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Organizational Identification among Virtual Workers: The Role of Need for Affiliation and Perceived Work-Based Social Support


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Organizational identification, which reflects how individuals define the self with respect to their organization, may be called into question in the context of virtual work. Virtual work increases employees’ isolation and independence, threatening to fragment the organization. This study finds that virtual workers’ need for affiliation and the work-based social support they experience are countervailing forces associated with stronger organizational identification. Furthermore, perceived work-based social support moderates the relationship between virtual workers’ need for affiliation and their strength of organizational identification. Thus, when work-based social support is high, even workers with lower need for affiliation may strongly identify with the organization.
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Journal of Management
The online version of this article can be found at:
DOI: 10.1177/014920630102700205
2001 27: 213Journal of Management
Batia M. Wiesenfeld, Sumita Raghuram and Raghu Garud
and perceived work-based social support
Organizational identification among virtual workers: the role of need for affiliation
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Southern Management Association
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Organizational identification among virtual workers: the
role of need for affiliation and perceived work-based
social support
Batia M. Wiesenfeld
*, Sumita Raghuram
, Raghu Garud
Stern School of Business, New York University, 44 West 4th St., New York, NY 10012, USA
Fordham University, 113 West 60th St., New York, NY 10023, USA
Received 15 January 2000; received in revised form 13 June 2000; accepted 31 August 2000
Organizational identification, which reflects how individuals define the self with respect to their
organization, may be called into question in the context of virtual work. Virtual work increases
employees’ isolation and independence, threatening to fragment the organization. This study finds that
virtual workers’ need for affiliation and the work-based social support they experience are counter-
vailing forces associated with stronger organizational identification. Furthermore, perceived work-
based social support moderates the relationship between virtual workers’ need for affiliation and their
strength of organizational identification. Thus, when work-based social support is high, even workers
with lower need for affiliation may strongly identify with the organization. © 2001 Elsevier Science
Inc. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction
Virtual work, whereby individuals work from home, “on the road,” or otherwise outside
of traditional centralized offices, is an important and growing phenomenon. By recent
estimates, nearly 18 million US workers currently spend at least a portion of their workweek
in virtual mode (Work Week, 1999), and that number has increased by almost 100% since
1997. Furthermore, 51% of North American companies now have virtual work programs,
* Corresponding author. Tel.: 1-212-998-0765.
E-mail addresses: (B.M. Wiesenfeld), (S. Raghuram), (R. Garud).
Journal of Management 27 (2001) 213–229
0149-2063/01/$ – see front matter © 2001 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.
PII: S0149-2063(00)00096-9
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and almost two-thirds of Fortune 1000 companies offer employees an opportunity to work
virtually (Goldsborough, 2000). Virtual work is important because of its increasing preva-
lence and also because virtual organizations and virtual workers may be the key factors in
the “new economy.” They often represent highly skilled knowledge workers employed in
dynamic, flexible, technology-enabled organizations.
Managing virtual work represents one of the key challenges of management in the
information age. For example, the difficulty of coordinating and controlling autonomous
knowledge workers is exacerbated when such individuals operate virtually (Olson, 1987;
Wiesenfeld, Raghuram & Garud, 1999a). Virtual workers are often separated from co-
workers, supervisors, and other organization members, leading to feelings of isolation,
greater need for self-organization, and sometimes greater stress (e.g., Nilles, 1994; Dobrian,
1999). Their isolation and dispersion necessitates new communication systems, information
systems, and sometimes even organizational culture change. In sum, virtual work may alter
organizational structures and systems, individuals’ work roles and required skills, and even
how individuals define themselves with respect to the organization.
The increasing number of virtual workers, their importance to the “new economy,” and the
extraordinary challenges that they face suggest that we must understand the experience of
virtual work and devise methods for managing this new and growing phenomenon. As an
emergent phenomenon, however, virtual work has only begun to attract research attention
recently. There is relatively little theory regarding the effects of virtual work and even less
empirical research exploring this phenomenon (DeSanctis & Monge, 1999). Therefore, there
is a need for exploratory research on virtual work to establish a basis for comprehensive
evaluation of this novel, technology-enabled work form.
