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The demand for remote working keeps growing, with technology enabling employees to balance personal life with their commitment to work. How can companies be preparing to meet expectations and adapt to a more remote workforce?
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Developing an online professional development plan can enable employees of all profiles and situations. And the key to successful and sustained growth lies in Behavioural Science. 

 

The traditional workplace has changed dramatically in the last decade, and seems to be on a path towards even more change. Flexible hours have replaced 9 to 5. Virtual learning is overtaking the two-day training course. Remote teams are on the rise. There is evidence everywhere of businesses investing to keep up with the expectations of the modern employee – greener, brighter, stimulating office spaces or vast e-learning platforms being two common examples. But what about updating internal processes to match with the new practices? Consider remote workers and their professional development. For many years, companies have established professional development plans for employees, but these approaches are almost never tailored to the needs of remote employees. Too often people fall into the trap of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, or they focus efforts entirely on ensuring productivity rather than considering the growth of individuals.

If one were to update the design of these programmes, with remote workers or freelancers or any of the emerging employee profiles in mind, it becomes highly valuable to incorporate approaches founded in Behavioural Sciences to better understand the person at the centre of the plan.

Behavioural Science is the empirical study of human behaviour. It emphasises how people are different and hence need to be understood differently, how context matters, and guides us towards adopting new positive behaviours. It can tell us what works and what doesn’t and can help us design solutions that generate a desired change.

Behavioural Science has also experienced radical transformation in recent years in its application and delivery. Through technology, we can now obtain a lot more information and understanding about individual characteristics, habits, motivations, drives (or behavioural phenotype) and subsequently optimise interventions. Behavioural design then translates the findings of the behavioural studies into effective products and services.

So, how to apply this theory to the scenario of online professional development plans, designed with remote workers in mind? Let’s take a look.

  1. Personalised Planning

Any broad or widely applicable plan has to offer options and choice to employees. Options allow individual employees to feel a sense of ownership or personalisation with their experience.  Furthermore, allowing free choice when goal setting will increase their drive and intrinsic motivation towards the end objective.

The theory indicates that goals should be accomplished through various actions, rather than only applying one rigid path to achieve a positive result. To begin with, it can be as simple as setting a goal like “improving skills related to my role” for an online professional development plan.

The idea is to not define achievement purely through office-based actions, instead to allow more self-determination and for employees to prove their progress in ways within their control. This way, they will feel like goals are within their reach.

Simultaneously, some parameters need to be set for the employee’s benefit as well. The plan should be clear and supported by sufficient detail so that the employee quickly understands how to perform the necessary actions or behaviours in order to achieve the objective they’ve set. Behavioural Science theory explains that specifying the frequency, duration, intensity and context of an action makes it easier to achieve or replicate. For example, for the goal “improving skills related to my role,” an associated behaviour would be to take a 40-hour expert course. This behaviour in turn can be divided into smaller actions to make it easier to complete. So you can take what seems like a vague objective of proving you have improved your skillset, and break it down into tangible, provable actions like each working day between 3pm and 5pm for 4 weeks accessing your online development plan and completing different modules of your chosen expert course.

Within the plan, one can even apply gamified elements to reinforce commitment – such as including a button or box that will give employees a sense of accomplishment when they finally press or tick it. It sounds simple but can be highly effective. Research states that an explicit commitment (I want to tick off things on my list) increases the likelihood that users will complete their goal.

Behavioural Science, because of the name, can sound daunting when all you feel you need is a quick fix or an easy win

  1. Clear instructions & Multiple resources at your fingertips

As already mentioned, clear instructions or ticking boxes help to keep people on track. Especially when working remotely, as it enables employees to work through tasks and actions autonomously, knowing what they need to be getting on with.

Across professional development plans, previous studies have identified how employees frequently prefer to receive practical support from the company. This is when the company provides them with the resources and content required to carry out the actions necessary to achieve the objective they’ve chosen.

However, it’s important that companies strike the balance between providing information and resources, without oversaturating employees. Users of vast online courses often remark that they don’t know where to begin when there is so much information available to them. Rather than huge amounts of information, it’s more valuable to provide clear pathways employees can follow, especially for those sat in front of their desktops remotely.

  1. Social support

As well as having materials at their fingertips, being able to count on mentors or online advisors also makes it easier for employees to effectively and efficiently achieve their goal. Knowing they have a designated ‘someone’ they can turn to with questions regarding their progression helps employees feel comfortable within their plan. This is particularly useful for remote workers who are not able to simply turn around and ask a question to a colleague.

