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What Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can tell us about the new normal at work

What Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can tell us about the new normal at work

As humans, we crave human connection and at the same time, that is what is threatening us with COVID19. From this, there is weird friction within our brain.

With many people moving out of COVID-19 restrictions in Australia, there are very mixed feelings about coming back into the workplace. Some are fearing being close to other people due to the risk of COVID-19 with cases the highest they have been in some states. Others are fearing going back to the way things were before.

I’d like to discuss how 'Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs' model can explain the motivation of people during COVID-19, and suggest some ways to assist as leaders are easing our teams back into new ways of working.

The theory of “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” is about human motivation.

We are commonly motivated to fulfil basic needs before moving on to more advanced needs as you move up the pyramid. The model is based on neuroscience research that implies that these five social domains activate the same threat and reward responses in our brain that we rely on for physical survival.

What Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can tell us about the new normal at work

COVID-19 has had a significant psychological impact on the first four levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy, known as basic and psychological needs, whether they are positive, such as spending more time with the family, or negative which would be feeling the lack of freedom due to ongoing lockdowns. The first two levels are where psychological safety in the workplace is a driver, whereas the next two levels are psychologically enriching motivators.

When a workplace is psychologically enriching, individuals feel like they belong and have positive self-worth. They are more productive, innovative, and engaged which leads to better business outcomes and high performance.

So, let’s look at where we are today, in terms of how COVID-19 has affected our motivation and activated different threat and reward responses.


Sleep is a cornerstone to a healthy life. When we are stressed, our sleep can get interrupted. We may find it difficult to get to sleep as we have too much on our mind, normally worry is a feature of this.

Safety and Security

Our physical health is at risk with the threat of getting COVID and the mixed views of getting vaccinated. Employees want to know that they are safe when they are at work, for some their preference will be to work from home to avoid the virus, for others they may want visibility of the vaccination rates within the office. Some industries have experienced employment instability with constant lockdowns and uncertainty for the future, affecting their sense of security. Some employees have been threatened whilst trying to do their jobs, for example in hospitality when asking patrons to wear masks or show their vaccination status.

Love and Belonging

Working from home may cause a physical disconnect from colleagues, with fewer face-to-face interactions. This can affect our sense of belonging. On the flip side, many introverts have been less affected by this change and welcome the less social working environment. Social isolation has impacted mental health for those disconnected from friends, family, and colleagues

Additional pressure put on families trying to juggle working from home and home-schooling and the concern of many parents that our children are not forming childhood connections as they usually would by staying at home. The variance in restrictions between states has also created a divide between the states. Which can make it hard as a leader when there are different levels of freedom when managing a national team.


Freedom in my view is the fundamental paradox of COVID. On the one hand, there are some views that vaccination is a freedom of choice, however, the resistance to being vaccinated is in fact what will impact your freedom. Freedom to do what we want freely is felt by all during COVID to differing levels.

Ambitious individuals may perceive that there is less opportunity for career progression within their organisation, whilst others have found new priorities and want to change careers, enter the Great Resignation. COVID has given people time to reflect on what is most important to them and their purpose. When we are able to reach our full potential and find our reason for being, this is when we reach Self-Actualisation (the top tier of the pyramid). The challenge for leaders is to keep their employees engaged, motivated, and stretched in a meaningful way.

What Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can tell us about the new normal at work

So, how can you create a psychologically enriching environment?

Feeling threatened in the workplace makes it harder for us to openly communicate and collaborate with others. It also blocks our creativity and reduces our ability to solve problems. On the flip side, if we feel rewarded, our self-confidence improves, we feel empowered and we want to perform well.

As a leader, ensure that the basic needs of employees have been met; physiological, safety, and security. Make the workplace a safe place where employees want to come to collaborate on the things that matter.

Physical separation can create a lack of psychological safety within the team. An increase in communication across electronic devices can result in withdrawal from group conversation and anti-social behaviour. Platforms such as email, Slack, Teams or Zoom have changed the dynamics of collaboration. There is now a lack of personal control and subtle interpersonal signals that initially guide us with face-to-face interactions.

Create an environment where employees feel comfortable to speak up, be heard and understood. Create regular planned, deliberate communications, and bring your emotional intelligence to these conversations. Show empathy, as each person will be dealing with the relentless COVID drag in different ways.

Understand the needs of different personality styles within your team. Extroverts will likely be more willing to come back into the office as they thrive when they can get their energy from the people around them. Introverts are likely to want to continue working from home or adopt a hybrid model so they continue with the benefit of alone time.

As leaders, we need to create a psychologically enriched workplace where people can thrive.

Is your leadership team able to create this supportive environment or do they need help with leadership development initiatives to build and implement this?

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