How to handle De-Motivation in a Distributed Company

If irony weren’t cruel, this article would not have taken me three weeks.

Demotivation is the worst. It takes the vacuum you have inside you, which grinds at you to be productive, works harder, and fill it with nothing but despair. It removes the urgency you have that makes you perform and leaves you staring mindlessly at a task on your project management board, waiting for it to disappear. 

Sometimes it isn’t your fault. In cases (not mine), it’s down to bad management. Whether your company is full of bottlenecks or a boss who breathes down your back, there’s no wonder as to why you’ve spent 3 hours watching YouTube videos instead of working.

Sometimes, it’s because you don’t see your work turn into results. Whether that’s external – such as monetary gain or praise, or internal, where you don’t think you’ve achieved your potential. If you’re stressed, pressed for time or don’t have the resources you need to do your work, demotivation is poison to productivity. 

Demotivation at work has increased multifold since the pandemic has begun. It’s understandable. You spend hours in meetings in a chair that was once comfortable; you bring work to your bed, your kitchen, your bathroom. You haven’t worn “real person” clothes since early 2020. 

But rest assured, it’s temporary. You don’t know how long you’ll be working at home, but there’s going to be an end. Eventually, you’ll be back in the office. With your co-workers around you to motivate you, with the technology you require to do your job. 

There will be an end. 

But what if there won’t be?

The distributed team problem

When you work in a distributed company, the dangers of demotivation linger a little closer. It’s lovely to have co-workers from all over the world, but it’s nice to have them next to you. If you’ve been distributed since the start of your career, you don’t even know what working in an office will be like – and you don’t know if the framework is holding you back.  

In a distributed company, you must actively avoid demotivation. So if you’re in a slump, there’s a chance you’ll be the one to pull yourself out of it.  
There’s not as much research about this as I’d like to see. Well-meaning articles about how to handle demotivation (irony, at it again), tiny links between WFH unproductivity and demotivation. But – you want a solution.  
I cannot give you one. 

How we deal with demotivation

Everyone deals with motivation in different ways. But I’ve found that establishing a creative signature to all my work knocks me out of the slump. If I see my work for what it is – my work – I know I haven’t been unproductive. And when I see myself work hard, I’m inspired to do more. At times, it makes your work feel all the more personal and close to who you are and making a world of difference. 

I asked a few co-workers to give me their tricks to beating demotivation, and it wasn’t a question they enjoyed answering. No one likes being unproductive. No one likes feeling demotivated. No one likes talking about moments where they weren’t necessarily great at their jobs. But after a bit of pressing – I found that our experiences were similar. There’s a line that stood to be – one that I will bring up repeatedly, and that is “trust the process.”

Addressing the source

Demotivation is often tied with frustration. Eyal, our co-founder, said that he felt the most demotivated when his vision for certain parts of the company wasn’t materialised. If you have something in mind, especially when it’s clear and detailed, you set certain expectations for yourself and your work. Suppose your team can’t consistently achieve the vision you shared with them. In that case, it’s often less to do with their capabilities than it does with your expectations.

Eyal stressed that it was harder in a distributed team to avoid demotivation. Since you’re isolated and don’t often get to meet your team members in the flesh, it’s easy to feel alone. Still – demotivation is inevitable. So when you’re in a distributed team, it’s essential to maintain that social element however you can. This may not contribute a lot, but trusting and getting to know the people you spend all those hours (virtually) with, can help you avoid certain pitfalls.

Trusting your employees’ abilities – mainly since we are distributed, is essential. Micromanagement disrupts a smooth line of communication between you and your team members. This line of communication is where you finally address demotivation.

The progress indicator

Mae, who currently handles the IAMPodcast, expressed earlier that the lack of meetings during her day has led her to feel a little lonely.

Mae, like Eyal, spoke about how demotivation occurs when her progress isn’t parallel to the work she gives. Since she works majorly on her own, she found that someone checking on her can help. Mae is very cheerful and bubbly – so it’s hard to imagine her being demotivated at all. But the progress and effort dynamic is a prevalent contributor to demotivation.

