Flow, Autonomy, Happiness and Virtual Teams in Today’s American Workforce

By MBA@UNC Staff

Last month, IBM told tens of thousands of its employees who work remotely that they had 30 days to decide whether they wanted to work in a company-maintained regional office. The alternatives: apply for another IBM position, or leave. 

The move was surprising from a company that had pioneered the concept of telecommuting years earlier. According to the Wall Street Journal, IBM researchers "have published numerous studies on the merits of remote work." Just weeks before the announcement, an IBM blog reported that "teleworking works, and ... associated challenges can be managed with careful planning and communication."

Big Blue's decision bewildered workplace analysts who have seen more organizations embrace remote workers over the last decade, and seemingly contradicted evidence that working away from the office, at least part of the time, increases productivity and employee engagement. The announcement also baffled business scholars who know that IBM operates in more than 170 countries, and that its executives are familiar with the way globalization sparked a trend in virtual teams.

Such teams “allow organizations to leverage people and ideas from around the world,” said Mark McNeilly, marketing professor at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School who has studied virtual leadership. “You have to be able to do it to operate as a global company. To execute a marketing campaign in 50 countries, for instance, you have to have these skills. You can’t fly everybody everywhere.”

But IBM isn't alone in pulling its troops back to their cubicles. In 2014 Bank of America called more people back into the office. In 2013, Best Buy killed its flexible work program for corporate employees, and Yahoo said it would no longer allow employees to work remotely.

“Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” the company’s human resources chief wrote in a memo to employees. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

Back in 2009, 40 percent of IBM’s 386,000 employees did their jobs from somewhere other than an office. At the time, the company noted that it had saved about $100 million by reducing its office space by 78 million square feet. The same year, Cisco said it had seen improved teamwork since encouraging more autonomy.

“By telecommuting, 83 percent of employees said their ability to communicate and collaborate with co-workers was the same as, if not better than, it was when working on-site,” the company said. Allowing employees to work from home also saved Cisco $277 million a year.

So what happened at IBM between 2009 and 2017? In an internal February announcement in the company's marketing division, chief marketing officer Michelle Peluso said, “There is something about a team being more powerful, more impactful, more creative, and frankly hopefully having more fun when they are shoulder to shoulder.”

David K. Johnson, an analyst at Forrester Research, said in an interview that what executives like Peluso were trying to do by ending remote working is grounded in a belief that communication is better in person, and that it “can happen faster when people can be reached faster.”

“If I can see the workers in my factory, I can see they’re doing well. But people with knowledge-intensive work are more productive when they’re not in the office,” Johnson said. “These companies are not led by dumb people. They’re trying solve a problem, but they might be solving it in an inappropriate way.”

Flow, like playing jazz for a living

The appropriate way, according to psychologists and workplace researchers, can be summed up in a single word: autonomy. Autonomy is key, they say, because it provides a better route to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has dubbed “flow.”

In 1990, Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-sent-me-HIGH-ee) wrote “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” which became a seminal text on the intersection of work and happiness.

Csikszentmihalyi characterized “flow” as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”

Flow is being in the zone. It’s looking up from your computer and seeing that four hours have flown by in what you could have sworn were 15 minutes.

He found that people who entered flow can be twice as productive, and that such productivity comes from “autonomy, mastery, and purpose.” In those focused moments or hours, there’s a high level of activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, “an area of the brain whose job is to keep things like interruptions and negativity from distracting us,” Forrester’s David Johnson wrote in his 2016 report, “Workforce Enablement Defined.”

“When people are under stress, they lack the energy to push past these distractions,” Johnson continued. “Without knowing it, they enter a downward spiral toward declining performance and burnout.”

To reach flow in work, employees need clear goals and uninterrupted blocks of time to focus their full attention on a small number of major tasks. They need direct and immediate feedback on the work, a good match between their abilities and the difficulty of the work, and work that they find rewarding. According to Csikszentmihalyi, these conditions spring from three qualities of the workplace culture:


Successful employees feel as if they have control over what they work on and how they do it. They need access to the methods and tools that work best for them and a voice in the decision-making process.


