Employee Engagement in the Context of the Virtual Workforce

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Gone are the days when employees were expected to report to work on time. During these bygone times employee engagement was a manageable challenge. However, the changing dynamics of the workplace which supports work-anytime, anywhere, in real space or in cyberspace has not come without a host of challenges. One of the challenge, however not the only one to be impacted, is engaging the virtual workforce. So, though the workplace dynamics have changed, the demands of the result-based decision-making have not decreased but have become even more aggressive. The same however can’t be achieved without the adequate support of the employees who are psychologically connected at work. Therefore, the aim of this paper is to study and present the extant literature available on employee engagement in the context of the virtual workforce and draw attention to the host of challenges the workplace metamorphosis have brought along with them. The paper also presents some workable suggestions to overcome these challenges.

Traditional workplaces, which have been in existence for a long time, can be easily identified with their bureaucratic inflexible structures which had the advantages like stability, structured channels of communication centralized decision making etc. However, such workplaces are slowly giving way to new ones which are very flexible and work on the premise of work anytime, anywhere, in real space or in web space. What is the role of HR in this transition of the workplaces? Changing trends are propelling change for both HR functions and the organizations, creating new talent challenges which are radically different from those faced by previous generations of leaders. A whole new world of opportunities in HR technology has unfurled. HR is exploring mobile technologies, artificial intelligence, automation to revolutionize the employee experience through new digital platforms and ways of delivering services. Though these changes have started pushing Human Resources towards digitization to have a wider reach and penetration, it has been creating problems in having an engaged workforce. It’s easier to connect with employees when they are localized to a geographical area and where there are opportunities to meet up and spot them on a regular basis encouraging face to face interaction. However, what happens when there is a talk about employee engagement in a virtual organization setting when there are no face to face meetings with employees but meetings happen in the virtual world?

Therefore, basis above the context the aim of the paper is to understand the characteristics of virtual workplaces, understand the organizational preferences for the virtual way, deciphering the concept of employee engagement and its relevance in the backdrop of virtual workplaces.

What Are Virtual Workplaces?

A virtual enterprise is the one in which the employees operate remotely, independent of each other. So, this implies that employees in a virtual organization are not confined to a specific locale yet they are connected via high tech environment. Therefore, these workplaces are characterized by features like low touch and high tech. Not surprisingly, these setups don’t work for all organizations eg: For high touch and low technology setups.

What prompts the companies to go the virtual way? The biggest driver for the organizations is the benefit of cost cutting which comes with the integration of the various processes through technology. A study from Stanford University found that companies could save an average of $2,000 per employee by letting them work from home as it helped the company save on the overhead costs.  That same study showed that those who worked from home were more productive than those who regularly worked from a company’s office. Secondly, businesses which are struggling with good talent attraction and retention can draw highly skilled talent with giving them an option of working remotely. This works in the favour of both the organization and the employee as the organization gets the talented employee and the employee gets the flexibility to work.

There is enough literature highlighting the causal relationship between having engaged employees, engaged customers and bottom-line performance. Therefore, having a connected workforce provides the much-needed competitive advantage to the organizations which in turn leads to positive organizational outcomes. It is an accepted fact among researchers and practitioners that engaged employees are those who are emotionally connected to the organization. There are several definitions for employee engagement, as Schaufeli et al., precisely sumed up the concept of employee engagement by defining it “as a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption.” Furthermore they stated that engagement is not a momentary and specific state, but rather, it is “a more persistent and pervasive affective-cognitive state that is not focused on any particular object, event, individual, or behavior”.

Employee engagement is understood as the outcome of an enhanced motivational state to perform because of the strength of the relationship between the employee and his/her job and the organization. The outcome of engagement encompasses company commitment, career development, and meaningful work relationships with the manager, team and customer. Researchers have claimed that employee engagement predicts employee outcomes, organizational success, and financial performance. Sadly not many businesses have included issues around employee engagement in their scope and definition of organizational effectiveness.

A meta-analysis by Seijts & Crim, 2006 concluded that, “employee satisfaction and engagement are related to meaningful business outcomes at a magnitude that is important to many organizations.” Several case studies highlight the practical significance of an engaged workforce. For example, New Century Financial Corporation, a U.S. specialty mortgage banking company, found employees who were actively disengaged produced 28 percent less revenue than their colleagues who were engaged. This trend was evident throughout the organization and not confined to one division. In fact, the officials went on to conclude that employee engagement does not merely correlate with bottom line results – it is the one driving results.

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Engaged employees have tremendous confidence in their knowledge, skills, and abilities and they are more likely to uncover creative solutions and offer up new ideas for enhancing processes and services than their less engaged coworkers. They bring a passion and energy to their performance that ensures better business results and delivers enhanced experiences for the customers they serve. Think of a time someone referred a business. It would almost always have included a positive service experience that was delivered by an enthusiastic, energetic employee. If the staff experience is pleasant the frustration reduces. If, however, the staff experience is not cordial then it leads to heightened frustration.

