Engaging Virtual Employees: Innovative Approaches to Fostering Community

By Frank Mulhern, Northwestern University - March 2012

Click here for a downloadable PDF of this research paper.

Introduction

Organizations are increasingly making use of virtual employees – workers who are not physically present at a workplace. The number of people working virtually is expected to rise during the next year, according to a 2011 online poll by Right Management, which polled 330 U.S. employers on what change they anticipate in the percentage of virtual workers in their organizations. The survey found that three out of four already have people who work remotely and, of those employers, nearly half expect their number to increase or significantly increase during the year ahead.

When asked about the change in virtual workers anticipated in their organization, 18% of respondents said they expect a significant increase, 27% expect a moderate increase, 25% expect the numbers to remain about the same and 7% expect a decrease.  “It is no surprise that the number of virtual employees will continue to increase given the widespread nature of this trend, the cost pressures organizations face, the increased sophistication of technology and the growing number of employees who have come to expect this kind of flexible work arrangement,” said Michael Haid, senior vice president of Global Solutions for Right Management.

Several factors are driving the increase in virtual employees. These include:

  • Work-at-home and flextime programs allow employees greater flexibility in where and when they work.
  • Communication technologies (laptops, tablets, mobile devices, and Go-to-Meeting platforms) allow for inexpensive work capabilities from any location.
  • Global expansion, facilitated by the Internet and made attractive by wage differentials, leads to worldwide workforces.

There are many ramifications – both positive and negative – that result from the increase in virtual workers. Among the potential negative outcomes is a lessening in the sense of community, cohesion, social connectivity and belongingness among employees. As demonstrated from past Forum research on the Human Value Connection, close personal relationships and a sense of community contribute to well-being and trust among others, which, in turn, enhance productivity and profitability.  Strong connections also lead to greater employee loyalty and lower turnover.  The increase in virtual employees presents challenges in keeping employees engaged and connected to the company.

Author Mike Dempster mentions in his article, Team-building: Key for Virtual Workplace, that “Companies must compensate for the loss of human contact, and find appropriate ways to support team spirit, trust and productivity.”

Much of what has been written about virtual employees deals with operational considerations – technologies for workflow management, communications platforms and administrative oversight. In contrast to these operational considerations, the Forum set out to explore ways that organizations deal with the people side of virtual employees. This research investigates the ways that organizations counteract the downside of the virtual workplace, and simultaneously foster the development of social connectivity.  Further, we pay particular attention to how trust, respect and empowerment can be cultivated remotely.  Our approach is to identify managerial practices, technologies and other mechanisms organizations use to foster meaningful communities and a sense of belonging among workers who are not physically together.

Methodology

The study involved each of the following elements:

  • A comprehensive literature review of academic and professional research.
  • Personal interviews with managers at companies that have extensive networks of remote employees and conduct successful practices to engage them. The companies interviewed are Accenture, Adobe, Cisco, Automattic (WordPress.com), Performics and United Health Care. We deliberately chose some high-technology companies such as Cisco and Adobe because these companies encounter substantial talent shortages and they have the ability to construct leading-edge technology platforms for virtual employees.
  • Identification of leadership and organizational strategies that contribute to the successful engagement of virtual employees.
  • An assessment of tools and technologies that organizations use to engage and connect to virtual employees.

Key Findings

We identified the following six key findings in our study:

Key Finding #1: Engaging Remote Employees Must be Part of a Bigger Virtual Employee Management Strategy Supported by Top Management

Top management support is key to managing virtual employees. At Cisco, where a large percentage of employees work off-site, top management focuses on strategic approaches to engage and involve remote employees. Management empowers a dedicated team to enhance the virtual employee experience. James Brooks, formerly the Director of Employee Engagement, notes that Cisco regards remote employees more as “customers” and takes on a marketing-like approach that includes doing research on employee needs, developing strategies to engage employees, implementing practices that serve virtual employee needs, and conducting additional research on the efficacy of their efforts. They also use other venues such as conducting focus groups and following employees’ blogs to track employee sentiments.

Our interview with Adobe reveals an approach to virtual employee engagement must be coordinated, and preferably part of the same program used for engaging on-site employees. This gets at a top management concern that virtual employees not be treated differently just because they are off-site. In sum, top management must prioritize virtual employees and provide support that overcomes the challenges of keeping them part of the organizational community.

Key Finding #2: Engaging Virtual Employees Requires Technology Platforms that Enable People-Oriented Aspects of Work

Much of the literature on virtual employees emphasizes the importance of technology. For the most part, that emphasis is placed on how technology enables workflows, archives documents, facilitates communications and accommodates other operational considerations. Our research finds that the companies that best handle virtual employees also have technologies in place to serve the human interest. That is, they provide mechanisms for interpersonal connectivity, social gatherings, and sustained relationship building over time and distance.

