Virtual Workers, Real Engagement

A new Gallup study reveals that workers who spend a few days away from the office report being more engaged than those who do not work remotely. Experts say the right blend of virtual and in-office work options is critical for engagement efforts to work.

By Tom Starner

When industry giants such as IBM, Yahoo and Best Buy made headlines by reducing or even eliminating their companies' remote-working policies, some saw it as a sign that the remote-work wave was beginning to recede because employers felt remote workers were not as connected to the home office as they needed to be.

But Gallup's 2017 State of the American Workplace report sends a completely different message: It found that, over the past four years, remote employees who spend between 60 percent and 80 percent of their work time away from the office also see themselves as the nation's most engaged workers. In 2012, virtual workers also reported being the most engaged, but at the time they were only working remotely one or two days per week.

So does working remotely really boost engagement? It can, but only if an employer takes a balanced approach, according to experts. For example, remote workers and full-time office employees have the same low level of engagement (30 percent), meaning that a blend of time at and away from the office is optimal. At the same time, experts say, employers that don't or can't offer remote-work options can also effectively boost engagement.

"Over the past several years, we've seen a rise in appreciation for autonomous work environments -- regardless of whether a person works in-office or contributes remotely," says Mark Babbitt, CEO and founder of YouTern, a social resource for young professionals and author of A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive. "We've also seen a decrease in the fulfillment gained from participating in less-than-inspiring meetings, events and even prescribed programs meant to improve engagement."

Babbitt says today's worker isn't seeing much of an answer to the "What's in it for me?" question from canned, "perhaps disingenuous," group exercises that typically occur at work. However, he says, they do take great satisfaction in doing a job well while directly contributing to the mission of the organization.

"It's not that people don't want to interact with their colleagues and bosses," he says. "We are social creatures. We want, and need, to connect genuinely with other people to do our best, most creative work. The problem is that, too often, day-to-day corporate culture -- with its forced, artificial meetings and interactions -- dampens and even blocks that genuine connection."

Babbitt says people are discovering they can actually increase their collaboration and impact by working remotely, adding that they thrive when connecting with one another strategically, thoughtfully and meaningfully online.

Susan Haberman, a senior partner in Mercer's career business, says the Gallup results come as no surprise. She cites Mercer's 2017 Global Talent Trends Study, which found the continuing journey toward "personalization of the employee experience" is one of the top four priorities for employees as proof: "Much of this is associated with providing a flexible environment that includes remote working, opportunities for sabbatical and unlimited, unpaid time off when needed."

In light of the Gallup data, what can HR leaders do to improve engagement levels of in-office workers, if remote working isn't an option they can offer?

"The challenge for leaders today is understanding how to deliberately inspire one-on-one and team engagement -- often without participating in the discussions that occur," Babbitt says, adding that this is counter to the "command-and-control" style of leadership learned and leveraged by most senior leaders. Yet, he says, it is also the best possible method of improving engagement.

"By motivating people to independently design and execute a creative solution to the challenge they face together," he says, "that leader is replacing forced communication with organic collaboration." In other words, he says, the best leaders today begin by stating the challenge and providing the necessary resources to meet it. Then, after reminding the team of their impact on the company mission, they "get the hell out of the way."

Haberman agrees that there are alternatives for employers that can't offer remote work. According to the Mercer study results, Haberman sees a shift in what employees value. So, if companies can create a stronger emotional connection with employees around affinity, pride and purpose, they become less dependent upon contractual obligations such as compensation, benefits and work environment. That will ultimately lead to stronger engagement across all groups of workers, including in-office employees, she says.

"These are critical and, when executed well, should improve engagement," she says. "Employers constantly should look for ways to provide flexibility to in-office workers." Haberman says it can include activities such as adjusting work schedules when possible to help minimize commute time, providing easy access to child and elder care, and enabling people to use smart devices for work so they may move freely.

Babbitt adds that leaders of organizations in which a virtual workforce isn't possible or appropriate shouldn't despair that their engagement scores are doomed to erode.

"By developing corporate social intelligence, integrating social media platforms, re-ordering human interaction and positioning face-to-face and virtual contact to complement and enhance one another, greater meaning and impact from each will be the result," he says.

One employer, New York-based Fusion PR, allows its employees to work from home one day each week, but builds in added flexibility should circumstances warrant it, such as taking care of a sick child or other family-related issues.

Bob Geller, Fusion PR's president, says that, while it's difficult to make a general statement about the Gallup findings, the most obvious way a blend of office and at-home work is effective in building company cultures and management teams is that it can bring out the best in workers - and ensure their work and work environments are engaging and fulfilling. One nuance would be to provide tools that are familiar - this means BYOD, bringing consumer devices and apps to the enterprise, and letting workers use these instead of clunky legacy software suites.

"I believe working virtually gives you more control over your schedule and life," he says. "With the growth of email and online tools to work at home, or remotely, many of us feel like we are always plugged in and working anyway."

Geller adds that working virtually eliminates commuting time and gives the worker more options in terms of balancing life and work.  

"Even in demanding jobs that have long hours and deadlines - you can hopefully shift the work around and not be bound to physical locations or standard office working hours," he says. "The result of this should be an increase in employee engagement."

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Jun 13, 2017
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