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Is motivation science the answer to leading a hybrid workforce?

Motivation science can help leaders make smart, empathetic decisions about restructuing work and schedules after the pandemic.

5 min read


Is motivation science the answer to leading a hybrid workforce?

Pixabay image/SmartBrief illustration

The pushback was swift against WeWork CEO’s bold claim that only the “least engaged” people want to continue working from home. 

Sandeep Mathrani had an ulterior motive for people not to work from home and instead rent office space from WeWork, which he acknowledged in an apology of sorts. For me, his statement was also irresponsible because he failed to define what he meant by “least engaged.”

Mathrani’s comment was self-serving, yet I’m grateful he raised awareness of an important issue. Leaders need to contend with real questions now that many in the workforce tasted what it’s like to work from home.

  • Will people be relieved to get away from home with children underfoot, technical issues and worrying about feeding a household three meals a day?
  • Will they miss the autonomy to shape work to their rhythms and family needs, save time commuting, and have access to their refrigerator?

Should you mandate coming back, tell people to stay at home or institute a hybrid work model? If you are struggling to make the best call, look to motivation science for insight. Focus on how to satisfy people’s psychological needs for choice, connection and competence.

1. Give people a choice to work from home, work on-site or a hybrid model

 If you can’t give everyone the same options, be transparent about the issue. Discuss the nature of their job and the role’s requirements.

Treating people with equality doesn’t necessarily mean they all get the same deal — it means they get the same level of respect and consideration. Procedural justice is essential.

2. Facilitate an understanding of the meaning behind their choices

People need to experience connection–no matter where they work. Help them explore how working from home, office, or a hybrid design best fulfills their family values while still supporting coworkers (and enabling coworkers to support them). The best decision aligns their role and goals with a sense of purpose.

The most optimally motivated people make choices that align with meaningful values and contribute to the greater good.

3. Agree to measures of competence and progress

Determine the feasibility, level of technical skills required, and equipment necessary to work from home. Set SMART goals that reflect the productivity sufficient to justify the choice of working from home, on-site, or a hybrid of both. Monitor progress and adjust accordingly. Regularly ask people to share what they’re learning from whatever choice they’ve made.

Successful leaders focus on short-term results. Effective leaders accomplish short-term results and sustainable outcomes because their focus is on people thriving as they achieve their goals.

What if you manage a team? Facilitate these motivation conversations as a group. A supervisor for a large construction company was having an issue with a young man whose job required him to be on-site but who was often late and appeared distracted. The supervisor admitted he wasn’t good at having personal conversations with staff members. He knew little about the young man other than he was married with two children.

Addressing the situation indirectly, the supervisor asked the young man how he and his family were managing the challenges of the pandemic. It turns out the young man’s wife was an emergency room nurse working around the clock. Without family members in the area to help, the young man was left to homeschool two school-aged children and juggle schedules. Work was taking its toll.

The supervisor called his staff together, explaining the situation and encouraged the group to brainstorm alternatives. He reports being “blown away” by the empathy and understanding demonstrated by the group. They collaborated on redesigning their workflow to provide a flexible schedule that allowed the young man time at home and in the office.

The supervisor shared his story with me as an example of how he planned not to return to normal. Instead, he will continue exploring opportunities to promote choice, connection, and competence as his team enters a new and more complex work design and scheduling world with a hybrid workforce.  

New leadership competencies based on motivation science are required to manage this hybrid workforce. Nine out of 10 organizations will be combining remote and on-site working, according to a McKinsey survey. But without clarity on how to handle such extreme changes in the workplace, people are experiencing anxiety.

And so are the leaders charged with implementing and managing these radical new scenarios. Never has it been more critical for leaders to master motivation and develop the skills to encourage choice, deepen connection and build competence — for those they lead and themselves!


Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information and the free What’s Your MO? survey for exploring your motivational outlook, visit

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