and collective wins to remind team members that each person’s contributions matter to the overall team’s success. Some companies have senior executives join team meetings to thank them for their hard work.

Use storytelling to create an emotional connection
Data points will always be important, but the act of storytelling helps people visualize — and connect with — how their work has a real-life impact. One notable storytelling example shared with us comes from Adaire Fox-Martin, executive board member of customer success at global software company SAP: “I started writing a weekly note to the entire team (40,000 people around the world). I called it ‘The week that was.’ I included some things that happened professionally and other things personally. I did 20 of them for 20 weeks. The response has been incredible, with people sharing back experiences in their lives and business. It’s created a sense of global community.”

Effective storytellers are honest and authentic, infuse values into their stories, share emotions even when it means exposing anxieties and shortcomings, and puts the listeners at the center of the story (“we” instead of “I”).

Understand what your team values
Because inspiring team members requires that leaders make an appeal to others’ emotions, values or beliefs, becoming an inspirational leader requires an understanding of each. Ask what team members enjoy and value both in and outside of work to gain insight into their motivators. For example, a team member who is an amateur sculptor may value creativity at work and could be motivated by being given room to experiment and reimagine existing processes. Also take advantage of the unique possibilities afforded by virtual work. On a video call, ask your colleague to show you the pictures on the bookshelf or to give you a tour of the kitchen and hear the stories behind the items.

The bigger picture

Creating a sense of purpose is integral to motivating and inspiring your team. Focus not on the day-to-day goals, but on the larger impact of the virtual team’s work — on the company and its customers, on the industry, or on society. Be sure to spend time thinking about your own “why” so you can better help your team understand theirs.