Departments - January/February 2012

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Virtual Engagement

Study Shows Engaging Off-Site Employees Is Essential

By Deborah L. Vence

About 40 percent of the workforce in the United States is made up of offsite workers, which also means that face-to-face time with superiors and co-workers isn't as prevalent as it once was. That's why engaging virtual employees is a must for any company that wants to have a stronger partnership with their workers.

In fact, the latest study by The Forum: Business Results Through People examined the challenges of building relationships between a company and virtual workers who may feel disenfranchised because of geography or cultural barriers.

"The study was designed to explore best practices regarding the creation of a virtual workplace, with an emphasis on how these practices can improve employee enrichment and employee engagement. The study focus was selected by our membership, who expressed a strong interest in the topic," said Dr. Jennifer Rosenzweig, research director for The Forum: Business Results Through People, a Naperville, Ill.-based organizational trust for thought leadership advocating that the most effective way business leaders can create and sustain organizational value is through their partnership with people.

The study included interviews with leaders at several organizations that have made virtual work arrangements a routine part of their business.

Analysis of those interviews resulted in key findings that included:

  • Engaging remote employees must be a strategic part of a bigger virtual employee management practice endorsed by top organizational leaders.
  • Virtual employment helps address the trade-off between finding quality talent needed within a restricted geographic area.
  • Periodic face-to-face contact can help overcome the disconnect of distance.
  • Formal policies and programs for virtual employees enhance the performance and quality of the work experience.
  • Companies need to invest in technology that empowers virtual employees.
  • Leaders need to actively work on integrating virtual employees into the organizational culture.

With regard to the first key finding on "engaging remote employees," Rosenzweig said that "Virtual employees aren't simply 'regular employees' who happen to have a desk elsewhere. They face a variety of challenges as a result of this separation, such as being out of informal communications loops and having increased difficulty in building peer relationships.

"Therefore, an organization needs to look at the big picture, determine what they hope to accomplish as a result of creating a virtual workplace," she said, "and then implement policies and procedures that reflect this strategic view."

And, with regard to the finding that indicated that "companies need to invest in technology that empowers virtual employees," Rosenzweig noted that "Some companies focus on selecting technology that allows them to 'watch' employees remotely, i.e., keystroke logs, etc. Instead, invest in technology that connects employees to the organization in a positive way, and makes their job easier."