Employees also value the support of their teammates and co-workers during their development. Research supports the inclusion of virtual social areas for remote employees and their effectiveness for reinforcing recognition and feedback. With a timeline or wall element, similar to those on social media platforms, employees can post their achievements and colleagues can applaud their progress and celebrate those achievements. Rereading the wall’s history can help to raise self-esteem and increase the self-efficacy of remote working employees particularly when feeling overwhelmed or emotionally disconnected.

These online environments allow relationships between remote employees to be established and strengthened each day, reinforcing and creating a group identity. These contexts also facilitate the transmission of informal knowledge. Studies show that innovation and commitment flourish when employees have the ability to participate freely in “interest groups” or similar working teams.

Creating safe spaces to grow and fail is hugely important in any company – setting them online helps users feel removed from reality, and more likely to try and try again 

  1. Reinforcements and Self-Evaluation

Any professional development plan should include the employee receiving positive feedback from managers, because it avoids the employee feeling too scrutinised or controlled. Feedback should be balanced, and the purpose should be to reinforce the employee’s progress. If an employee is based from home or is remote to the team, feedback can sometimes be the main occasion the employee has contact with their manager or team, making the context of feedback even more valuable. Ensure feedback is given frequently, and in a range of contexts for remote employees in any development plan.

As part of those different opportunities for feedback, self-evaluation can also be included as encouragement that the employee records and monitors their own behaviours and progress.

It should be noted that multiple studies show how people react differently to self-monitoring. Some employees will stop participating because their motivation decreases when they perceive their results as negative. This can be avoided by ‘reframing.’ A behavioural technique that involves the correct interpretation and action the employee can take, alongside the negative result in the same message.

For example, “You got 5/10 and so you haven’t passed this module. It’s a shame, but this is definitely one of the more complicated modules in your development path, so maybe check out some of the reading links and come back soon and try again! We know you can do it!” This type of messaging prevents employees from associating their results with feelings of intense failure and demotivation. Creating a safe space to grow and fail is hugely important in any company, and it can be easily provided through the medium of digital solutions as they make the user feel somewhat removed from ‘reality’.

  1. Signs of action and habit formation

Whenever a person is asked to carry out behaviours or take action, we must recognise each of the steps they take towards achieving their goal. Behavioural Science emphasises the importance of reinforcing both the steps taken towards the milestone and the time when the user completes the objective. With the help of technology, this reinforcement can reach remote working employees in real time.

Behavioural Change research often advises the introduction of prompts and stimuli that encourage action. For example, automatic prompts or notifications can be effective because they remind us to perform the behaviour at the right time and the reasoning behind it. Similarly, by performing the behaviour repeatedly, it ends up creating a habit. However, Behavioural Science illustrates that habit brings habituation, which can cause the employee to become bored and abandon the experience. Maintaining long-term engagement and commitment requires the online professional development plan to include gradual tasks and changing or growing challenges. It’s very important to start with tasks that are easy to perform, making them increasingly difficult, yet achievable, until the result is ultimately reached.

 

With all these behavioural strategies and techniques, we can design a professional development plan (suitable to the needs of remote working employees or similar profiles) without it needing to be labour intensive or adapted several times across the company. Scientifically informed, it can offer multiple growth opportunities to those employees which will therefore result in enhanced company productivity. Behavioural Science, because of the name, can sound daunting when all you feel you need is a quick fix or an easy win. But really, it comes down to understanding the audience, the people you’re trying to connect to or gain something from. We’ve come a long way from expecting employees to carry out actions or behaviours “because I said so”. Consider the power behind “because I want to”. So, if offices are changing, if what we consider an employee is changing, along with schedules, routines, a day’s work – maybe we need to update how we support and structure all of that as well.

You’ve no doubt already seen a plethora of blogs out there about the most effective ways to successfully work from home. Good lighting. Clear workspace. Stretch out every so often. But even once we set up our respective workstations, make to-do lists, and take frequent breaks throughout the day – there may still be elements missing when remote.
Just because working from home isn’t a new concept, it doesn’t mean it won’t be new to a lot of people. Whether they’re new to the working world or their previous jobs never required or allowed it, we reached out to six people in various roles and occupations who are new to working from home. Despite everyone’s circumstances being unique, they shared some common challenges that may speak to you as well.

