Returning to work through the eyes of Maslow

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Sep 01 2021 by Kon Apostolopoulos Print This Article

For many employers and senior leaders, the urge to bring employees back to the office is becoming much stronger. Many feel they are losing their grip on employee productivity and engagement. And continuing to have a dispersed workforce as they look to the future seems, well, really uncomfortable!

Perhaps the reason is that they are looking back to the way things were, rather than truly looking to the future. Most experts will agree that the workplace of tomorrow – or the NEXT workplace – will be a more hybrid environment with varying degrees of in-office and remote working, with in-person and virtual teams collaborating to get the work done.

As we design the "next" workplace it's important to keep in mind one thing: we need to staff that workplace with the best talent we can for our business. And to attract and retain those high performers, to win the war for talent, we need to shift our focus from where, when, and how employees perform the work, to why they perform the work.

Self-Motivation and Engagement

Even at the most basic level, the three primary drivers of human behavior, still remain. People will move towards what they want. They will move away from what they don't want. Or they will fight to keep what they have, resisting change, in order to maintain their world's status quo.

If we accept that motivation is an intrinsic process, then leaders cannot directly "motivate" others to act in a desired way. Instead, they can indirectly influence behavior by creating an environment where people can be self-motivated to act based on their individual needs and wants – the primary drivers we just mentioned. As a result, people will be more engaged in their work when they feel they are fulfilling their own needs while aligning with a company mission they believe in.

Maslow's View

When we consider what exactly it is that people want, need, and will fight for, we can look to one of the more familiar theories around motivation and human behavior: Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs – a motivational theory in psychology that describes a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.

From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, Maslow identifies the needs as physiological (food and clothing), safety (job security), love and belonging (friendship), esteem or social needs, and self-actualization. Furthermore, Maslow states that needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up.

In a similar sense, employee engagement is less at the lower tiers and increases as we move towards the top. So, if we identify and address employee needs, we can improve engagement and retention. Here are some ideas based on each of Maslow's levels:

Physiological: Yes, for a number of people the ability to collect a paycheck is critical as they work to meet their basic physiological needs for survival – having food on the table, clothes to wear, and a roof over their head. These workers will watch the clock and do what's needed. They will avoid taking on more or even stepping out of line in fear of losing what they have. They can fill a needed spot in your workforce plan but may not be interested in contributing much more.

Provide stability in the environment, predictable pay, and clear direction. Communicate information regarding available employee benefits and resources. Taper your expectations to focus on the key deliverables of the role, but don't focus on greater aspirations or higher-level motivators at this point.

Security: Whatever workplace we design, it must consider employee safety as a priority. How can we expect workers to be productive if they are concerned about their well-being? How can we expect them to return willingly to a workplace that cannot provide the necessary physical, emotional, and mental safety? This group will not be engaged in the work until this fundamental need is met.

Create and communicate the policies needed for a safe environment. Be patient and address their concerns. Encourage them to rejoin the workplace, even part of the time if appropriate, but don't mandate a full return before they're ready.

Belonging: Some people will be eager to return to the office, seeking to fulfill their need to be part of a team. They want to connect and collaborate, to build their professional and social network. They want to experience the spontaneous collaboration and mentoring that happens when team members are together working on a common goal. When all or some of your people are working remotely, it's challenging to recreate the team spirit, energy, and mentoring opportunities of in-person work. Challenging, but not impossible.

Use high tech solutions to enable high human touch points. The rise of asynchronous and virtual teams and the abundance of technology solutions allow us to continue to build effective team environments whether people are physically in the same space or not.

Esteem: As we look at the new workplace, we need to redefine what success looks like for those people that are motivated by accomplishments. They need to understand what the new rules are, how they can be successful in this new environment, and how they will be recognized for their work. Employees may even wonder if they will be included in key decisions or selected for high-value projects, if they are "out of sight and out of mind." That may potentially create a new issue with team members feeling at an advantage or a disadvantage depending on their visibility and proximity to the seats of power.

Communicate the (new) expectations and define success in the new environment. Focus on the outcomes and results of the work, not the time spent behind the desk. Celebrate the wins and acknowledge the high performers but avoid creating the perception of a two-tiered environment that favors those "visible and close to the decision-makers."

Self-actualization: This may be the group that appreciates working remotely the most. They are content working in isolation for long periods, in an environment where they can go off and do their work, accomplish what they need to accomplish, and feel like they're making progress. Not being in an (office) environment full of distractions, perhaps fuels their ability to be highly effective, to immerse themselves in deep thinking and their big ideas uninterrupted. Convincing them to give up their "freedom" to return to the office could be a hard sell.

Be very careful as you approach them, and how much you mandate that they return back into an office environment. Give them space to enjoy their autonomy, but avoid letting them drift away from the rest of the team. Encourage them to use their talents to help and mentor other team-mates, inspiring them to grow and follow their example.

Ultimately, the next workplace we create needs to take all these factors into consideration. If we engage our people where they are, keeping in mind their needs and their wants, they will be motivated to give their best. The place and the method of work are less important than tapping into their "why" so they can fulfil their goals and help your team do the same. This personal invitation to be fulfilled and engaged is the missing link in the evolution of the "next" workplace.

"You will either step forward into growth or you will step back into safety." [Abraham Maslow]

About The Author

Kon Apostolopoulos
Kon Apostolopoulos

Kon Apostolopoulos is an international speaker and sought-after expert in performance improvement and change leadership. He is the founder & CEO of Fresh Biz Solutions, a Human Capital Management consulting group and co-author of "7 Keys to Navigating a Crisis: A Practical Guide to Emotionally Dealing with Pandemics & Other Disasters."