Engaging Virtual Employees: Innovative Approaches to Fostering Community

March 1, 2012


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.

(Please visit our "Also See" section to the right for the full PDF of the Research Report.)


"Engaging Virtual Employees: Innovative Approaches to Fostering Community." Frank Mulhern, Northwestern University; March 2012.

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