Human Connection, Communication & Collaboration

We have hundreds of digital communication tools at our fingertips to keep everyone connected. Facebook, Teams, Zoom, Skype, Google Meet – the list is endless. Some companies even have several implemented for employees. So why are communication and collaboration persistently top issues for remote workers? It’s because of how we use them. This was something reflected in our interviews as five out of the six respondents stated that despite still feeling somewhat connected to their teams, it was hard to sustain throughout the day. It was specifically noted that it becomes much harder to gauge someone’s mood or tone, which impacted how the individuals felt able to contact their colleagues.

“I feel less connected to my team because of the lack of human interaction”

The issue of improving ease of communication and collaboration can be addressed by companies establishing best practices with their communication tools of choice. Where should employees chit chat? Where can they feel comfortable sharing a meme, a video or a funny anecdote? What is the best medium for feedback or high-level discussions? Very few tools can do it all unless they are specifically designed with remote teams or asynchronous communication in mind.

Regardless of age, when you first start a job, interaction can really influence how happy and settled you feel. Traditionally offices organise new joiner drinks, Friday breakfasts or similar opportunities for team bonding. This is the first thing lost when working from home. All of our respondents mentioned that they missed some social aspect since moving to remote working, be it being able to talk through an issue or question or even just missing the jokes. If you’re starting in a remote job it can be hard to find ways to bond or understand the team you need to collaborate and connect with. Perhaps more relevant to what people are facing in today’s world, how can you prevent team connections and bonds falling apart once everyone’s had to move to remote working? Especially at a time when businesses need their people to be pushing on more so than ever.

“I’m missing the jokes and the random spurs of out loud thoughts that lead to spouts of creativity in a collaborative environment”

We all need a nudge. When building our solutions, we firstly work to understand the user profiles who will be adopting the solution and then establish what nudges or prompts they might need to get the necessary work done, boosting motivation and productivity. It is here we use game design to implement the most effective mechanics to create these nudges. Activity loops which provide a prompt or call to action followed by some form of feedback are a simple way to keep people engaged. For example, the call to action could be a reminder to call someone that they have not spoken to in a while. The feedback would come in the form of the conversation that is then had. Or, the call to action could be a new goal set in a task that they must complete. In this instance, feedback could come in the form of progress markers or recognition within the team.

Staying on Track

Most businesses are well equipped with the previously mentioned communication tools for meetings, catch ups and follow ups, but what about project management tools? People new to working from home can quickly feel detached from the usual buzz of the office or feel that their day has been unproductive even when filled with calls. Helping people feel like they’re achieving something is vital for sustaining motivation and consequently, productivity. While many of us see flexibility as the main benefit of remote working, the flip side is if everyone is being flexible how do you ensure everyone’s flexible schedules and needs overlap? Feeling like you’re all on the same page can be hard when you lose sight of what everyone is doing. Something a few of our respondents picked up on was the lack of project management and collaborative working tools to ease the situation and improve motivation and the drive for teamwork.

Thinking outside the box and utilising tools that encourage feedback, recognition and help track progress can help ease the difficulties that exist around collaborative projects. This can look like collaborative to-do lists, virtual timelines, progress bars or notification prompts to managers. Platforms and solutions can be designed to help everyone to stay in the loop with each other and on track with what needs to be done, as well as supporting the social need for interaction. When combined with a more conscious effort to update each other, even with non-work specific things, has positive effects as it will help to immerse the natural flow of activity that occurs in the office, into the online environment.

“Isolation is an issue because the office acts as a social space so being remoted from this has consequences”

We have the benefit of technology to help us tackle these challenges, but it’s vital to remember the humans at the heart of it. Users who will feel lonely even with 101 digital tools available to them, users who will feel untethered from their usual productivity and routine. Work communication needs to be functional to sustain overall productivity and performance, but communication is more than just ‘pinging’ each other work updates. We can all get better at making an effort to be there for each other. More meaningful and productive communication, finding more areas for collaboration, aiding in employee development and motivation. However, there is also an argument that companies could be investing in the structures and digital tools that will empower and enable their employees to be their best selves – wherever they’re logging in from. Current circumstances aside, if remote working is here to stay, practices and approaches need to be put into place to help employees work remotely, not alone.

As we face new challenges in the workplace and the world in general, it seems that working from home and remote workforces will become an increasingly common practice. Employees and employers alike will be feeling the strain to balance priorities and maintain ‘business as usual’ structures. Communication tools and software are imperative for ensuring connectivity. If implemented alone, without strategy and an understanding of how your team engage in their work, they can feel like tools to monitor and observe employees.

Here we will look at how even just a basic understanding of motivation can help you to ensure your employees or your team, whatever their profile or drives, stay engaged and motivated whilst working from home – now and in the future.