The work environment, including their managers and the tools they use, should encourage people to continue to improve their skills toward mastery instead of hinder them.


Organizations should also work hard to infuse even mundane work with meaning by connecting it to higher purposes, such as improving the lives of customers, serving their communities, and making life better for others.


Source: “Workforce Enablement Defined” by David K. Johnson, Forrester Research

Research seems to back up Csikszentmihalyi’s theory. Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report, a survey of nearly 200,000 people, found that most employees, “want their work to have meaning and purpose.”

Johnson said one of the biggest factors in “intrinsic motivation” of workers is autonomy, or “having a say in how the work gets done.”

“When people are chained to their work and locked down at a PC, they’re not motivated,” he said. “What makes people happiest at work is being productive. The more people can stay in the zone and be focused, autonomy builds on itself — better productivity, better performance and better results.”

Only about one in three Americans are engaged at work, according to Gallup, which defines “engaged” as “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.” Indeed, 9 in 10 Americans said the last time they changed jobs, they left their company to find balance. More than half of those surveyed said a job that allowed a better work-life balance was “very important” to them. A different Gallup survey found that 37 percent of employees would switch to a job that allowed them to work off-site at least part of the time.

of employees say they are actively looking for a new job or watching for openings.

of workers report changing companies within the past three years. — Gallup

Jim Harter, chief scientist at Gallup, spent years researching employee engagement and has written that “companies with the most engaged employees enjoy 81% higher customer satisfaction and 103% improvement in employee turnover.”

In a 2016 report, Johnson wrote that “employees who can reach flow regularly in their work tasks are, by definition, highly engaged.”

The more people can stay in the zone and be focused, autonomy builds on itself — better productivity, better performance and better results.

So, if the key to retaining employees is to make sure they’re engaged in their work, and if the key to engagement is autonomy, what’s the best way to give employees that autonomy? It is, of course, the practice IBM curtailed earlier this year: remote working.

History and practicality

Remote working has existed in some job functions for years, but, according to Johnson, “getting dial-up internet at home in early to mid-90s accelerated it.”

of employees would switch to a job that allows them to work off-site at least part of the time. — Gallup

In “Developing Real Skills for Virtual Teams,” a white paper published by UNC Executive Development in 2011, authors Meena Dorr and Kip Kelly wrote that “increasingly sophisticated technology made [remote working] possible, and globalization made it necessary. Once virtual teams began, organizations noticed an unanticipated bonus: virtual teams were, on average, more productive.”

Increasingly sophisticated technology made [remote working] possible, and globalization made it necessary.

Arvind Malhotra, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, has said that in the 1990s, organizations realized that business travel “involves a noticeable loss of productive time.” Especially after the Sept. 11 attacks, companies began cutting back on business travel. The Great Recession of the late 2000s was “the final momentum builder,” according to Malhorta, for companies to embrace the idea of virtual teams.

According to Global Workplace Analytics, the total number of people working from home at least half of the time grew from 1.8 million in 2005 to 3.7 million in 2016, or nearly 3 percent of the American workforce. In its 2017 State of the American Workplace report, Gallup found that from 2012 to 2016, the number of employees working remotely in some capacity (they spent at least some of their time working in a location different from their co-workers) rose from 39 percent to 43 percent.

of companies offer their employees telecommuting opportunities — a threefold increase from 1996. — Society for Human Resource Management

“The data is clear,” said Johnson. “More people are working remotely every year, and companies are better set up for that. Some are saying, ‘We want to give people more flexibility because we want to retain talent. If we require people to come into the office every day, we won’t get the people we want.’”

Cutting back on travel expenses isn’t the only pragmatic business reason companies embrace telecommuting.

“Organizations are increasingly purposeful in how they approach remote working,” Gallup’s Jim Harter said in an interview. “Part of it has to do with office space. There’s a practical view of what’s required to get the work done.”

