Feature Article - September/October 2012

Employee Engagement Roundtable

Game Components, Social Media, Mobile Are Top Industry Trends

By Deborah L. Vence

Q: Why is virtual engagement so important? Why is it important to engage off-site workers?

Hendrickson: The last study I read reported that 40 percent of employees are now working from virtual offices. This is a very useful trend for employers who can now recruit the best people without a geographic consideration, but keeping them engaged can be a real challenge.

I have several friends working for large corporations in virtual/home offices who say that they feel almost no connection with their company and co-workers. They meet once each year at their national sales meeting, but the rest of the year communicate primarily via e-mail. Companies with virtual employees need to make a special effort to provide more interaction:

  • Invest in technology that will help workers stay connected.
  • More frequent in-person meetings; even a regional meeting with the boss or key co-workers will go a long way toward making the employee feel more connected.
  • When that isn't possible, provide formal and informal platforms where employees can connect: Skype or video conference meetings, a LinkedIn or intranet chat room where employees can ask questions and weigh in with responses as a group vs. via individual e-mail messages.
  • Make a special effort to ensure that off-site employees are included in any incentive or recognition program; announce winners during the national meeting or in video conferences—make a special announcement vs. just shipping the prize to the employee's home.
  • When a company has both on-site and off-site workers in comparable positions, they may want to take special care to construct any program rules such that they make sense for both types of employees.

Wilson: Social media has been a key initiative in maintaining engagement among employees as well as engaging off-site workers. Off-site workers are the easiest to feel disengaged and to lose focus. It is key in any engagement program to ensure that the off-site workers are receiving the same benefits as on-site. Off-site workers need to be self-motivated, but need to feel as part of the team as well.

Ryan: Today's business model is highly virtual. [Employees are] operating in remote offices, at customer sites and across different countries. There are all types of physical and emotional barriers in how employees interact. It's very important when engaging employees who are virtual to focus on building and maintaining those relationships and building a higher trust value with those groups.

Employees build social or professional relationships when they come together for a training or retreat from other parts of the world, but that is very infrequent and not always possible.

With the number of face-to-face conversations [people] have vs. digital conversations, digital outweighs face-to-face 20 to one. The other thing, too, is that there is a tremendous potential with virtual employees, not only when you recognize them, but to find out what they are doing. You are getting some innovative ideas the rest of the organization can profit from. If they don't understand some of the things that virtual employees are doing, they squander the opportunity with other people in their organization.

Chism: As a remote employee, I can speak from personal experience, and at times it can be difficult to feel like a part of the team working 200 miles away from the majority of my team. We just completed an all-employee survey at ITAGroup, and one area came out loud and clear and it was work/life flexibility. This is an issue that all organizations are going to need to address in the years to come with an increasingly diverse workforce and quality talent becoming more and more scarce. We are going to see an increase in the number of "off-site" workers either because of the needs of clients and customers or the workforce or possibly both.

Again, even if you are remote you want to feel like you are a part of the team and you are contributing to the overall mission of the organization. While technology has enabled off-site workers, it can also get in the way of making that strong connection to these individuals. It may be more important to pick up the phone than just send that e-mail. Employers need to be careful that "out-of-sight" does not become "out-of-mind."