Engagement Challenges for Virtual employees

Even though the recent trend indicates a shift towards a virtual workplace, in the recent past, several organizations have initiated calling back their virtual workforce back in the physical workplaces. Eg: Bank of America and Yahoo called their workers back to the office and this was followed by IBM revoking the remote working option for thousands of employees. There were several reasons identified for this change in the stance of the organizations. Some of them are:

  • Building an organizational culture

Organization culture includes the organization’s vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits. Building a workplace culture can be difficult when the organization is scattered in different time zones. Finding times when all employees connect on a video chat together is almost impossible, but culture is so important for a successful business.

  • Miscommunication

Communication is a combination of the verbal and non-verbal cues. The tone and body language are absent from chat messages, texts and email, so it's easier to take things the wrong way or out of context.

  • A change in the mindset of activity–based management to result-based management

The managers generally have a mindset of the micro management of how things are being done rather than focusing on the outcome or result of the desired actions. For an organization transiting from a traditional workplace to a virtual one, this mindset would need to undergo a change from activity based management to result based management. A simple question like how to manage the employees if they can’t be seen has far-ranging implications for individual behavior and organizational structures. The most fundamental of these implications involves attitudes and beliefs. Many such attitudes and beliefs are founded in an approach to designing work and organizations that is rapidly becoming obsolete. At its core is the concept of functional specialization-slotting workers into narrowly-defined jobs. Both the economist Adam Smith and the engineer Charles Babbage described some of the benefits of such specialization: uniform-quality production, faster production, and a higher level of worker skill in the narrow area of specialization.

  • Addressing insecurity of the employees

Since the employees may not meet their colleagues on a regular basis, it might lead to feelings of insecurity as they feel that their value addition to the organization may go unnoticed since generally out of sight implies being out of mind.

  • Managing the HR functions of the virtual employees

When it comes to the human resource functions, executing them becomes a challenge for virtual teams. These include the trainings, performance reviews, engaging them etc.

Strategies For an Engaged Virtual Workforce

Working remotely is fast shifting from a perk to an inviolable option for attracting and retaining talent. Even if presently the firm isn’t prepared to offer a remote option, it’s important to consider how it might be a future organizational prerequisite. While there is still much work to be done to improve the present status of engagement in organizations some common strategies could include clearly stating the business objectives and strategy via multiple channels and reinforcing of the same by the respective line managers; performance metrics can be clearly tied to business goals; benchmarking can be widely used both inside and outside companies and industries; empowering the employees with a fair degree of responsibility and encouraging them to work creatively to solve problems; formal recognition programs to be used to reward top performers; and giving a decent amount of autonomy, where many decisions could be made on the individual team level rather than only at the organizational level. Some specific strategies further could be:

  • A company’s remote work policy should be the first one to be in place. These written policies should include guidelines for time off as this allows room for individual worklife balance. Giving employees time off to pursue causes close to their heart can be considered.
  • Managers or team leads can have virtual coffee or tea breaks or meetings through video calls to mimic chance office encounters.
  • Creating activities like online trivia nights or trying to recreate casual moments that one can experience in a physical office with video conferencing tools may help.
  • Having multiple social channels for employees where they can use the platform to share their hobbies, fitness goals or even pictures of their kids and families.
  • To avoid decline in productivity allow vacations even for remote workers as it has been observed that there is a significant decline in productivity as burnout does happen eventually.
  • Virtual employment is attractive because it offers freedom and flexibility. Don't count hours, focus on productivity. As long as employees are meeting expectations and deadlines, permit them the flexibility to do it on their terms.
  • Allow your employees the autonomy to tap into their ingenuity and creativity to decide the way they want to accomplish a task.
  • Conduct virtual team building sessions targeted towards increasing virtual team collaboration and communication.
  • Review remote employee performance fairly for determining compensation and promotion where there should be an overriding tendency to appreciate the visible work done by on-site employees more than the work done by employees that are out of sight. Regular tracking of individual team member’s contributions and accomplishments may be a strategy which could be adopted.

Conclusions or the Road Ahead

Since the virtual work option is here to stay, organizations should consider carefully whether and how they’ll leverage virtual employees, and then develop virtual work policies unique to their organization. While some employees may feel isolated when they work from home, yet some others will be adept at navigating collaboration tools so they feel connected and in the mix. A mix of time spent collaborating with colleagues in the office and working remotely seems to make the most positive impact on hiring.

Given the above inferences it is not difficult to understand that companies that do a better job of engaging their employees do outperform their competitors. Employee engagement can not only make a real difference, it can set the great organizations apart from the merely good ones. Therefore it can be easily assumed that the correlation between engaged employees and happy customers is omnipresent.


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