COVID-19 has forced an unprecedented shift to dispersed and remote working for organisations across the globe. Whilst some see this as a temporary response to a crisis, what David Solomon CEO of Goldman Sachs has referred to as “an aberration”, the more forward-thinking have chosen to use the crisis to adapt to a new way of working.

This could be a once in a generation shift in health and happiness. Getting it right offers the prospect of offering more flexibility, higher productivity, better work life balance – and lower cost and environmental impacts.

The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past”. Jes Staley, CEO Barclays Bank

But there’s a problem. Most organisations are finding they are not terribly good at managing remote teams in a way that keeps everyone connected, motivated, productive and happy.

The purpose effect

Emerging research suggests that there may a solution to the problem. One that is already available to any organisation with the courage to adopt it. That answer is an authentic purpose.

To explain why this could be so, let’s start by exploring the evidence for purpose. Data from the Contexis Index® of Organisational Performance, analysed by researchers at University of Cambridge, provides compelling evidence that an authentic purpose drives human happiness and organisational performance across ages, genders, levels of seniority, nationalities and cultures.

The Contexis Index® uses behavioural science from globally leading academic practitioners to assess those employee beliefs and behaviours known to be most closely associated with motivation, happiness and organisational and commercial performance. The analysis then measures each employee’s attitude to organisational purpose. And assesses key factors of cultural mediation to arrive at a set of numbers and analysis that: (i) measures purpose activation in organisational culture and (ii) explains how that purpose is working to enhance beliefs and behaviours across demographic groups in the business.

Put simply the Index measures purpose and shows how it’s actually working in real organisations globally.

The stand-out conclusion of the research are that people, everywhere in the world, who believe their organisation to be purposeful are up to twice as happy, connected, committed and productive than people who don’t.

Awareness is meaningless. Authenticity is everything

It is also clear that these feelings and behaviours are not the result of a purpose statements or a set of words – but of actions. Awareness of purpose has minimal impact. People must feel the organisation is authentically purposeful. They must experience the purpose in how the company behaves. For purpose to be alive to them it appears quite universal that people must:

· see the purpose lived in decision making, it must genuinely be the ‘north star’

· feel a strong sense of trust and psychological safety

· and that leads to feelings of ownership.

These three cultural attributes of clarity of context, trust and ownership appear to bring purpose to life for people and lead to the extraordinary increases in happiness and performance seen in the data. Without these three factors purpose seems to have limited impact on how people feel and how they act. Without authentic action purpose is, at best, a waste of time.

Remote working. This is weird.

So, what of purpose and the newly established army of home workers? Using data from the Index, remote, home-based workers were isolated from their conventionally office-based peers. It was anticipated there would be minimal differences. But the number were extraordinary. And not easy to explain.

Remote workers appear dramatically more sensitive than office-based colleagues to the impact of organisational purpose.

Which has huge implications for their commitment, ability to sustain autonomous work and their productivity. As well as on motivation and mental health.

Of course, we already know that employees who identify with organisational purpose are more engaged than average colleagues. But the impact of purpose on feelings of commitment and responsibility amongst remote workers are a remarkable three times stronger than amongst office-based peers. Their sense of compassion in the culture, which is key to trust, is also significantly raised.

Insights from the Purpose Collective

As part of efforts to understand these findings, members of the Purpose Collective were asked to describe in one word why they felt organisational purpose might have so much impact on remote workers. The results of approximately 55 responses are below.

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It’s quite clear that the collective view of experienced purpose practitioners is that a stronger sense of organisational performance leads to high levels of trust, connection and belonging. A number of respondents also mentioned words around ownership, accountability and autonomy.

These results provide an interesting and informed perspective on what may be happening.

One of the leading researchers in the field of remote working is Tsedal Neeley (Naylor Fitzhugh Professor at Harvard). Neeley’s particular interest is in the impact of ‘social distance’ on motivation and effectiveness of working teams. She finds that “when people all work in the same place, the level of social distance is low. Even if they come from different backgrounds, people can interact formally and informally, align, and build trust. They feel close and congenial, which fosters good teamwork.”

One of the key conclusions from Neeley’s research is that trust is fundamental to any team; a conclusion which supports Dr Paul Zak’s work, with his research findings that high-trust cultures are 50% more productive, with team members experiencing 74% less stress and 76% more engagement.

Neeley similarly finds that “emotional connection among team members is lost through physical remoteness and that leads to an erosion of trust.”

The evidence from the practitioners in the Purpose Collective suggest a broad consensus that a belief in organisational purpose leads to significantly enhanced levels of trust and connectedness. It implies that what purpose is doing is effectively bridging the ‘social distance’ identified by Neeley.

what purpose is doing is effectively bridging ‘social distance’

This is an important and exciting conclusion and worthy of further research. Because, as Neeley makes clear, “mitigating social distance .. becomes the primary management challenge for the global team leader.”

If a shared sense of organisational purpose is providing the cues to trust and connectivity Neeley sees as the keys to bridging social distance, the implication is that an authentic and shared purpose is an essential ingredient in forming and sustaining remote and dispersed teams. If social distance is the key issue, purpose is the solution. And that may explain why we observe high purpose leads to high levels of commitment and happiness in socially distanced people.

Neeley does not have access to this new data and devotes limited focus to purpose but still concludes: “it’s important to remind team members that they share a common purpose.”

mitigating social distance .. becomes the primary management challenge for the global team leader.

Which appears to lead to one, inescapable conclusion. If we are to make a sustained success of the remote working that so many employers are suggesting is the future of work, organisations must strive for a clear and authentic purpose.

And we know from the Index that what this means is a purpose that is the authentic ‘north star’ of the organisation that forms the bedrock of decision-making and corporate behaviour; that this is enshrined in a culture of radical trust; and people are supported and encouraged to take personal ownership and responsibility for the lived purpose.

Without purpose, activated by these key cultural attributes, social distance will remain, and trust and connection will be lost – along with the hope for a new and better way of working.

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