A central theoretical and practical issue in the context of virtual work is whether the
distance and dispersion it creates will weaken the relationship between virtual employees and
their organizations (Wiesenfeld et al., 1999a). Practitioner-oriented articles report uncer-
tainty and concern about the emerging employee-organization relationship in the context of
virtual work. Virtual workers repeatedly report concern about being ‘out of sight, out of
mind’ from their organization (Alexander, 1999, 61; Watad & DiSanzo, 2000). Many virtual
workers also admit that their employing organization is “out of sight, out of mind” to them.
Theory and research bolster these anecdotal observations, suggesting that virtual work may
lead to change or ambiguity in members’ perceptions of their relationship to their organi-
zation (DeSanctis & Monge, 1999; Wiesenfeld et al., 1999a).
Changes in members’ perception of the organization that result from virtual work may
have important organizational implications. By its nature, virtual work diminishes emphasis
on the visible, tangible dimensions of organizations (e.g., offices, colocated employees),
instead relying primarily on psychological dimensions (e.g., the perceptions of employees
and others) to represent an organization. If an organization is to have meaning to individuals
in a virtual work context, it will be because members feel that they are a part of the
organization. A construct that may be relevant in this regard is organizational identification,
which has been defined as members’ perception of belonging to the organization (Ashforth
& Mael, 1989). Especially in the information age when tangible dimensions of organizations
may be less salient, organizational identification may be an important factor shaping em-
ployee behavior.
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This paper explores the implications of the distance, dispersion and isolation associated
with virtual work on the way individuals define themselves with respect to the organization.
We examine the relationship between individual differences in need for affiliation and virtual
workers’ organizational identification. We also assess the context with respect to perceived
work-based social support, hypothesizing that the effects of work-based social support may
moderate the relationship between need for affiliation and organizational identification
among virtual workers.
1.1. Organizational identification in a virtual context
Organizational identification is important in a virtual setting because it may replace or
otherwise compensate for the loss of aspects of traditional organizations that facilitate
cooperation, coordination and the long-term effort of employees. For example, when em-
ployees can work anytime and anywhere, it is difficult to rely upon mechanisms such as
direct supervision as a means of coordination and control (DeSanctis & Monge, 1999).
Instead, it may be left to the discretion of employees themselves to self-organize–being
motivated to seek out and provide cooperative behaviors (e.g., organizational citizenship
behaviors) that further task performance and organizational goals. Organizational identifi-
cation, or the strength of members’ psychological link to the organization, has been asso-
ciated with the degree to which employees are motivated to fulfill organizational needs and
goals, their willingness to display organizational citizenship and other cooperative behaviors,
and their tendency to remain with the organization (Dutton, Dukerich & Harquail, 1994;
Kramer, 1993; Mael & Ashforth, 1995). Overall, our ability to manage the large and growing
population of virtual employees may depend on identifying the factors that predict their
organizational identification.
1.2. Predictors of organizational identification among virtual workers
Theory suggests that identification is caused by individuals categorizing themselves as
part of an organization (Ashforth & Mael, 1989; Dutton et al., 1994). Thus, an important
aspect of individual identification is cognitive and depends upon the salience of organiza-
tional membership to the individual. Organizational identification may also be motivated by
dynamic self-processes, such as the desire for self-enhancement or self-consistency (e.g.,
Dutton et al., 1994).
Previous research exploring identification within organizations has specified several
predictors of identification. These predictors include (a) the extent of contact between the
individual and the organization, (b) the visibility of organizational membership, and (c) the
attractiveness of the organizational identity (i.e., the extent to which it enhances members’
self-esteem, self-consistency, and self-distinctiveness; Ashforth & Mael, 1989; Battacharya,
Rao & Glynn, 1995; Dutton et al., 1994; Mael & Ashforth, 1992). Moreover, a variety of
organizational structures and processes trigger and reinforce individuals’ organizational
identification, including artifacts and symbols (e.g., signs and logos over doorways and on
coffee mugs, architecture, dress), as well as rituals and ceremonies (e.g., orientation pro-
grams, recognition ceremonies, customs; Dutton et al., 1994; Pratt, 1998).