Being overwhelmed was another – many people at IAMOPS don’t have a history in the tech industry. As and when we branch out, handling individual projects can be stressful. Especially if you tend to compare yourself with other people or yourself when you can’t fulfil your goals in a suitable timeframe.

Mae is fortunate to not suffer too much from demotivation – she manages to bounce back reasonably quickly, she says. But the process of learning-unlearning-relearning that takes place every day at work is what helps her power through.

“The goal is important, but you have to enjoy the journey. Enjoy little victories. Even 1% of progress is progress in the right direction.”

Dealing with slumps

Niken from our production team is a different case. While he’s still in a distributed team, he still gets to physically interact with other DevOps Team Members every day. While this is great and admittedly enviable, Niken isn’t a stranger to demotivation. Despite his in-office status, he works his best alone, often hours before work even starts. A distributed team allows that flexibility more than others, which significantly helps with his job.

He told me he felt immediately demotivated after two straight months of working on a client’s infrastructure. Then, the night before it was due, he found a massive error. At midnight, on a Saturday, they had to run in and fix it. The kind of frustration and helplessness that comes with that kind of work is understandably troubling to anyone.

When I asked him what he does to deal with motivation, he told me how he likes to eat or cook something. But, like Mae and Eyal, he also suggested we sit down and have conversations with the people around us, no matter who it is.

“Talk to anyone, talk to your family, your wife, your co-workers. You can even talk to your enemy. At least you know they will be honest.”

Niken also spoke about how closely examining the steps you took can prevent a slump from lasting for longer.

Trust the process

In some way or the other, they ended up talking about ‘trusting the process. While Mae first said it, regarding embracing the best parts of the journey, all three of them brought it up in some capacity. Eyal spoke about how we can’t ignore bumps in the process, especially how we can’t avoid addressing them. Niken spoke about restarting your work from the step onwards – using that to find any earlier mistakes would lead to a break in your progress right now.

Another thing that came up was how to measure goals against your process. Again, Eyal tends to focus more on solutions than causes, to find a way to ignore the friction and frustration that comes with revaluating your process against your goals.

So how do we streamline this process? Eyal suggests we address friction as often as we can, even if it’s in 5-minute bursts. Mae communicates with her teammates to fill in any gaps in knowledge that may be slowing her down. Niken highlighted that you must know the reason behind your work – so you know how important it really is.

When you communicate, collaborate, and investigate, it isn’t a problem whether you are distributed. Highlighting the importance of the production process is what helps us work harder.

Motivation isn’t a straight line – much like a creation process. There will be lulls, there will be drops and heights in motivation or productivity. But having a clean and open understanding of how to make yourself and your team work better is crucial to overcoming demotivation.

Everyone said that demotivation is inevitable – but when Mae noted the words “Motivation doesn’t come to us naturally”, it really highlights the fact that it’s a choice. And whether you work in an office or your bedroom, the option is yours to make.

The bottom line

I went into this expecting specific answers. While they were not wildly different from what I thought, it was interesting to see how my co-workers dealt with demotivation. It helped me realise that watching your co-workers struggle isn’t as much of a part of a distributed workforce. We can see the frustration in cam. We can see tasks take longer on a project management board. Still, we cannot physically see our co-workers struggle to feel demotivated. I tend to compare myself and my progress to others, so it’s easy to assume my co-workers’ work is perfect, just based on the final products I get to see. Even if I know that they’re working hard, I don’t always see the hours and stress that goes into the reiterations of a task.

But obviously, we cannot be in meetings the moment the sun rises. If we did, we’d never get any work done. If distributed or remote work seems to turn your co-workers into robots, remember that demotivation is what keeps us human. Slumps and friction can lead to your best work – even if it doesn’t seem that way.

And if you ever do need the motivation, remember that your skills are worth rewarding yourself for. So give yourself a chance to enjoy the little victories. Enjoy your cup of coffee during the day. Enjoy the one task you finished instead of doing none. Enjoy the article you loved writing, even though you spent most of your time staring at the brief with no idea what to do next.

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