Motivation in Virtual Teams

When you’re working within a virtual team, you have to trust that everyone else is getting on with their work. Or if you’re contracting freelancers, you want to make sure that they’re committed to the work they carry out for you and that they perform it to the best possible standard. In a nutshell, you want people to be intrinsically driven by the work so that they do a good job.

There’s a body of research by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan which suggests that we are intrinsically driven by growth and self-fulfillment: that is, feeling like we’ve achieved our ambitions through our efforts.

Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory suggests that if we fulfill three needs, we will be able to function at our best. These needs are:

  • Competence - the ability to master tasks and to learn different skills.
  • Autonomy – feeling like we’re in control of our behaviour and goals.
  • Relatedness or Connection, which refers to feeling a sense of belonging and attachment to other people.

This theory mainly looks at how the social context affects a person's motivation and wellness. And this is where we come in. We and our team members, are part of the social context within which we're working.

If we want people to deliver their best at work, we want to do what we can to either help our team members (and ourselves, don’t forget that you also want to be driven by a need to be your best ) fulfill these three needs, or, at the very least, to not get in the way.

Using a Social Enterprise Network with Your Virtual Team

Of all the platforms I've dipped in and out of, I think that Yammer is the one which can help you address these three needs the best, especially Relatedness. But you can adapt any of these ideas to whichever tool you're using.


Before you set up an online network, it's crucial that you think carefully about how you're going to use the platform. Create some guidelines to help others use it in a way that feels natural, habitual and important to their job. Encourage conversations that show how what one person does affects another, how everyone's work comes together.

Don't restrict yourself to the professional arena - pick up on bits of personal information that people are willing to share in the space and use them to connect team members when relevant. For example, if you see that Peter (let's call him Peter) has posted "Have a great weekend everyone, I will be thinking of you as I ride on my bike in Wales!" and you know that Sara also takes cycling holidays, it's worth posting something along the lines of "Enjoy, Peter! Do come back and tell us if you find a particularly scenic route, Sara might be interested." (Obviously, take your cue from your team members as to how much personal information they're willing to share. (For a quick reminder on respecting your team members' personal time too, have a look at Why You Should Respect Personal Time in Virtual Teams.)


Most of the time, we know when we’re doing a good job. But sometimes (and this varies from person to person) we need validation from others. It also just feels good to be praised, let’s face it.

So, if appropriate, use your online space to do this. Yammer has a function designed to do just this, which you can use if you think it will be well-received.


Or if you think your team might see this as a bit cheesy, then just write a normal post. Like all feedback, it’s important that it’s specific. It will be more valuable and it will be more valued. What is it specifically that your team member did well? Was it a particularly hard task? Did they meet a difficult goal? Or did they just approach a difficult challenge with a lot of patience and good humour throughout?

If the feedback is unexpected, then that’s even better, it will have more of an effect. The unexpected makes us alert, almost like getting a bit high. Deci and Ryan suggest that unexpected rewards will help us feel competent. What’s more, even just encouragement will help us with this. Think of how easy it is to say thank you to someone, (yes, that’s a reward) and how easy it is to say "you’re doing well, if you stay on track you’ll meet the deadline".

With all of this, of course, praise, rewards and encouragement need to be sincere, not just a careful ploy to increase someone’s self-fulfilment.


When you look at the part that Autonomy helps in being motivated to doing our best work, you can see why freelancers are the happiest workers around (research from 2009). They believe that they are in full control of their goals and behaviour (at least when you’re at the mercy of a client, you’ve usually put yourself in that position!)

There are ways in which we can help team members feel autonomy. Make sure people understand their role in the team and the organisation. The why of what they do. Who it affects, who it helps. The more they understand this, the more they can customise their own work to suit them, without compromising the quality of the work or the effect it has on others. (Of course in some jobs this will be more possible than in others.)

When possible, ask your people to set their own deadlines. Give them a picture of what’s necessary. When you think they’re setting themselves a deadline that’s too tight or unrealistic, let them know and explain why. Then help them to adapt it.

Lead by example when managing expectations – help your team members to manage expectations too, so that they are in a position where they can over-deliver, with clients, with other people in the organisation, with other people in the team.

You can use an online space to help with this – making clear in your posts how members are contributing to the team’s development, sharing information about progress that will help people prioritise the work themselves etc.

I often hear people ask, "how can I motivate my team?".  I've got some very bad news for you: the best motivation is that which comes from within and you can't generate that in other people. What you can do is remove unnecessary barriers and create an environment (even if it's virtual) within people can fulfill their need for autonomy, competence and relatedness.