Management and Organization professor looks at the challenges managers face in showing respect to their employees in virtual work settings

Anyone who has spent time working remotely over the past few years can rattle off a list of the ways in which online work differs from in-office jobs. Interruptions from family or pets, increased autonomy and flexibility, and a decreased sense of comradery among colleagues are some of the new realities in a rapidly changing work landscape. One thing that hasn’t changed: The importance of feeling respected at work. Yet, in virtual workplaces, managers may need to make a different, more concerted effort to show their employees respect. 

Beth Schinoff

Beth Schinoff

Beth Schinoff, an assistant professor of Management and Organization at the Carroll School, sought to understand exactly what makes employees feel respected—especially when they’re working remotely—and how managers can apply this information to retain their most valued staffers. According to new research co-authored by Schinoff and Kristie Rogers, an associate professor of management at Marquette University, “employees who feel respected perform better and report greater well-being, while those who don’t feel respected are more likely to dislike their jobs and ultimately quit,” the pair wrote in MIT Sloan Management Review

Amid the Great Resignation, managers need to understand why their employees are quitting—and how to get them to stay. Illustrating this point is a 2022 study conducted by Pew Research Center, which found that the most common reasons employees quit are low pay, minimal opportunities for advancement, and feeling disrespected at work. While the first two factors are (in some ways) simpler to address, tackling the latter requires more insight.

One challenge facing managers is that there are fewer opportunities to directly show respect in an online workplace. Effortless exchanges, like small talk over coffee in the break room or a quick word of praise in passing, become impossible in a virtual setting. Conversations held over Zoom are task-oriented, leaving little room for fostering company culture. “Research finds that employees who work remotely focus more on tasks than on how they interact with others, and thus feel less respected,” the scholars wrote.

All hope is not lost for positive communication and engagement while working from home. As part of Schinoff’s research, the pair surveyed 100 managers and 100 employees who work in either hybrid or remote arrangements. Schinoff and Rogers were then able to identify 284 instances of how these participants both gave and received respect. They found that there are four distinct ways to show respect in an online work environment: through time, validation, tangibility, and visibility. 

Respect works

Time largely relates to the act of protecting an employee’s time—for example, not scheduling superfluous meetings or going over time due to a lack of organization. Allowing flexibility in hours and schedules is another step bosses can take to increase employee satisfaction. 

Validation often comes in the form of pay raises and promotions, but a simple “thank you” can go a long way, too. “In our survey, remote employees reported feeling validated in their performance when a manager acknowledged a specific work product and related success connected to their individual performance,” wrote Schinoff, who, in 2020, published a related study in the Academy of Management about how virtual work changed the ways in which employees interact with one another.  

remote work meeting

A trickier act of respect is tangibility. After all, much of the work done by remote employees is virtual, thus, by definition, intangible. Sending employees physical gifts, like a cake on their birthday or a surprise care package if they’re going through a tough time, makes them feel like a valued part of the team. 

Employees also want to feel seen and get excited about future opportunities for advancement in the company. By inviting staff to meetings with higher management or copying senior leadership on a thank-you email to a stellar employee, managers can offer visibility with decision makers even from far away.

In addition to this study, Schinoff has been working on several related projects about work and virtual connection. One notable example is upcoming research about how the fitness platform Peloton facilitates high-quality connections between colleagues, especially in “moments when they feel a sense of vitality from connecting with others,” she shared via email. Another project focuses on “incidental learning,” or “how we learn differently when on Zoom with colleagues.” 

While remote working has changed many things about the ways businesses function, the research is clear when it comes to the core tenet of respect. “The question is not whether respect still matters — it will always matter,” conclude Schinoff and Rogers. “Instead, the critical work for managers is recognizing how best to show it.”


Laura Davis is Content Development Specialist at the Carroll School of Management.

Stock photo by Christina Morillo.