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The research exploring predictors of identification within organizations has focused on
traditional (nonvirtual) employees. However, virtual work is likely to influence several of the
predictors of organizational identification. Specifically, spatial distance between organiza-
tions and their members, a defining feature of virtual work, may reduce individuals’ contact
with the organization, the visibility of their organizational membership, and their exposure
to the organizational structures and processes that facilitate self-categorization as organiza-
tion members. For example, some of the key markers of identification in traditional settings
include organizational dress, totems and symbols (e.g., Pratt & Raphaeli, 1997). These may
include everything from uniforms to the organization’s logo, slogans, and the design of
corporate buildings and offices. All of these tangible markers of identification may be less
available when people work at their kitchen tables in their pajamas or in clients’ offices
dressed like those around them. Also, dispersed workers may not be included in many of the
rituals and ceremonies that facilitate identification in traditional organizations (Gainey,
Kelley & Hill, 1999). The rituals and ceremonies that virtual workers miss might include
lunches with co-workers, celebrations of significant personal and corporate events, and
periodic meetings or visits with top management or external constituencies. Articles and
books written for a general audience consistently report that virtual workers feel saddened
and left out by missing even seemingly inconsequential informal organizational rituals, such
as gathering with co-workers near the water cooler (Goldsborough, 2000; Nilles, 1994).
While intense contact and exposure to strong organizational structures and processes may
be less available to virtual workers, previous theory and research on identification in minimal
groups (i.e., groups in which members have little or no contact with one another) suggests
that people who are isolated from an organization may nevertheless exhibit identification
(e.g., Brewer, 1979; Tajfel, 1982; Turner, 1984). Ashforth and Mael (1989) provide the
example of an individual with a rare disease–the person may never meet another individual
with the same disease, but nevertheless cognitively identifies with the group of people who
have the disease. The fact that individuals identify even with groups they have had no direct
contact with implies that attributes of individuals—such as their need to belong–may help
drive identification in such instances (e.g., Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Glynn, 1998; Mael &
Ashforth, 1992; Pratt, 1998). Individuals whose personal attributes lead them to desire
organizational identification may be more likely to proactively “reach out” to the organiza-
tion–keeping their organization membership salient despite the physical distance and lack of
contact in a virtual work setting.
1.2.1. Attributes of the individual: need for affiliation. What are the individual attributes
associated with organizational identification in a virtual setting? According to previous
theory, individuals identify with organizations as a way of “expressing the personality
characteristics they think they have and which they value” (Dutton et al., 1994, 245). Need
for affiliation is a personality attribute corresponding to individuals’ desire for social contact
or belongingness (Veroff & Veroff, 1980) and is associated with tendencies to receive social
gratification (rewards) from harmonious relationships and from a sense of communion with
others (Murray, 1938). Need for affiliation is consistent with Markus and Kitayama’s (1991)
notion that individuals differ with regard to the degree to which their self-construal is
interdependent (vs. independent). Specifically, Markus and Kitayama posit that individuals
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vary in the degree to which they construe themselves as separate from or connected to other
people or groups. Research suggests that individuals’ self-construal shapes their needs and
values, strongly influencing their motivations, cognitions and emotions in social settings
(Markus & Kitayama, 1991).
