Rewards Solutions Spotlight: Challenges and Solutions for a Virtual Workforce

Published: August 2020


The Spotlight is a regular Q&A feature that showcases our people, their expertise, and trending topics that are on top of our clients’ minds directly from the voices of our business leaders.

Brooke Green
Partner, Head of Employee Rewards

Marinus van Driel
Associate Partner, Assessment Solutions

Rajiv Ramanathan
Associate Partner, People Analytics


Challenges and Solutions for a Virtual Workforce

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it — both personally and professionally — leaving people and businesses with many outstanding questions. What will the “new normal” look like? When will offices re-open? Is returning to workplace even necessary for certain positions? For many industries, the trend toward going virtual has greatly accelerated, forcing firms to reevaluate the future of work — from having more diverse talent pools to addressing geographic pay differentials and increased competition.

We recently spoke with Aon’s Human Capital Solutions experts about the rising opportunities and challenges related to a more virtual workforce: Brooke Green, partner and head of the employee rewards practice, Rajiv Ramanathan, an associate partner focused on people analytics, and Marinus van Driel, an associate partner focused on talent assessments. This Q&A offers insights and advice for successfully managing remote employees, while also exploring its direct impact on hiring decisions, diversity and pay.

How should companies rethink engaging employees that stay remote?

With the increased demand for remote work, employers lose the ability to observe stress levels, body language and other cues managers use to deduce engagement levels. Therefore, companies must be proactive about getting regular feedback and pulse their workforce. Being away from the office also makes employees less visible to potential new managers and to those pulling together special teams with development opportunities. In the run-up for a promotion or succession planning conversations, people are not only judged on performance and success metrics, but also on leadership skills, collaboration with the team and attitude. These attributes are clearly seen when in the office, but not so obviously when working remotely. This could mean the playing field is levelled for all, but it also means remote workers could end up missing out. Companies need to revamp talent planning from an annual conversation to a quarterly activity, highlighting remote employees who may not be top of mind. – Brooke Green

What potential challenges and opportunities could firms face as they move towards a more remote workforce?

A remote workforce offers many evident benefits. Among these is the opportunity for firms to enable more flexible work arrangements for their employees, helping to balance home and work commitments. Career exploration has never been easier, primarily because little to no physical movement of employees is required. Remote work also allows firms to save money on office space.

However, these benefits come with opportunity costs. Onboarding new talent, managing productivity, facilitating employee development and helping employees strike the right work-life balance can become more challenging. People leaders must be mindful of these rising challenges and find novel ways to engage current and future employees. Managing productivity may require the development of new metrics and approaches. Similarly, providing adequate feedback and developmental opportunities will be that much more important.

As remote work quickly becomes the new norm for many, we are also seeing employees relocate to lower-cost areas. While this could improve eligible talent pools and diversity of candidates over time, employers must decide if there is a difference in how they treat remote employees on issues like geographic-based pay. These are complicated questions and the answers could determine whether a virtual setting becomes a competitive advantage or not. With vigilant management, remote work can be a resounding success — provided it is approached in a mindful way that focuses on achieving business results and supporting employees through this new, long-term reality. – Marinus van Driel

In what ways will transitioning to a more remote workforce impact diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts?

Organizations have spent lot of time, effort and money creating inclusive cultures, which are rooted in an on-site work environment. Therefore, as firms transition to virtual working, they will need to do the following:

  • Ensure hiring practices remain fair and transparent
  • Track pay equity closely to ensure virtual hiring practices do not cause fundamental issues to existing pay equity structures
  • Monitor performance, talent review and feedback conversations closely to ensure there is no conscious or unconscious bias in ratings
  • Pay meticulous attention to team cultures
  • Safeguard continuous collaboration and open communication

Rajiv Ramanathan

How will widening the geographic scope of the job search influence hiring decisions and overall talent pools?

Physical office locations have often played an infamous role in limiting talent mobility and access to diverse talent pools. Typically, talent moves to where opportunities exist. Over the past decade, some traditional industries have made strategic moves to relocate key functions to attract better talent. For example, retail companies with headquarters in the Midwestern United States have set up technology teams in San Francisco or design teams in New York City to attract the best talent to drive their digitization and e-commerce strategies. But, as organizations begin to think through hiring virtually, a whole new war for talent will emerge. Firms will no longer be limited by an individual’s ability to relocate for a job. Additionally, they will be able to attract better talent at competitive price points, which will lessen the pay premiums an organization needs to offer to attract talent in select locations. The virtual environment will also change the education landscape in the country. Not only will we see a spike in online learning, but colleges and industries no longer have to be within close proximity of each other to trade the best talent. While virtual working will democratize talent availability, it could also increase attrition rates. With this in mind, organizations should start doing more to retain talent, build an inclusive culture and foster collaboration. – Rajiv Ramanathan

What lessons have you seen clients learn from managing a more remote workforce this year?

There are three key takeaways that stand out. First, wellness has never been more important and needs to be expanded to include a broader definition and additional services. Secondly, turnover is a bigger risk than most thought. There are plenty of companies seizing the opportunity to aggressively recruit. Don’t assume your employees are “just happy to have a job.” Finally, every company should be revisiting their employee experience to make sure what differentiates them from competitors won’t change if the office becomes less of a focal point. For companies where free food and on-site amenities were a big draw, what replaces that experience for remote workers? – Brooke Green

For more COVID-19 updates and insights, please visit our website here. You can also write to to learn more about compensation trends and our survey products.

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