Cisco and Accenture have extensive intranet or Facebook-type social network sites. On those websites, employees can search for each other by criteria such as names, job functions, workplace skills, family concerns, hobbies and other interests. Virtual employees use these platforms to connect with other employees with similar needs or interests. Such platforms can go a long way toward replicating, and even enhancing, the communal sense of an office kitchen or lounge. 

Automattic (WordPress.com), a company that is almost 100% virtual, has created an internal communication system that presents information as a conversation thread allowing employees to see posts in chronological order, and all comments related to a post. This allows employees to essentially track the conversations taking place in the organization and become quite familiar with issues, opportunities, and almost all aspects of the business including informal items such as personal interests and social gatherings. Automattic uses instant messaging as the exclusive means for internal communications.  Employees “check-in” when they are working and avail themselves to instant messages from anyone in the company. This creates a dynamic, real-time, though potentially stressful, always-on environment that essentially replaces the mode of physically being at work. There is a similar instant messaging environment at Accenture.

Accenture uses a blended system of on-site and off-site work (by the same people), which uses technology both to allocate physical workspace and facilitate internal communications. 
About one-third of the Accenture offices are operated on “lease” terms, under which the employees sign up for the office space before they come to the office. Employees receive a map showing their temporary office and nearby facilities such as printers. This technology offers virtual employees great convenience in finding office space when they need to come in or when they travel.

Both Cisco and Accenture equip all of their virtual employees with virtual phones, which allow them to work anywhere and whenever they want with the same phone number and ID to access their company's system. They can even forward their voicemail to their colleagues in MP3 audio files. These audio technologies overcome the idea of a phone number being tethered to an office and function, operating more like cell phones and text messaging. This is an interesting twist to the idea of an office phone number in that the phone number belongs to the person, not the office. We found this to be the norm for virtual workers.

Key Finding #3: Some Face-to-Face Contact with Virtual Employees is Necessary

Several companies we interviewed emphasize that at least occasional face-to-face contact with virtual employees is paramount. Quite simply, the connectivity developed through in-person meetings establishes an interpersonal foundation that facilitates virtual work. Adobe sees it as management’s responsibility to visit or conduct events or meetings so that virtual employees can meet with supervisors and co-workers to build, as one executive noted, “personal equity” – and that does not happen through technology. An Adobe manager says that, “One distinction is when all employees on a team are remote versus some of them – when all are remote they have a shared experience and they help each other – when some are on-site the remote people are really left out.”

The companies make a distinction between in-person meetings and technology-enabled face-to-face meetings, that is, video conferencing. At Cisco, managers and employees meet via video periodically and in person about two or three times per year when the company has team building or planning sessions. They find that video connections are a step above audio and written communications. However, even with excellent video capabilities, the company still strives for in-person meetings one or more times a year.

At Automattic, the Human Resource team reaches out to each virtual employee. The conversation can be as simple as asking, “What’s going on in your life?”  Employees get together once a year for seven or eight days for team building. The company also encourages individual project teams to meet in person several times per year to build connectivity. Face-to-face meetings are used for some issues that are hard to talk about online. Automattic eschews such formalities as annual reviews and prefers less formal, but frequent audio and video communications.

“Effective global virtual teams develop a rhythmic temporal pattern of interaction incidents, with the rhythm being defined by regular intensive face-to-face meetings devoted to higher level decision processes, complex messages, and relationship building.” (Martha L. Maznevski, Katherine M. Chudoba “Bridging Space Over Time: Global Virtual team Dynamics and Effectiveness.”)

Key Finding #4: The Quality of Talent Supersedes Employee Location

As the Internet and telecommunications technologies increasingly facilitate virtual work, employers find themselves faced with the choice of the limited scope of talent that is at, or is willing to work at, a certain location, and the much broader scope of talent that can be accessed if employees are permitted to work virtually. Our interviews reveal that, even in difficult economic times with many people seeking work, employers prefer to access the best talent possible, and are willing to allow new hires to work remotely if that’s what it takes to hire them. The reason for this is quite clear. An organization that loses, or fails to hire, an employee because of location runs the risk that the employee will go to work for a competitor.

Accenture places a great deal of emphasis on retention because not only are the costs of hiring and training so high, but also lost employees take with them storehouses of information that no longer will serve the company and may end up with a competitor. The costs of taking care of virtual employees with technology platforms and travel pale in comparison to the cost of lost employees and failed hiring attempts.

“It is the talent that matters,” observes James Brooks from Cisco. Location challenges can be overcome more easily than talent shortages.  Lori McLeese from Automattic (WordPress.com) remarks “we would not have nearly as much talent if we forced them to move locally.” This issue, perhaps above all else, will be a primary driver toward the increased use of virtual employees.