By implication, we suggest that organizational identification is more self-consistent for
those virtual workers who value and are oriented toward group memberships and relation-
ships with others (thus reflecting a high need for affiliation) because organizational identi-
fication involves perceiving oneself as belonging to the organization (e.g., Glynn, 1998; Mael
& Ashforth, 1992; Pratt, 1998). Said differently, organizational identification may be strong
for individuals with higher need for affiliation because such individuals need and want to
belong (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Veroff & Veroff, 1980), and identification provides such
individuals with the opportunity to express and satisfy this desire (Glynn, 1998). In contrast,
individuals with low need for affiliation have less intrinsic need to belong and are likely to
view themselves as independent from others. They may perceive fewer benefits from
organizational identification because defining themselves with respect to their organizational
membership will not offer them an opportunity to express and satisfy their personality
Empirical support for the expected relationship between need for affiliation and organi-
zational identification may be drawn from a study utilizing biodata to examine organizational
identification in the military (Mael & Ashforth, 1995). Those findings suggest that the
strength of recruits’ identification with their organization was significantly predicted by their
history of voluntary group memberships. Specifically, individuals who had more voluntary
group memberships at earlier stages in their lives (demonstrating the high value they placed
on belonging) were more likely to identify with the army. Although the relationship between
need for affiliation and organizational identification has not yet been tested directly, Mael
and Ashforth’s findings suggest that a positive relationship is likely. Thus, we expect:
Hypothesis 1: Need for affiliation will be positively related to strength of organizational
1.2.2. Attributes of the relationship: perceived work-based social support. While individual
differences in members’ need for affiliation may be an important predictor of their organi-
zational identification, identification may also be related to factors that are less internal to
virtual workers. In particular, identification may relate to individuals’ exposure to cues
suggesting that they are members of the organization. Research in traditional (i.e., nonvir-
tual) work contexts suggests that contact with the organization and exposure to organiza-
tional artifacts, symbols, rituals, and ceremonies are positively related to the strength of
individuals’ identification within organizations (e.g., Dutton et al., 1994; Pratt, 1998). These
factors may trigger and reinforce organizational identification by providing contextual cues
suggesting that an individual is a member of (belongs to) the organization. While virtual
workers may have less exposure to these specific features of organizational life, there may
be other cues that virtual workers are exposed to that suggest they are part of the organi-
zation, such as work-based social support.
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Perceived work-based social support, which refers to the degree to which individuals
perceive that they have positive social relationships with others in the workplace (e.g.,
Aspinwall & Taylor, 1992; Dormann & Zapf, 1999; Lim, 1997; Wanberg & Banas, 2000),
provides virtual employees with important information about their relationship with the
organization. Virtual workers who perceive that they are socially integrated with other
organization members are likely to assume that others view them as organization members,
and they therefore may be more likely to view themselves as organization members. Thus,
in the absence of frequent contact with the organization and other tangible markers of
identification, work-based social support may serve as an important cue triggering and
reinforcing virtual employees’ organizational identification.
Perceived work-based social support may also function to reassure virtual workers that
their organizational identification will be self-enhancing, thus providing a personal incentive
for stronger organizational identification. Specifically, when individuals perceive that key
constituents in the workplace (e.g., co-workers, supervisors, top management) are socially
supportive, they may be more likely to perceive that they are central, included, valued and
respected within the organization, which will lead them to perceive their organizational
involvement as self-enhancing and attractive (Luhtanen & Crocker, 1992). Individuals who
perceive their organizational involvement as more self-enhancing will be more motivated to
identify with the organization (Dutton et al., 1994). Furthermore, the principle of reciprocity
suggests that individuals who receive high levels of work-based social support may be
motivated to reciprocate (Gouldner, 1960), which may be manifested in stronger organiza-
tional identification.
Previous empirical research suggests that high levels of perceived social support may have
an important influence on individuals’ relationship with the organization, especially among
peripheral workers. For example, perceived social support (which may be a predictor of
employees’ perception of organizational support) may be associated with organizational
attachment among layoff victims (Naumann, Bennett, Bies & Martin, 1998), temporary
workers (McClurg, 1999), and volunteers (Farmer & Fedor, 1999). These are classes of
individuals who may be similar to virtual workers with respect to perceiving themselves to
be relatively peripheral organization members.
