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People Management

How to Motivate Remote Workers: 7 Secret Hacks You’ll Love

Easy, effective, eye-opening tricks for inspiring people IRL

By Bull Garlington

How to motivate your remote workers may be a thing that’s keeping you up at night. Used to be, you’d drop by their cubicle with a cup of coffee in your hands and tell them you really need those TPS reports. It was like magic. But now, they’re a stamp-sized square staring at you, hoping you won’t say anything about the cat walking across the screen. And look, this isn’t on you. (It’s not on them either.) COVID showed up uninvited, trashed the house, then wouldn’t leave.

Now We’re All Talking Heads

It’s hard enough to know if your workers even need motivation. Of course, they always do. But how do you gauge their morale without that daily dose of caffeine chatter? How do you know if they’re fulfilling their potential? Distributed workforce management is like juggling squirrels.

The big motivators — salary, benefits and bonus packages — aren’t on this list. Neither are career counseling, mentoring or promotion. This article focuses on the wingnut motivators, the small gestures, and team building.

What to Say to Motivate Remote Workers?

Words matter. Even though you’re just an electronic voice over the phone or laptop speaker, your words are just as real. But the distance between you and your workers is real too. And frankly, we’re all sick of Slack, OneNote and email chains. They’re poor substitutes for actual facetime. Human-to-human communication can’t be replicated. But it can be hacked. Now it’s more important than ever to rely on proven analog tools that will deliver a little something extra, a little personal touch, to your remote workers, no matter how far away they are.

Seven Proven Ideas for Rewarding Remote Employees

I mean, it works for me.

1. How to Motivate Remote Workers With the Power of Post-it Notes

There is a strange magic in how Post-it notes work. All you’re doing is writing words, then placing them where your employee will read them. You could do that with a letter or an email. Hell, you can do that over SMS. But no, you can’t. A sticky note is personal. For one thing, it’s handwritten. That carries a lot of weight. It’s real. It’s a tangible connection to you through paper. It’s also science. In 2004, Randy Garner, the associate dean of Sam Houston State University, published an abstract of an experiment with Post-it notes. Garner sent a survey to two groups. One group received just the survey. The other received the same survey but with a seemingly insignificant Post-it note affixed. The group with the sticky note had significantly higher return rates — and they did the survey faster.

How it works: It’s personal. In Garner’s report, results suggested “the Post-it leads the request to be interpreted as a solicitation for a personal favor, facilitating a normative compliance response.” The content almost doesn’t matter. Use short words. Draw an emoji. It’s the way the note is observed as personal that makes it work. Even inscribing a series of exclamation points would work just fine. It comes from your hand to theirs. It’s a connection.

2. How to Motivate Remote Workers May Best Be Answered With a Card

Sending a card is similar to a Post-it note. In fact, the two methods for motivating remote workers draw from the same well of effective practices. It’s personal. It takes you a minute or two. Recipients know how valuable your time is, so they recognize the literal value of the moments you spent writing the note.

But the card goes beyond the Post-it note: It takes longer. It involves perceived cost. You have to buy a card. There are steps: an envelope, an address, a stamp; there is thought, writing and consideration. All of these expenditures of your valuable time translate to how much you value your remote employee.

How it works: A notecard sent on good stationery is unusual. It takes the employee out of their routine. Remote worker fatigue is real. It used to be that working from home was a choice made by cool, independent mavericks. Now it’s not a choice. It’s just a more personal cubicle and the routine can become as oppressive as it has ever been — except you’re alone. Kicking someone out of that routine puts a pin in the grind and gives them a minute of joyous reflection. It also reminds them you know they’re working hard. It’s a more formal personal connection than a sticky note.

3. Looking for Ways to Motivate Employees as a Leader? Think Outside the Zoom Box

Literally. Go outside. Arrange for your remote team to leave their home office to go outside together. This one can be tricky depending on the circumstances of your team members. It takes advantage of the internet and underscores how one’s home office is unique. It also reminds workers they can occasionally pop out of their kitchen and work remotely remotely. (This is easier now that COVID is not quite as insane as it once was. Of course, safety measures should be encouraged, like wearing a mask or staying 6 feet away from others. Take precautions.)

Imagine the surprising quality of a Zoom box full of new backgrounds! Sheila’s in her garden. Lauren’s up on her city’s new elevated walking path. Derek’s on a boat. There will be changes in their attitudes too. Working from a new setting automatically ramps up one’s energy — especially if that setting is an outdoor table at a quaint cafe or an Instagram-worthy park.

Not everyone has a good outdoor setting. Also, it might be January, and you might live in Chicago, which in January is indistinguishable from the Arctic Circle. That’s when a “Third place” comes into play. It might be as simple as a quiet spot in the local library or top-shelf as a spot at your private club.

How it works: Being outdoors is an automatic recharge. But simply changing locations has the power to revitalize remote workers’ energy. Find a truly amazing coffee shop. Snag a spot in the lobby of a luxurious hotel. Just get the hell out.

how to motivate remote workers
Mom’s Room at The National

4. A Field Trip Is an Excellent Way to Motivate Remote Employees

A third place is vital for people who work at home. Even those of us already working at home had a third place before the pandemic waltzed in and passed out on our couch.

