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Virtual working – is it possible to be truly engaged?

Nigel Purse

Working in dispersed, virtual, global teams is a trend that is only set to grow. The benefits for an organisation of such an approach are clear but is it possible for virtual workers to be truly engaged? In 2016, The Oxford Group undertook a global survey of attitudes to virtual working and some important trends and implications for employee engagement emerged. Contributor By Nigel Purse, Founder – The Oxford Group.

In terms of productivity and effectiveness, almost all respondents felt that a traditional face-to-face working environment was better, with individual contributors feeling this most strongly and more senior managers less strongly. Those with more experience of virtual working were slightly less negative about it.

The study highlighted three key conclusions:

Virtual working is becoming increasingly commonplace
People who have not experienced virtual working are more negative about it than those who have. But even people who have experienced it still feel that the human relationship elements of being at work would be better and more fulfilling in a more traditional face-to-face environment. And this brings us to two big challenges for our future world of virtual workforces and engagement:

People overwhelmingly say they prefer the face-to-face communication and contact you get in a traditional office environment in comparison to working in virtual, remote or dispersed teams.

This strength of feeling is slightly surprising because virtual working and the use of webex, telepresence, Skype and social media has accelerated in recent years. We ourselves are not technophobes – we have our smartphones, personal virtual conference rooms and instant conference call numbers which we use every day.It is easy to assume that most people have got used to the technology and have come to feel that it’s an acceptable alternative to the traditional approach of being physically present with the people you’re interacting with. However, it is clear that none of these are substitutes for the building of trust and relationships face-to-face.

Virtual leaders
Another stark conclusion The Oxford Group drew from its research is that the more senior you are, the more positive you feel about the benefits of virtual working. And again, perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s the first time we’ve seen such clear empirical data, with 39% of C-suite respondents saying virtual working is better for productivity, efficiency, morale and relationships, versus only 19% for individual contributors.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise as the more senior you are, the more experience you will have had of virtual working, and the more you will be relying on technology to be connected with your teams and colleagues who are dispersed across the organisation nationally and globally. In addition, the more senior you are, the more you will be concerned about the cost control or cost reduction benefits of people working from home, hot desking and not incurring the costs of travel, especially internationally.

And yet the question is whether all this comes at a hidden cost of reduced levels of engagement, morale, loyalty and commitment. And if it does, does it matter? Our emphatic conclusion is yes, it does matter, and it needs to be addressed.

So in terms of addressing the challenges of virtual working we’ve come up with five tips for managing relationships in a virtual world:

Invest time in building relationships and recognise that trust is vital; commit extra time to really getting to know the people you work with virtually – their preferences, their motivations, their hopes, and about them as whole human beings

Be clear about expectations and how performance will be measured in terms of outcomes rather than just “presence” or being there and making it two-way so that you ask what expectations colleagues have of you too.

Be aware of the power of saying thank you and showing appreciation. This can make all the difference when you’re feeling isolated and alone. Face problems of performance or behaviour directly, and only ever by picking up the phone,  not through email. Recruit people who have the self-sufficiency and resilience to thrive in a virtual working environment.

To conclude, at present, virtual work forces are seeing a sharp decrease in engagement levels with many people feeling working remotely is fundamentally unnatural and not conducive to building trusting, working relationships. There is however, lots that can be done to improve engagement levels and these five actions, applied consistently and authentically, give you the best chance of building and maintaining employee engagement in a virtual world.

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