Key Finding #5: Smaller Companies Struggle More with Engaging Virtual Employees than Larger Ones

The larger companies we interviewed have formal processes in place for engaging and motivating virtual employees. They are more likely to have sophisticated technology platforms, formal training processes, and multiple locations worldwide that facilitate engaging virtual employees.  In contrast, smaller companies and agencies usually have no specific process set up for virtual employee engagement. There are some popular tools that are used for daily communications but they are not normally developed or required by the company. Instead, it is up to virtual employees or managers to decide what to use. Additionally, it also depends on individual managers to decide when and how often to reach out to their team members. 

Performics, a smaller and rapidly growing web analytics and digital communications firm, is now putting into place an infrastructure for managing and engaging virtual employees. Virtual employees are helping the company design employee-friendly communications and community building capabilities. The company realizes the importance of virtual employees to its future – a situation no better indicated than by the fact that their CEO works remotely, a long distance from the company offices. 

Key Finding #6: Integrate Virtual Employee Engagement with Internal Branding and Organizational Culture

We noted earlier that management approaches to virtual employees should be consistent with approaches for on-site employees. A primary objective should be to immerse virtual employees in the organization’s culture. Some companies do this through an extensive orientation in which employees hired to work virtually are put though an on-site orientation, often featuring rotations through many departments in order to internalize the culture. Automattic, which has no major physical location, achieves this immersion by assigning each newly hired employee a mentor. The mentor is not a supervisor or even a team member, but an employee from another department who acts as a guide about practices, people and policies in ways that are comforting to new hires.

Cisco integrates their internal and external brand communications and fully incorporates virtual employees. This is consistent with their attitude of encouraging virtual work (also claimed by Accenture as a way to save office space costs). By encouraging Cisco’s virtual workers to use employee technology platforms, the employees come to better understand the company’s Internet infrastructure products and services – an added way of immersing virtual workers in the corporate culture. By way of contrast, Apple (a company we did not interview) advocates a culture of secrecy and strongly discourages employees from working virtually.

Adobe mentions that it’s not just the remote employees that have to deal with staying connected with the rest of the company – their managers must emphasize it and do things to take care of 
remote workers in order to build trust. “Leaders need to own this. I think people tend to favor the co-corkers they know personally (the ones nearby) and this hurts the remote ones.”

Another cultural element we encountered was at Accenture, where all employees are encouraged to multi-task, always be available for instant messages and participate in virtual meetings even when located at the same place as other attendees.  This represents a case of forcing on-site workers to essentially work the same way virtual workers do. It has the cultural effect of equalizing on-site and off-site workers – an important factor given that virtual employees are prone to feel neglected and disconnected. It is an expected part of their culture that employees are always multi-tasking and it is an everyday norm that fits the idea of working virtually. As an example, sometimes even when team members are in the same building, they still prefer virtual meetings instead of in-person meetings because virtual meetings can allow them to multi-task while they are in the meeting.

Conclusions

Since virtual work is here to stay, organizations must reconsider business practices that were established to manage, motivate or serve workers physically on-site. Certain professions such as field sales forces have long conducted successful virtual worker management. However, the boom in virtual working now taking place because of technology and other factors puts many organizations in the difficult situation of managing and engaging employees in ways with which they have little expertise because their legacy has been to manage workers at the same locations. We have identified six key findings about how engaging and motivating virtual employees can be optimized:

  • Have a virtual employee engagement strategy
  • Use technology platforms to engage virtual workers
  • Some face-to-face contact is necessary
  • Quality of talent supersedes working on-site
  • Smaller companies have more challenges handling virtual employees
  • Integrate virtual employee engagement with internal branding and culture.

While these findings help elevate the understanding of how organizations can engage virtual employees, many issues remain to be resolved. Any given organization should attempt to identify the barriers to having virtual employees feel engaged. Smaller organizations may encounter technology barriers because of limited resources for such platforms.  A larger organization may find virtual employees feel detached because of the potential impersonal side of a large organization.

Another important topic is identifying which types of employees are most suitable for virtual work. In many industries such as personal services and health care, face-to-face contact is essential for many aspects of the operation. Other industries and job types lend themselves quite easily to virtual work. Each organization should assess itself to determine the appropriateness of off-site work for some employees.

The key insights we present here relate closely to the design and management of virtual teams. Organizations must find ways to assign and assess responsibility of virtual workers, and track virtual employee performance for reward, compensation, and career development considerations. On a broader scale, organizations are in the midst of a large-scale progression toward more virtual employees. Understating the practices described here, and making a commitment to enhancing the quality of the work and personal lives of virtual workers will enhance the performance of the employees and organizations overall.