In 1993, two Apple engineers, Ron Avitzur and Greg Robbins, were busy developing a software program at the company’s Cupertino, Calif. headquarters.
The tool turned complex math equations into beautiful, hypnotic, rainbow graphics. Although initially Avitzur's project, Robbins was so captivated by it that he jumped on board.
A Project Built on Passion
The pair worked seven days a week, sometimes until after midnight. Then one day an employee strolled by their office, got talking to them and asked who they reported to. Avitzur admitted that they reported to no one — he’d been laid off from Apple earlier that year.
But he continued coming to the office because he wanted to complete his mission of creating a perfect, uncrashable piece of software. Avitzur and Robbins had been sneaking into Apple HQ every morning, hoping no one would notice.
And they weren’t being paid a penny.
So what happened to Avitzur and Robbins? I’ll come back to them soon. But for a software company director like me, the more important question is — why on Earth did they stay and work for free? What motivated them?
Driven By Purpose
Right now you might be thinking “Look, Ron and Greg were just obsessive geeks. Smart, committed, maybe even admirable geeks to be sure, but obsessive nonetheless. They aren’t the norm.”
Well, maybe they weren’t the norm in 1993. But I’d argue that over two decades later, Avitzur and Robbin's need for their work to be self-directed, absorbing and purpose-driven is one that’s widely shared in the software industry and beyond.
It’s what keeps employees engaged, motivated and productive. It’s what makes businesses strong. And we’re only just waking up to that fact.
21st Century Jobs Require 21st Century Motivation
In the 20th century financial incentives like wages and bonuses worked very well as employee motivators. You came to work, you got paid. You excelled at work, you got a bonus.
But numerous studies have shown that carrot-and-stick methods just don’t cut it anymore. As argued convincingly by Daniel Pink in "Drive," financial motivators worked well for manual and repetitive jobs, but with the massive rise of careers requiring problem solving and intellectual creativity, the contemporary worker has different expectations.
They want meaning, they want purpose and they want passion. And we can either try to turn back the clock on these new attitudes (good luck) or we can embrace them.
In short, 21st century people need 21st century motivators, and those motivators, according to Pink, are autonomy, mastery and purpose. But how can we provide them? To answer that, I’m going to share some approaches implemented in my company.
3 Motivating Factors For Today's Worker
Let’s begin with autonomy. To start with, why not put people in charge of their own schedules? Whether it’s a fairly standard flexi-time offering or a more radical ROWE, people usually know their own best working patterns. Offering flexibility can create greater job satisfaction.
Another approach is to replace traditional corporate hierarchies with more progressive, 21st century structures. At Asset Bank, we’ve implemented a Sociocracy, an innovative hierarchy that gives individuals more power, responsibility and, ultimately, autonomy.
Whichever approach you choose, the key is to provide people opportunities to direct their own workload and make their own decisions.
Mastery is about enabling an employee’s journey to excellence. Yet it would be a mistake to think that this was solely about offering training opportunities.
Another (perhaps more effective) approach is to replace traditional managers with coaches, eliminating the hierarchical tensions in working relationships and transforming them into ones of mutual support. The individual’s journey then becomes the focus.
But this isn’t about “touchy-feely” workplace utopianism — it can be a hard-nosed business decision, because a team that’s striving for mastery is a more productive team.
The final core motivator is purpose, the sense of an organization’s higher collective goal. It’s crucial that your business defines a purpose bigger than profit.
Your shared goal has to inspire people, as inspiration leads to engagement. That said, your profit motive and purpose motive should be closely aligned, otherwise the former will suffocate the latter.
Make the Fantasy Workplace a Reality
So in essence, people are motivated by work that gives them purpose, cultivates mastery and offers autonomy. Avitzur and Robbins found all three at Apple not despite working unpaid but because of it.
As observed by journalist Sarah Koenig,
“They were very quietly, and very efficiently, building a perfect piece of software. There weren’t any meetings, any office politics or managers. They never compromised, they never fought. It was the fantasy version of how great work could be if management just evaporated.”
And what happened in the end? The pair eventually plucked up the courage to schedule a product demo with managers and confess all. Luckily, it paid off — their software, Graphing Calculator 1.0, was installed in over 20 million PowerPCs worldwide.
It’s time we realized that in 2016, this “fantasy workplace” that Koenig describes is no longer a misty ideal: It is absolutely essential for creating employee engagement, motivation and productivity. In short, for making businesses stronger.
And while we might be a long way away from fully embracing the 21st century workplace that people crave, we can at least start moving determinedly towards it.