The RAMP model is based on Self Determination Theory and stands for Relatedness, Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Relatedness taps into our innate desire to be connected to others, Autonomy, the need to have choice and freedom. Mastery is a need to improve, feel progress and achievement. Finally, Purpose can be described as the “reason” we do things.

All of these can hold the key to make working from home feel as productive or satisfying as working in an office.

Relatedness

This is one of the most important aspects that can be lost when working from home. In the office you always have people around to talk to, bounce ideas off and even just share a lunch break with. Working from home can be calming for some, isolating for others – and in times of uncertainty it is important to find ways to stay connected, not micromanaged.

  • Tools
    When working from home, it can be very isolating if no effort is made to engage with others. Most companies have tools that will enable this one way or another, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Slack and so on. Don’t bombard each other, but find reasons to send a positive message or email, and make sure there are meetings held on conference call, video call or even the good old-fashioned phone. Give your people a voice, literally!
  • Conversation & Collaboration
    When working from home for extended periods, make sure your employees are using those tools in a way similar to how they would talk to people in the office. Just because it is text based, doesn’t mean it can’t be just as valuable. If they are not using the tools, why not ask questions, send thoughts, share an anectdote. It is all part of keeping motivated and reminding you that there are others out there with you.

Autonomy

With remote work, it is important to accept that employees will naturally have more freedom and inevitably less structure than they may have in the office. If they are working from home to balance family life or health needs or extenuating circumstances with work commitments, flexibility is important. Flexibility doesn’t mean employees going MIA – which is a message for both employees and their managers. Don’t tie your employees to their desktops and phones out of fear. Connect with them and empower them to continue contributing and they will feel all the better (and perform more) for it.

  • Trust
    There may be a temptation to check in with employees more often than you might normally. This reduces their feeling of agency and autonomy. In turn, this makes them feel less trusted.
  • Accountability
    Whilst autonomy is great, employees need to be disciplined and take accountability for the work that has been set, or for finding work to be done.
  • Job Done vs Time Done
    Accept that employees will use their time working remotely differently to when they are in the office, breaking the concept of 9-5. Focus on rewarding and celebrating people getting work done, rather than whether they were online at 09:01. It can be hard, especially with current stresses, for people to be mentally present and motivated during strict time frames. Maintain ambitious project ideas, stick to deadlines, and celebrate when the job is done.

Mastery

This may be a little less obvious at first. If you are suddenly now part of a remote team, you might be feeling like your career progression has gone on hold, or maybe you’re struggling to keep up with your company’s e-learning system with other things on your mind. How can people develop their skills or experience when there is no one there to see them do it? Particularly if you’re from a more traditional working environment, working from home can end up feeling like you’re just sitting around. Mastery is about more than ticking boxes. Mastery is about achievement, and there are many ways for you to feel you are continuing to accomplish things professionally in a less conventional setting.

  • Goals
    Make sure that everyone has clear goals and that progress towards them can be tracked (for the employee’s benefit more than yours). It is essential that goals are achievable, and progress is recognised. If this is proving complicated in the beginning, break them down into smaller goals to build momentum.
  • Feedback
    Provide constructive feedback as regularly as makes sense for each employee. Whilst working remotely, it can be very hard to feel that you are succeeding or achieving anything, or to know what other people are doing around you.
  • Self-Guided Learning
    Help your team feel able to use their time to expand their skills with online and virtual learning/training courses. This will go towards them feeling trusted to manage their time, as well as providing some structure and even some inspiration for their day to day work.

Purpose

There are two versions of purpose that are important here. Firstly, finding some sort of value and meaning to the work you are doing – a reason why you are doing it. Organisations and employers play a huge role in this by helping to remind employees why the work they do is important, and emphasising that they are all part of a collective, collaborative group rather than remote satellites. The other aspect is philanthropic purpose, helping others. As mentioned before remote working, especially if somewhat involuntary, can be isolating for your team members. It is vital for team morale and motivation to keep up the human aspect of work rather than only pinging people for a favour or work related question.

  • Purpose and Value
    The more disconnected you are from an organisation, the easier it is to forget the importance of what you’re doing. It is essential that you keep up communications with your team so that you all don’t lose sight of your common goals and purpose. Also companies should be encouraged to continue sharing communications and updates to remove the sense of people working for or towards something invisible.
  • Helping Others
    The other type of purpose, that of helping others. Just because you can’t do a coffee round as you would in the office, doesn’t mean you can’t still help others in some way remotely. Make yourself available and remember that everyone is in the same boat!