Survey Says: Virtual Employees Have Higher Engagement

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Upon crunching the data from a survey of more than 19,000 people worldwide, the ADP Research Institute published a study on employee engagement called “The Global Study of Engagement” in May 2019. For their report, the researchers defined an engaged employee as one who ranked highly on questions related to productivity and outcomes.

Perhaps not surprisingly—as people tend to rise to the occasion when working with other people they respect—people on teams had higher levels of engagement than people not on teams. Further, people who trust their team leaders have higher levels of engagement than people who don’t. Also, engaged teams know what their teammates expect of them and feel empowered to employ their strengths in their work. Makes sense.

Interestingly—and more surprisingly—the study found that gig workers employed in teams felt more engaged in their work than employees. The researchers posit that the reason for teamed-up gig workers’ higher engagement is that their side hustles give them outlets for their creativity and opportunities to perform work that they enjoy.

This hypothesis doesn’t resonate with me. Rather, I believe more that the gig workers’ engagement ties to another of the study’s findings: That virtual workers have higher engagement than corporate-office workers.

Based on personal experience and insights, I believe that gig workers, like virtual workers, have more control over their schedules and their days, and therefore have a stronger feeling of autonomy, responsibility, and ownership of their results than people who feel forced to come into and leave offices at set times each day, burdened by all the stresses and requirements that commuting and office-working entail—few (if any) of which have a positive influence on their work performance.

The virtual-worker items in the ADP study’s results back up my counterpoints to people’s most common questions and comments when I mention FrogDog’s move to a distributed workforce in the spring of 2018. (To read more about our journey from corporate office to distributed workforce, read my three-article series on the topic.)

You’ve really got to trust your employees.

If I don’t trust someone, I don’t want to work with them in any situation, whether we sit in desks in a shared office or work in home offices (or hotels or coffee shops or living rooms or libraries).

I’ve worked with people I shouldn’t have trusted in my career, yet even when I shouldn’t have trusted them, I did. (Much to my later chagrin.) And the moment I realized I’d misplaced my trust, I didn’t work with them any longer.

If you don’t trust someone enough to allow them to work without eyes-on-body supervision, you shouldn’t work with that person.

How do you know they’re working?

When everyone works remotely, no one gets credit just for showing up. Office time doesn’t count toward work time. Instead, work counts toward work. Either the work gets done or it doesn’t get done.

If someone has a clear set of deliverables, deadlines, and expectations and he or she doesn’t meet them, he or she may not be working. Of course, things happen—and we all should cut slack here and there for contingencies. Yet consistent lack of performance becomes a lot clearer when an employee can’t hide behind time spent at a desk, roving around an office, chatting in hallways, and sitting in on meetings that don’t require his or her attendance.

I don’t care where the work gets done or when it gets done, provided people show up for essential team and client meetings; respond to each other, clients, and venders on a timely basis; and get the work done on deadline, to specifications, and on budget.

Distributed workforces make knowing who works and who doesn’t work crystal clear.

You can’t substitute for in-person meetings.

I never know what to think of this comment.

When I press for more information as to the person’s meaning around this statement—if they mean culture will suffer (for which I have an easy answer), or if they believe things get done more efficiently with face time, or if they feel a need for in-person meetings for certain types of discussions, or if they mean something else entirely—I don’t get a clear explanation.

Given that people can’t really articulate what they mean when asked, I think this is purely their assumption based on habit, rather than any defined, valid issue specifically related to the distributed workforce structure. I’ve attended several in-person meetings at companies that worked in traditional office setups that had a much higher level of disconnect and disfunction than any of the meetings I’ve had via videoconference with my distributed team—and with my distributed client base.

If a company needs in-person meetings to function, the company may have an issue with its organization or management or culture—and that issue stands separate from where its teams work every day.

What else?

Of course, FrogDog has a small team, and FrogDog makes for just one company out of thousands. More companies need to share their experiences to continue to build out the data on the effectiveness and caveats of distributed workforces.

Help me think through this further: What other counterpoints and thoughts do you have about the distributed workforce structure?