Work-based social support is generally communicated by proximal individuals (e.g.,
Aspinwall & Taylor, 1992; Dormann & Zapf, 1999; Lim, 1997). Virtual workers’ physical
distance and lack of contact with the organization as a whole suggests that fellow organi-
zation members with whom virtual employees are in regular contact (e.g., supervisors,
co-workers) may come to personify the organization to them (Raghuram, Garud & Wiesen-
feld, 1998; Sproull & Kiesler, 1991). Therefore, these individuals may be the key source of
cues regarding virtual workers’ organizational membership. The level of social support
virtual workers receive from key constituencies such as co-workers and supervisors may be
variable even within the same organization because of differences in colleagues’ and
supervisors’ attitudes toward virtual work. For example, some supervisors feel threatened by
a perceived loss of status, power and control when their subordinates work virtually, while
others view virtual work as an excellent means by which higher quality work can be
completed and real estate cost savings realized (Wiesenfeld et al., 1999b). Co-workers of
some virtual employees may resent their absence, while others may have co-workers that are
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enthusiastic supporters (Nilles, 1994). The more social support virtual workers receive across
organizational constituencies, the more powerful the social cues regarding their relationship
with the organization will be, and the more likely they are to identify with the organization.
Hypothesis 2: Perceived work-based social support will be positively related to orga-
nizational identification.
1.2.3. Interaction between need for affiliation and perceived work-based social support. The
effects of perceived work-based social support may vary across individuals. Research
suggests that person and situation effects interactively combine to influence outcomes
(Lewin, 1935; Mischel, 1977). We suggest that work-based social support moderates the
effects of need for affiliation. In particular, for individuals with low need for affiliation who
may be less intrinsically motivated to self-categorize themselves as belonging to the orga-
nization, it may be especially crucial to their organizational identification to receive cues that
others in the organization consider them to be in-group members. Work-based social support
provides important cues regarding organizational membership and motivates organizational
identification by leading people to feel personally valued and important. Thus, high levels of
work-based social support may function as a ‘strong situation’ (i.e., providing highly
influential cues regarding appropriate attitudes and behaviors), and therefore may override
individual tendencies especially among individuals who are not cognitively or motivationally
predisposed to identify (Lewin, 1935; Mischel, 1977).
In the absence of work-based social support, however, virtual workers with low need for
affiliation may feel increasingly separate, autonomous and distant from the organization.
They may come to view their membership in the organization as less relevant or important
because they do not have the internal drive to belong. In contrast, individuals who have
relatively high need for affiliation and therefore possess a strong intrinsic need to identify
themselves with the organization may be less responsive to social cues regarding their
membership in the organization.
In sum, we expect that perceived work-based social support may moderate the relationship
between need for affiliation and organizational identification—maintaining the salience of
organizational identification even among individuals whose need for affiliation is relatively
Hypothesis 3: High levels of perceived work-based social support will attenuate the
relationship between need for affiliation and organizational identification.
2. Method
This study is part of an ongoing investigation of virtual work initiated by the authors
several years ago. We began our inquiry by conducting field studies of virtual work practices.
These studies included a benchmark study and semistructured interviews of virtual workers,
their co-workers and their managers (the interview questions are available in the appendix).
Simultaneously, we began conducting a comprehensive survey of the literature relevant to
virtual work. Based on the inputs from these two initiatives, we generated a survey instru-
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ment that we pilot tested, first with a small group of virtual workers and their managers in
a division of one organization, and then with a slightly larger group of 100 virtual workers
at a different organization. At each stage of the process, we modified and refined our survey
to insure reliability and context relevance. The final version of our survey was used in the
present study.
We tested our hypotheses in a field study of a mandatory virtual work program in the sales
division of a large technology organization. Program participants included managers, sales-
people, and a variety of sales support staff. The program was initiated approximately 6
months prior to our study, and was primarily designed to reduce real estate costs and to
enhance customer service. As a result of the program, virtual workers did not have any
dedicated space in company offices, although they could sign up for a limited amount of
cubicle and conference room space on a temporary basis. Most virtual workers worked
primarily at home and on the road, with some time in company offices. Our survey was
distributed to a total of 325 program participants during various mandatory organizational
meetings, and 250 fully-completed responses were received (responses were either returned
to the researchers immediately or mailed back to us at a university address).
