The pandemic wall returns


To modern workers everywhere,

It’s a tough time to be a middle manager right now, down in the trenches daily with employees who are ready to quit or just desperate to get their old verve back. Managers may wonder if there’s anything they can do about the apparent shortage of motivation, given the state of the world. Besides is it even possible to make work feel more meaningful for someone else?

Yes, it is, according to Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral psychology at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who has studied motivation for 20 years.

Her research has suggested that one way to motivate yourself or others is to set ambitious—but not impossible—goals, which makes an endeavor more intriguing. But there may be an even easier way to support your team members’ faltering enthusiasm as pandemic measures persist: be there for them. Actively check in with curiosity about how they’re doing, just as one might when working together in an office, says Fishbach.

It almost sounds too simple, but scientific studies back up the premise. Essentially, even self-starters feel more motivated when they are being watched. That’s because we fold the observer’s perspective into our own. The “dual perspective,” as Fishbach calls it, magnifies the task, turning it into something that feels more meaningful to invest in.

A manager’s approach to lending their perspective has to be rooted in connection, Fishbach says, “and not only in the context of ‘Let me know what you’re doing,’ but ‘Let’s meet up and let’s discuss your life, your challenges, what are you trying to achieve right now and how can I help?’” Good venues for these kinds of discussions might include scheduled check-ins, or “5-15” structured updates once per week, or a number of informal rituals for socializing and starting conversations.

Interestingly, she notes, dangling rewards like cash bonuses or other forms of recognition are more useful for short-term goals. Instead of relying on extrinsic motivators, tap into your direct reports’ intrinsic motivators, which are the things people do that feel like rewards in themselves.

It’s easy to see why managers might feel helpless against the strains of a pandemic that has lasted into yet another season. But Fishbach believes that managers were in fact made for this moment. “This is the time when managers make a difference,” she says, “when their management skills are being tested more than ever.” —Lila MacLellan

Read more on this topic here.

Five things we learned this week

⚖️  Access to abortion is an overlooked workplace issue. Leaders who value inclusion and gender equity ought to care deeply about womens’ reproductive rights.

🛌🏼  Burnout survivors should eliminate the gaps in their resumes. AI scanners spot dates that don’t connect, so consider rebranding that mental health break from your last job as a “sabbatical.”

👨‍💻 Klarna’s ban on presentations is overly zealous. PowerPoint presentations could often be better, but they don’t deserve to be exiled.

🗓️  Facebook’s year-long search for a new head of public policy is over. The incoming executive, who is leaving Uber, is expected to be less prone to scandals than his predecessor.

📉  Nigerian companies lost a fifth of their staff during the pandemic. A new study suggests that increasing costs of operations forced businesses to lay off employees.

It’s a fact!

Just two bitcoin transactions create as much waste as a disposed iPad. Quartz climate science reporter Tim McDonnell reports, citing a new study. What’s more, at roughly current prices, the annual volume of e-waste from bitcoin mining globally is about 30,700 metric tons.

Company leaders will want to bear these numbers in mind as more businesses hire crypto advisors and more workers push employers to hit environmental targets.

30-second case study

Apna is a professional networking platform for blue- and gray-collar workers in India, founded by ex-Apple executive Nirmit Parikh. Incorporated just 21 months ago, its user base is already 16 million strong. More than 150,000 Indian businesses use it for recruitment, and the platform facilitates more than 18 million job interviews every month.

So how did Apna do it?

Parikh “launched an early prototype of the app in Mumbai’s Powai and Thane neighbourhoods—and it quickly went viral,” Sequoia India partners Harshjit Sethi and Sidhant Goyal wrote in a blog post. Rather than boast about his own vision, Parikh could then take a real narrative to investors and would-be hires, with evidence that he was onto something big.

Then came an obsessive focus on the product. In development, the firm’s product team tested over 30 versions of the mobile app. Now, a 30-member team interacts with more than 1,000 users daily to understand their delights and pain points.

The takeaway: Apna became the fastest startup to acquire unicorn status in India this month when its valuation reached $1.1 billion, reports Quartz India’s Ananya Bhattacharya.

The company has yet to make money. But that hasn’t stopped investors, both Indian and foreign, from making big bets. In addition to Sequoia Capital India, several other VCs have backed the young business, including Tiger Global Management, Insight Partners, and Owl Ventures.

In the early days, “we see founders either focus too much on user feedback or on their own intuition,” Sequoia’s Sethi recently wrote on Twitter. Apna managed to strike a balance between the two.

Read more about Apna, here.

Words of wisdom

“Workato is my fourth company and I’ve come to realize that I’m not really worried about people not working hard enough. It’s really the other way—you worry about burnout.”—Workato CEO and co-founder Vijay Tella

Tella, whose company was No. 1 on Quartz’s 2021 list of the best large companies for remote workers, spoke on the panel at our Sept. 15 workshop on how to run a company that remote employees love. Quartz members can catch the replay and read through the highlights here.

If you’re not yet a member, sign up today with the code QZEMAIL40 and take 40% off your first year.


Managers may already know that one way to lift a team’s mood is with a verbal pat on the back, a bit of praise that’s thoughtful and specific. In this gem from our archive, Sarah Todd describes a morale-boosting tradition from actor Amy Poehler that any manager can adopt to take staff appreciation up a level. On the set of her former sitcom Parks & Rec, Poehler ended staff dinners with round-robin toasts: she would kick things off and the person she complimented would go on to praise someone else, and so on, until everyone in the room had been recognized. Poehler “usually started by praising someone who wasn’t typically in the spotlight, like a camera operator or makeup artist, and kept it going until everyone on the cast and crew had received a compliment,” Todd writes. That kind of inclusiveness would have heightened the simple ritual’s impact by avoiding the more common practice of adorning only workplace stars.

You got The Memo!

Our best wishes for a productive, well-managed week. Please send any workplace news, generous toasts, and inspired presentations to Get the most out of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. This week’s edition of The Memo was produced by Heather Landy and Lila MacLellan.