Departments - May/June 2009

The Insider

Strategies to Motivate the Virtual Workforce

By Catherine Eberlein Pfister


ome call them teleworkers or telecommuters, remote or mobile workers or the virtual workforce. Whichever term you prefer, their numbers definitely are on the rise. The number of U.S. employees who worked remotely at least one day per month increased 39 percent in the past two years, from about 12.4 million in 2006 to 17.2 million in 2008, according to a survey brief from WorldatWork.

"Whatever the reasons—job autonomy, better productivity in a regimen other than 8-to-5, gas prices, work and family balance—telecommuters have become one of the fastest-growing groups of employees in Corporate America," said Rose Stanley, a certified specialist and practice leader at WorldatWork. She projects that the virtual workforce could be 100 million strong by 2010.

As the size of the virtual workforce grows, so do the issues surrounding managing and motivating a workforce that's not physically present. Most managers haven't been trained to work with employees they can't see on a daily basis. Employees who work outside the office cubby—either from a home office or an out-of-office location—frequently say that they don't feel like they're part of a team. They don't know if their company values them. They can feel isolated.

So how do you provide an environment where people feel valued when they are physically located in more than one place?

"Recognition is about seeing and acknowledging people. Supervisors of virtual teams are responsible for both recognizing people and encouraging them to recognize each other," explained Cindy Ventrice, management consultant and author of Make Their Day! Employee Recognition That Works. "This is no easy accomplishment when people are in different parts of the country or the world. A dispersed workforce deals with many different issues, including limited face-to-face time with management, different time zones, lack of familiarity and trust, along with differences in cultural factors."