Chuck Wilsker, CEO of the Telework Coalition, told “Marketplace” in March that his organization has found that employers can save as much as $20,000 per year, per employee largely from reduced office space.

So if organizations can save money on both travel and office space, and make employees happier and more productive by giving them more autonomy, why aren’t more executives embracing remote working and the virtual teams such autonomy create? Only part of the answer is about accountability and trust. Managers also value collaboration, and some see distance between employees as a barrier to close cooperation.

“We can collaborate through remote working, but what’s missing in that collaboration is the richness in interaction,” said Johnson. “The broadest path to the human brain is sight, and we don’t get the same sense of being there when we’re on a virtual team. We can do it, but at a lower bandwidth.”

Harter said there’s a balance to strike and that going “all or nothing” with remote work could be the wrong approach for a company. “The right approach, scientifically, is to think about each job — what’s required, and how much, realistically, can be done remotely,” he said.

Developing virtual leaders

People who can work remotely are taking advantage of it more and more. In 2012, 24 percent of employees who could work remotely were spending about 80 percent of their time doing so. In 2016, 31 percent were doing the same. The number of employees working remotely less than 20 percent of the time decreased in 2016.

There are two groups of workers who have the lowest levels of engagement, according to Gallup: those who work remotely all the time, and those who never work remotely.

All those numbers add up to the most important factor for a successful remote workforce, experts say: a great virtual team leader.

“You have to have the right kinds of managers in place, connecting with people and managing them a particular way — thinking about each job, and having good accountability systems and great managers keeps people connected,” Harter said.

Johnson said he once consulted with an insurance company that was struggling with how to train its managers to lead virtual teams. The company had historically had an in-office culture. Older workers didn’t like the change, and developed a bias against those working remotely. That led to the remote workers being “orphaned.”

“If you’re making change towards remote working, you have to make a change in manager development,” he said. “Managers have to learn skills in order to be more inclusive with people working remotely to make them feel that connectedness. Always keep check-in times the same — basic things like that, tone of voice.”

Leading a virtual team requires hard and soft skills, McNeilly, of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, said. Hard skills might include choosing the right technology for the team, setting up the right times to meet, and creating team bonding. Important soft skills might be running meetings in a particular way, framing facilitation and follow up, he said.

“There’s an extra layer of complexity that you don’t have when leading face to face,” McNeilly said. “You have diverse cultures, different time zones, different technology, varying ages, long distances. It’s still leadership, but additional challenges require added skills. You have to be culturally sensitive to make it happen right.”


Do some team-bonding at the beginning of the project and be sure to do some relationship-building at the start of each team meeting.


Develop a regular meeting rhythm that keeps the team connected and also shares the time zone burden. Have some virtual “office hours” when you’re available by phone or instant messenger.


Make sure you’re using robust tech that everyone is familiar with. Having technology that is reliable is more important than one with a lot of bells and whistles.


Source: Mark McNeilly, Professor of the Practice of Marketing at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

Virtual team leaders also have a role in creating the ideal atmosphere for employee engagement. Tim Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox College who has researched motivation science, distinguished between “leaders who have a style that supports autonomy and one that tries to control workers.”

“Autonomy-supportive leaders are guides who try to set up the conditions for their people’s success and help them engage more deeply in their work,” Kasser said. “While controlling leaders see their job as setting up the rules and then giving out rewards to those who follow the rules and giving negative consequences to those who do not.”

Advances in the very thing that gave birth to widespread remote work and virtual teams — technology — will continue to push the practice forward. McNeilly predicted advances in the technological “robustness and capability” that will get cheaper over time. “We’ll be able to work together, better,” he said. “The challenge, always, is how to make it simple for everyone to use.”

Johnson said “remote collaboration will become paramount.”

But as much as technology will lead to a better future for workers who crave autonomy in the service of productivity, it will be business leaders who harness the tech and ensure their virtual teams stay connected and collaborative, even from afar.

They’re the ones, said Harter, “who have to make sure remote workers are not left out on an island.”