Affective commitment is missing in remote work relationships

Organizations are hiring remote employees in droves. This has made the lives of hiring managers much easier, because doing so significantly broadens the talent pool. Employees seem to enjoy it as well, as it has become an important source of flexibility and, in turn, overall well-being.

However, there’s a catch: Virtual employees are feeling less committed to their organizations. When relationships are established and maintained purely through technology, employees have an easier time moving on to alternative organizations.

The problem is that organizations are failing to adapt their approach to maintaining organizational culture. The opportunities to establish relationships, share perspectives, and build professional and personal familiarity are much easier in face-to-face environments. Virtual employees require a more targeted approach.

When organizations evaluate organizational commitment—the psychological precursor to turnover—they typically only consider what organizational psychologists call continuance commitment. This is problematic. Continuance commitment is relatively transactional—it’s a cost-benefit analysis. If my organization offers me an employment package that is commensurate with the time and energy I put into my job, I’ll stay. But this is only one form of commitment and, unfortunately, it’s less impactful than the second type of commitment called affective commitment.

Affective commitment entails a sense of emotional attachment and identification with the organization’s mission and culture. Research illustrates that as employees experience a sense of affective commitment, they are less likely to turnover, and more likely to have higher attendance, performance, and engage in helping behaviors.

It has become difficult for organizations to create and facilitate emotional, identity-based bonds with virtual employees. In many cases, relationships putter along without there ever being a targeted, thoughtful attempt at building a sense of affective attachment. This makes it much easier for employees to move on to something new.

The 3 solutions

Thankfully, there are a handful of tactics that organizations can execute that can increase affective commitment for virtual employees. Here are three.

Face-to-face onboarding

Whenever possible, onboarding should be done face to face. Even if the onboarding is as short as 48 hours, it’s worth it. Employees will be exponentially more comfortable speaking up, expressing concerns, and asking questions when they can read the room. Interestingly, turnover is at its highest during the first several months of an employee’s tenure. When employees feel lost, emotional attachment is inevitably low, making it easier for them to leave.

Quarterly on-sites

When employees were primarily face-to-face, company off-sites typically fell flat. Employees don’t want to spend time and energy doing activities with people they already see every day. But the tables have turned in the virtual working world. Virtual employees want to shake hands and get to know colleagues on a more personal level. They want to build trust, establish connections, and network—key components of affective commitment—all of which can be done efficacy during a one- or two-day event.

Along those lines, the best practice nowadays is to do quarterly on-sites where all remote employees come to a physical meeting space, such as an event center or headquarters. The key here is to create an on-site experience that is enjoyable and useful. A bad on-site will do more harm than good. Thoughtful agendas, high-quality interaction experiences, and strategic information are a must.

Family through technology

Technology is what has allowed us to have virtual employees, and it should also be leveraged to increase affective commitment. The biggest obstacle for virtual employees is that they struggle to garner what’s called professional familiarity: Understanding colleagues’ tendencies, strengths, values, and work-related preferences. Professional familiarity is the psychological foundation that facilitates trust and high-quality team interactions, which are important precursors to affective commitment.

Organizations should invest in HR-tech that facilitates professional familiarity. Employees need accurate, actionable, and on-demand information about their colleagues’ psychographics. Doing so will significantly heighten interpersonal understanding among team members.

It pays to think outside of the box

These three suggestions are just the beginning; the tactics that we know already work. Organizations that want to lead their industry in retaining virtual talent through heightened affective commitment should continue to experiment, monitor results, and adapt.

For example, why not go beyond on-sites and start offering employees opportunities to do non-work-related retreats? Organizationally-funded wellness retreats—mediation, yoga, healthy cooking—seem like easy opportunities for helping employees get to know each other.

Another idea is to stop asking virtual employees to visit the organization and instead have the organization go to the virtual employees. Perhaps managers could fly out for a day trip to treat their staff to a meal and some kind of event? Business development professionals do this regularly with prospects. Why not invest the same kind of travel budget to retain virtual employees?

To successfully retain virtual employees will take much more than a competitive salary. That approach is only helpful for continuous commitment. Organizations that want affective commitment will need to focus on face-to-face onboarding, regular on-sites, and building familiarity through technology. They’ll also need to get creative. Organizations that get serious about retaining virtual talent will, over time, reap the rewards both culturally and financially.

Scott DustPhD, is a management professor at the University of Cincinnati, and the chief research officer at Cloverleafa technology platform facilitating coaching for everyone.

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