Motivational & Social Shifts

If your past two weeks has been anything like mine, then you’re likely to be getting to a place of COVID-19 fatigue. The sheer volume of emails in my inbox with ‘COVID-19’ in the subject line is depressing. When the working day is done it doesn’t stop. Walking from my converted home office (who needs a dining room anymore anyway?) to my living room, COVID-19 dominates most channels on TV. Pick up the phone and what’s on social media? An endless string of threads about COVID-19. Aargh!

In this Sisyphean cycle of get up, talk about COVID-19, don’t leave the house, go to sleep, get up, talk about COVID-19… how can we all stay motivated, and what might this mean for society and real estate in the longer term?

Any discussion about motivation starts with Maslow. US psychologist, Abraham Maslow, is most famous for his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, which features in every business school 101 textbox. In this he contends that human needs correspond to a hierarchy. At the top of this hierarchy are ‘higher order needs’ like self-actualisation and esteem. In the middle, you have belonging and friendship, and at the bottom you have things like safety and physiological needs. The theory goes that people are motivated to fulfil the lower order needs first, and only when these are satisfied does motivation to act shift up the order.

What we have seen in recent events is a massive mindset refocus in the Western world towards the lower order needs. A couple of months ago, your typical Millennial had ‘is my job purposeful enough’ at the front of their mind. Now most of us are very focussed on making sure that we have enough food (and yes, toilet roll) so that we can live for the week ahead without leaving the house. We’re concerned for our safety and for our financial security. The motivation shifts to these shorter term and more urgent needs, and away from longer term, aspirational pursuits.

What does this mean in practice?

As discussed in last week’s blog, I suspect that many people will be pleasantly surprised at how easy it has been to get the basics done, even faced with adaption costs and a huge spike in demand. Our food largely still arrives courtesy of Hello Fresh, Ocado and, increasingly, deliveries from the local shop. Working is also still possible for most of us, aided by the digital revolution and the shift to an information economy; hence we can continue to earn a living. And so, our physiological and security needs are still largely met.

However, the trade-off that comes with social distancing has been of the higher order needs. Most of us gain little pleasure from internet shopping; working from home for large amounts of time is depressing; not being able to socialise limits our ability to satisfy emotional needs, and most of us have lost sight for the moment of longer-term aspirations.

Sooner or later the exhaustion that comes with a failure to meet these needs is going to catch up. When the UK Government devised its approach to social distancing, explicit within the considerations was ‘behavioural fatigue’ – the concept that people will after time get sick of staying indoors and start to breach the rules. Whilst this theory has been criticised, the longer that suppression of needs continues, the more challenging it will become. Either we will become resigned to these factors, or as is more typical for humans, we will innovate and adapt.

What might be the longer implications for society and real estate?

Times of great societal pressure and motivation shifts such as this create innovation and changing social attitudes, and these changes have a bearing on real estate. It is an achievement of our modern world that the last time we lived through a period that curtailed our freedoms to this degree was as far back as World War 2. This isn’t a patch on that; however similar legacies might emerge. After WW2, a number of things changed. A more socialist all-in-it together attitude emerged, which was reflected in fiscal policy and government spending; ‘Homes for Heroes’ being an example. Secondly, women, who had kept the economy running during the war were considered in a new light for roles traditionally occupied by men, and the size of the workforce increased. Thirdly, the ‘Silent Generation’ that emerged from the post war period adopted a frugal attitude that continues to inform their spending habits.

Out of coronavirus, is likely to come stronger popular support for the NHS (the equivalent of Homes for Heroes); expect an expansion of hospital, healthcare and life science provision. The bonds of local community that are being forged now are likely to endure; watch for a shift to the importance of the small, local, ethical and community focussed businesses rather than big chains. Moreover, expect that the office and the shopping centre become treated as a luxury rather than a necessity. Employers who didn’t trust their employees to work from home have had their attitudes reset. The era of spending 5-days a week in the office is, I predict, over. However, the focus of time in the office and the shopping centre will be one of quality interaction and satisfying the higher order needs. We won’t be sitting at desks or picking stock off rows of shelves, which in turn could lead to a radical rethink of the design of these spaces.

And what should we do to boost employee motivation in the short term?

Firstly, focus on what you can control. Productive concern, which has been shown to have a motivating effect, is different from unproductive worry, which tends to focus on unknowns and is often over-expressed. Embrace uncertainty and take each day as it comes.

Secondly, if you are a manager faced with tough decisions in the coming months, make sure that you treat people fairly. Equity theory suggests that your reports will care less about the substantive outcome than the relative outcome. Apply policies consistently with a clear explanation of your rationale and your teams will be more motivated to follow you out of the trenches.

Thirdly, set achievable goals. Expectancy theory suggests that motivation is the product of valence (the importance that the individual places on the result), expectancy (the prospect of achieving the result) and instrumentality (that the reward will follow the effort). If targets are unrealistic, if your employee doesn’t care about your targets, or if your employee doesn’t trust you to deliver once targets are met, then motivation disappears.

Fourthly, synthesise normality. Speaking to people face-to-face builds trust and happiness. According to a recent study by UCL, video calling can achieve a similar effect, creating happiness and encouraging longer, richer discussions. Get out of your pyjamas and switch on the camera!

Finally, there is a world beyond COVID-19 – honestly. Change the record; change the subject line of your emails, dare to think beyond the crisis, and allow at least some of your time to put in place the actions now that will support productivity and happiness in the long term.