For me, it was a cigar lounge on the north side of Chicago. They had Wi-Fi, great coffee and a preferred vice in spades. Of course, a smoky room filled with old men smoking stogies may not work for you. OR YOUR TEAM. Fortunately, some companies specialize.

WeWork rents spaces for as little as an hour. You can book hybrid conference rooms with privacy booths and parking. The Mom’s Room at The National in Chicago is dog friendly, has killer views and a nice little kitchenette. You could even hire a private chef and really knock the day out of the park.

It’s good for teams to meet in person. Of course, you all have to live in the same city or at least be able to arrive easily at a single location. But if you can, the experience is stand-out. Add some kind of program or a speaker for the day, and you’ve got the kind of team-building, motivational power event your people will never forget.

How it works: Dip into the events fund and book the space, maybe a barista, and a speaker. Get your people there. Make productivity a low priority. Make connecting a high priority.

how to motivate remote workers with zentangle meditation
Zentangle by the author

5. How to Use Art Therapy to Motivate Remote Workers

Not the pipe-cleaner and popsicle stick kind. I mean actual art. You could spring for plein air kits for everyone, but that’s more expensive than renting a suite. Also, it’s intimidating. Some people have all the talent of a doorknob and they know it. Giving them art supplies and saying “BRING US ART!” will make them curl up on the floor. It’s cheaper to send something easy. Art that’s attainable.

Zentangling is to doodling what meditation is to just sitting there. It turns doodling into art by teaching just a handful of simple techniques that will make your teams index cards frameable. Zentangle kits are only $15 (though frankly, you could probably get away with sending the $9 workbooks and let people use index cards).

How it works: Send the kits and at the next Zoom or Teams meeting, have the team members display their card in their square. It’s like a little art show for your crew. Zentangles are low-effort high-reward. Not only do you get art, you get more mindful, refreshed employees. Zentangling is like accidental meditation. Because you’re chasing shapes on the page, you don’t realize you’re also detaching from the crushing grind of your daily to-do list by repeating patterns.

how to motivate remote workers with bull garlington's doodles
The author’s doodles using the 1920s manual

6. Which Brings Us to Doodling

Like Zentangling, doodling’s seemingly simple efforts deliver huge results. Doodling is low-threshold creativity. You just sketch a couple of squares and triangles and suddenly there’s a cat on the page. Employees are rewarded with a small accomplishment, which is surprisingly effective. Science shows that doodling boosts creativity, improves memory, and even helps you pay attention in a meeting — which seems counterintuitive, but it’s true.

How it works: Send links to a couple of great tutorials. Pinterest is a gold mine for them. Encourage your people to piddle around during meetings by doodling pictures of cats and songbirds. Watch them be more engaged and creative. Post a Zoom art show of doodles.

7. Name Your Team, Then Give Them Merch

Don’t call them the Accurate Accounters or (shudder) The Smithfield, Wacker & Boyles. Call them Team Beyonce. Better, motivate remote workers by letting them pick the name. (Don’t worry if they fall into the Boaty McBoatface trap, it’s OK.) Once they’ve rebranded themselves as the Crosstown Cupcake Ninja Skate Party, you have an automatic team-building path: team merch. Sorry, cheap team merch.

How it works: Branding isn’t free, so pull out your credit card. Here are some reasonably priced ideas your team will love.

How You Motivate Employees as a Team Leader Matters

Not just to them, and not just to the bottom line, but to you and your intangible skills. When you write that notecard to Jane, who lives in Austin, you also get the reward that comes from writing by hand. When you doodle or Zentangle with your team, you get the same results they do — and you get the added benefit of knowing you’re bringing your team ever closer together a little bit at a time.

FAQs About Motivating Your Remote Team:

How do you empower remote workers?

The trick is to remind them that you’re invested in their well-being as much as you are in their productivity. Encourage self-care, recognize their hard work, and reach out to them with tangible, tactile, analog tools.

How do I keep remote attorneys motivated?

All the same, tools used in a regular office still work on Zoom. Bring them into a brainstorming session, encourage them to work together on a case, set realistic milestones, and keep in touch through the USPS.

How do you make remote workers happy?

STAY. IN. TOUCH. Make sure they feel like they’re part of a team. Plan some meetings IRL, even if it’s just a few team members. Pay attention to their work-life balance and encourage them to manage it for their benefit.

Categories: Managing a Law Firm, Remote Work, Well-Being, Work from Home, Work-Life Balance
Originally published October 27, 2022
Last updated December 5, 2022
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Bull Garlington Bull Garlington

Analog Attorney columnist Bull Garlington is an award-winning author, columnist and public speaker. He is the author of the books “The Full English,” “Death by Children” and “The Beat Cop’s Guide.” He prefers South American literature, classic jazz, Partagas 1945s, a decent Laphroaig, and makes a mean chicken and andouille gumbo. His company, Creative Writer PRO, offers top-shelf content for small and medium-size businesses. Follow him @bull_garlington.

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