2.1. Dependent variable: organizational identification
Organizational identification was measured with the five-item scale developed by Mael
and Ashforth (1992) and empirically validated by Mael and Tetrick (1992). The specific
items are available in the appendix. Responses ranged from “strongly disagree” (1) to
“strongly agree” (7). Coefficient alpha was 0.86.
2.2. Independent variables: need for affiliation
Need for affiliation was measured with a five-item scale excerpted from Hill (1987). Items
include “I think being close to others, listening to them, and relating to them is one of my
favorite and most satisfying pastimes,” and “I would find it very satisfying to be able to form
new friendships with whomever I liked.” Endpoints were “strongly disagree” (1) and
“strongly agree” (7). Coefficient alpha for the need for affiliation scale was 0.84.
2.3. Level of perceived work-based social support
Our index assessing level of perceived work-based social support was adapted from
previous research (e.g., Aspinwall & Taylor, 1992; Dormann & Zapf, 1999; Lim, 1997);
specifically, we rephrased the items slightly based on our preliminary interviews and pretests.
Respondents were asked to report their “perception of how much friendship and support
(they) currently receive from” each of three types of people: peers, superiors (which, in this
organization, refers to upper management), and their direct supervisor. Endpoints of each
response scale were “unsupportive” (1) and “supportive” (7). Each individual component of
the index represents only one portion of the total work-based social support that an individual
perceives. Thus, each of these components is a supplementary aspect of the overall construct.
Therefore, we summed responses across the three targets to create the index.
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3. Results
Descriptive statistics may be found in Table 1. Organizational identification was analyzed
with a hierarchical multiple regression. The main effects of need for affiliation and perceived
level of work-based social support were entered in the first step, and the interaction between
the two variables was added in the second step. In all analyses, the variables were zero-
centered following the methodology recommended by Aiken and West (1991).
We expected that organizational identification should be stronger among individuals with
relatively higher need for affiliation. As can be seen in Table 2, Step 1, need for affiliation
was significantly and positively related to virtual workers’ organizational identification. This
finding is consistent with themes that emerged in our interviews with virtual workers. For
example, one virtual worker indicated, “Feeling connected is important to me.” In the
interviews, individuals who recognized their personal need to feel a part of the organization
also reported significant efforts to keep their organizational membership salient. For exam-
ple, one virtual employee said, “I keep dropping by the office.” Others said they maintained
contact by increasing emails, phone calls, and even creating a “telecommuter support group
to maintain the feeling that we are part of the organization.”
Results also supported our prediction (Hypothesis 2) that organizational identification
would be positively related to individuals’ perception of work-based social support. As can
be seen in Table 2, Step 1, the main effect of perceived work-based social support was a
significant predictor of virtual workers’ strength of organizational identification. This finding
is also consistent with themes that emerged in our interviews. For example, one virtual
Table 1
Means, standard deviations, and intercorrelations for all variables
Variable Mean SD Correlation
1. Need for affiliation 4.33 1.07
2. Perceived work-based social support 13.07 3.15 .17**
3. Strength of organizational identification 5.23 1.13 .25** .32**
Table 2
Regression results for organizational identification as a function of need for affiliation and perceived work-
based social support
B* t p
Step 1:
Need for affiliation .20 3.30 .001
Perceived work-based social support .28 4.59 .001
overall F(2,248) 19.02, p .001; total R
Step 2:
Need for affiliation social support .17 2.78 .01
overall F(3,247) 15.59, p .001; total R
* Standardized regression coefficients are reported.
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worker credited supervisory support for his positive attitude: “The management style in my
department makes telecommuting possible. The style is very participative, there is a concern
for the personal aspect of work life. . . if the style turned toward being more centralized and
hands-on, then it will not be possible to telecommute.” Employees who did not receive as
much work-based social support indicated lower levels of organizational identification. For
example, one virtual worker reported “(my co-workers) think of me differently since I began
telecommuting,” and in response she redefined her relationship with the organization: “I feel
like a contractor for (the organization)”.
