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13 Min Read

The Executive’s Guide to Engaging a Distributed Workforce


Once upon a time, in a workforce far different from today’s, employees would get in their cars and commute to the office. They’d sit in the same chair in front of the same desktop computer, and engage in occasional face-to-face conversations with the same colleagues they see every weekday. They’d do this for eight hours a day. Five days a week.

My how things have changed.

It’s astounding to think how common this arrangement was as recently as a decade ago. Today’s employees operate in a state of constant connectivity that makes it possible to be productive from practically anywhere, at any time. They can join videoconferences from corners of coffee shops, update important projects from pocket-size devices, and consult with colleagues without ever having to pick up phones or look away from laptops.

People haven’t just become accustomed to these new ways of working. They’ve come to expect them. So if your company is embracing the power of virtual teams, it’s easy to understand why.

And yet …

There’s another related trend that looms large — one that has the potential to blindside unprepared executives and managers:

Employee engagement.

Yes, there are a bevy of benefits to working with offsite employees, whether they’re geographically distributed across office locations or work remotely by choice. But if you want to reap the full benefits of a distributed workforce, you’re going to have to empower employees to not only be highly productive but also deeply engaged — an objective that comes with its own set of challenges for virtual teams. That’s what this guide is for.

In the following chapters, we’ll walk you through the essential elements of engaging your distributed teams. Feel free to jump around by clicking into the table of contents below, or grab a cup of coffee and read straight through.


Section 1: The Many Benefits of a Distributed Workforce
Section 2: The Challenges of Engaging Out-of-Sight Employees
Section 3: Understanding What Drives Engagement
Section 4: Using Feedback to Measure and Improve
Section 5: Success Story Spotlight
Section 6: The Future of Distributed Work

The Many Benefits of a Distributed Workforce

If you’re reading this guide, there’s a good chance at least some of your employees work outside your office. Maybe you have a flexible work policy that allows employees to work where and when they’re most productive. Or your company has experienced tremendous growth and you’re overseeing a team that’s now dispersed across numerous cities, states, or even countries.

Whatever the reason, the decision to divide and conquer is no doubt a sound one. Numerous studies have shown how much more productive, engaged, and effective employees can be when they’re empowered to choose where, when, and how they’ll get work done.

One early experiment found that companies gain the equivalent of an extra workday a week from each employee that works remotely; another study found that the typical business saves $11,000 per person, per year, by letting employees work virtually 50% of the time. And in a 24,000-employee survey, 98% said “anywhere working” has a positive impact on productivity.

In fact, when it comes to employee engagement, the benefits of a distributed workforce can boost not only productivity and profits but recruitment and retention as well. Turnover is 25% lower at companies that support virtual work environments, and decisions to leave companies or accept job offers often hinge on options for virtual collaboration. For example, 90% of employees who have experienced the benefits of working off-site say they plan to work remotely for the rest of their careers.

The evidence is clear: Remote and distributed employees have massive potential to be highly productive and exceptionally engaged.

As long as you know how to engage them.

Many managers are finding themselves in the tricky position of engaging remote or distributed reports who are infrequently (if ever) in the same room with them. Whether you’re managing a distributed workforce, navigating the details of a “work from anywhere” remote policy, or juggling a bevy of off-site contractors and freelancers, the challenge is the same.

Despite the constant connectivity, you can go days, weeks, or even months without actually seeing your employees. And that begs the question: How do you create a culture of camaraderie, collaboration, and, ultimately, engagement?

The Challenges of Engaging Out-of-Site Employees

It’s not just distributed workforces that face this issue. ALL companies struggle to help employees feel fully engaged with their work, and each year we’re reminded of just how acute this need is. One popular survey, for instance, recently shared that as much as 85% of employees worldwide are disengaged and, in some cases, actively disengaged in their jobs.

Though the actual numbers have been debated — our own research shows that among companies actively pursuing engagement initiatives, more than 80% of employees are engaged — the recommendations on how to remedy low engagement are fairly consistent. Hire and train great managers. Emphasize work-life balance. Focus on retention. And, perhaps most notable of all: Give employees greater flexibility in where, when, and how they work.

Let people adjust their schedules, the theory goes, and your workforce will automatically become more efficient and effective.

While this advice may be grounded in some very sound research, it tends to gloss over some foundational elements that are critical for true engagement.

Many companies have learned the hard way that growing a distributed workforce without focusing first on the hearts and minds of employees can backfire.

What happens when your satellite office has questions about a critical company goal? What will you do if there’s a dispute between teams, and how do you handle all the communication nuances like facial expressions and inflection that can get lost in a sea of instant chat and email? One academic study sheds some light on what can occur when these questions and others like them aren’t addressed head-on. The survey conducted by researchers at Elon University found that a microscopic one percent of employees felt that distributed workforces were completely in sync.

How likely is it that something like this could happen to your team? Putting a few key indicators under the microscope can help clue you in to possible problems that will need to be addressed.

As a manager overseeing distributed reports or an executive charged with leading a dispersed workforce, you have some unique challenges to consider. Successfully engaging your employees will start with your employees’ abilities to:

1. Forge bonds and form friendships

Research has found that strong social connections at the office can boost productivity and make employees more passionate about their work. But finding friends at work can be a challenge for individuals on distributed teams, who don’t get the chance to build bonds while chatting over coffee or joking in the break room. In fact, friendship and shared values have been identified as some of the most problematic areas of engagement in analysis of nearly 13,000 employees.

2. Find meaning in the day-to-day

When distributed and virtual employees — or any employees, for that matter — find the work they do to be personally meaningful, amazing things can happen. Studies have found that employees who derive meaning from their work are 1.4 times more engaged and more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations.

However, this can be a big challenge for the knowledge workers who make up the bulk of remote and virtual teams. Because they spend so much of their time behind digital screens, even when communicating with colleagues, it can be difficult to see how the work they do impacts customers, colleagues, and the company mission at large. Organizations that employ mostly desk-bound knowledge workers scored 5% lower in meaning than other types of organizations in research.

3. Connect with your mission and vision

Many companies are tempted to lean heavily on mission statements and vision documents to inspire virtual teams, but this is only one small piece of a much bigger puzzle. It can be easy to assume that regularly communicating your mission statement will automatically help employees be more deeply engaged with work. In reality, a formal summary of the company’s aims is typically too high-level to be applied to daily tasks, particularly when the workforce is distributed.

These certainly aren’t the only factors to consider, but they are three of the most influential. To begin making improvements in each of these areas, you’ll need to first understand their underlying drivers.

Understanding What Drives Engagement

To understand what drives engagement within the context of virtual teams, it helps to know about underlying drivers. The effectiveness of every workforce — be it remote or in-office, traditional or virtual — hinges on several psychological conditions and engagement drivers that are always at play.

Before employees can be truly productive and engaged, they must have a strong foundation of:

  • Meaning that gives each individual a sense that being immersed in work has value.
  • Safety to trust that work can be pursued without fear of negative consequences.
  • Capacity that ensures each employee has access to the right resources.

Once this baseline has been established, key drivers further propel employees toward true engagement. Of the 14 identified drivers, six are especially vital when it comes to fostering engagement among nontraditional, virtual teams:

The next question to ask is: How can you know which drivers are positively impacting your distributed employees — and what needs your attention?

Using Feedback to Measure and Improve

With the right processes in place, distributed employees can be just as engaged and connected to the company’s mission as in-office or on-site counterparts.

It all comes down to feedback.

It’s generally accepted that you can’t improve what you don’t measure. To improve employee engagement, you first need to quantify what’s happening among your distributed workforce. When you ask your employees for anonymous feedback, you can discover the current state of their hearts and minds at work. This data can then be used to uncover underlying issues, resolve problems, and create a culture of true engagement across geographic regions and time zones.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to garnering high-value employee feedback, at its core this process relies on a single question: What do your people need to reach their full potential at work, and how can you help provide it?

For distributed teams, it’s important to not only measure engagement but also break down the results by teams, managers, and locations. Evaluating your engagement data this way makes it easy to see when a particular team or office is feeling neglected, or when off-site employees aren’t getting the resources they need.

This process is necessary for every organization but especially critical for distributed teams. Listening to and acting on feedback can clue you in to issues that you otherwise might not be aware of — such as managers who excel with in-person teams but need more support when working with virtual employees. It’s especially important for remote workers who aren’t connecting with colleagues in a physical office and may sometimes feel like they’re on an island.

Success Story Spotlight

How EWI Uses Employee Feedback to Engage a Distributed Workforce

When EWI’s already highly-distributed workforce expanded its Ohio-based operations to new locations in New York and Colorado, leadership knew there were some challenges for the team to overcome. Taking the pulse of the business and collecting feedback from employees became more critical than ever.

The company’s vice president of human resources, Mark Matson, explains it like this:

“Our company was going through a lot of transformation. The changes were stressful for our people, and our people are critical to our business. Recruitment of engineering talent is always difficult and onboarding is costly, so retention is important. I needed a tool to keep the pulse on how our people are doing.”

To help ensure they weren’t losing sight of what was happening with distributed teams, and what those employees needed to be successful, executives started gathering employee feedback and measuring it against the 14 engagement drivers. Then they began meeting with an engagement strategist every quarter, to follow up immediately on any areas of concern.

It was a bit painful at first.

The initial results confirmed some problem areas and revealed an overall engagement score in need of work. There was a lot of unhappiness. So the team used heat mapping to identify the greatest pain points across distributed teams, then polled specific employee groups to find out what they could do to make improvements.

For months, EWI’s leadership team used feedback to guide employee engagement initiatives.

Among those initiatives was an effort to help employees find more meaning at work. Once leadership learned that purpose was among the company’s weakest engagement drivers, they went through a four-week exercise to work on tactical planning. A team of middle managers was consulted to understand what employees feel the company is all about, and who it’s here to serve. This information was then used to reshape the language used to convey EWI’s mission and vision.

By focusing on the areas that needed improvement and empowering their managers to be the owners of employee engagement, EWI has seen a significant boost in engagement across the organization. In addition to improving the purpose driver by an impressive 19%, the number of “highly disengaged” employees went down from 12 to just seven. Engagement scores for every manager rose.

The Future of Distributed Work

No matter which way you look at it, dispersed teams and virtual collaboration are here to stay. Some 70% of employees work off-site at least once a week, and more than half of remote workers are working virtually full-time.

As companies continue to shift away from traditional on-site office settings, there’s a lot of work to be done to keep these teams engaged. As more in-person communication is replaced with virtual collaboration, engagement should be a top priority for any leader who wants their distributed workforce to succeed.

By building a foundation of engagement now, you’ll be set to continually measure, improve and, ultimately, remain competitive for decades to come.

Truth you can act on.

Engaging distributed teams is a whole lot easier when you have accurate, actionable engagement insights specific to the exact needs of your remote and virtual employees. Don’t play the guessing game — find out what matters most to your teams, with real insights you can actually use.

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