The interaction of need for affiliation and perceived work-based social support was also
significant (p.01). To illustrate the nature of the interaction, we plotted it following the
procedures recommended by Aiken and West (1991), which suggests using the regression
results to plot a series of points ranging from one standard deviation below the mean to one
standard deviation above the mean on the independent variables. As can be seen in Fig. 1,
the nature of the interaction followed the form predicted in Hypothesis 3. Among virtual
workers who were relatively high in need for affiliation, organizational identification re-
mained fairly high even when perceived work-based social support was low. However,
among virtual workers who had lower need for affiliation, the relationship between perceived
level of work-based social support and strength of organizational identification was much
stronger and positive.
4. Discussion
Our study draws upon the notion that organizational identification may be crucial to
managing virtual workers in the information age, where traditional management approaches
(e.g., direct supervision) may be less practical and effective. Our findings suggest that virtual
workers’ need for affiliation and the work-based social support they receive are both critical
Fig. 1. Organizational identification as a function of need for affiliation and level of perceived work-based
social support. Note: This figure illustrates the form of the significant interaction effect in the range of one
standard deviation above and one standard deviation below the mean on the independent variables (Aiken &
West, 1991).
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predictors of organizational identification. Moreover, these two factors interactively combine
to influence virtual workers’ organizational identification. The results suggest that managers
may strengthen identification among virtual employees who may not be intrinsically moti-
vated to identify with the organization (i.e., those with relatively low need for affiliation) by
providing social support. Also, the results indicate that when perceived work-based social
support is relatively high, individual differences in need for affiliation are less impactful.
These results have important implications for virtual workers, their managers, and organi-
zational researchers.
4.1. Implications for research on organizational identification
Virtual work may be an ideal context in which to study organizational identification for
a variety of reasons. Notably, the physical distance virtual employees experience may make
their psychological connection to the organization more central. Additionally, there may be
few alternative means of achieving the outcomes associated with high organizational iden-
tification (e.g., cooperation, organizational citizenship, and control) in a virtual context
because, for example, virtual employees are not under the watchful eyes of supervisors and
co-workers. Some early writings regarding organizational identification theorized that iden-
tification is a cognitive categorization which does not require direct contact between the
individual and the social unit or organization (e.g., Ashforth & Mael, 1989). The context of
virtual work may be ideal for the examination of organizational identification because of the
physical distance that it creates between individuals and organizations, which allows us to
examine the phenomenon of identification with low levels of direct contact between the
individual and the social unit.
The present findings have important implications for research on individual differences as
predictors of strength of organizational identification (e.g., Glynn, 1998). While some theory
and research is available regarding contextual factors predicting organizational identification,
the effect of individual differences has been relatively neglected in the organizational
identification research to date. Moreover, we are unaware of any published studies relating
individual differences to strength of organizational identification among virtual workers. Our
results indicate that need for affiliation is positively related to strength of organizational
identification among virtual employees. These results suggest that individual differences may
be one important predictor of organizational identification in a virtual context. Our findings
thus support the conceptual arguments made by Glynn (1998) regarding the role of individual
needs as a predictor of organizational identification for workers in general. The findings are
also consistent with the relationship between organizational identification and biodata pat-
terns found by Mael and Ashforth’s (1995) study of nonvirtual workers. This study simul-
taneously extends this stream of research into the domain of virtual work, suggesting that the
relationships proposed to operate in a traditional context may also emerge among virtual
However, our results also suggest that in virtual work settings, the relationship between
need for affiliation and strength of organizational identification is attenuated when level of
perceived work-based social support is relatively high. Thus, while individuals may differ in
their tendency to become identified with an organization (due to differences in need for
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affiliation), situational factors may overcome these differences. This result may be especially
important with respect to the management of organizational identification. Specifically, while
it appears that individual attributes (that managers influence relatively little, and primarily
through means such as selection) play a role in predicting organizational identification, the
importance of these attributes may be attenuated by factors that managers may be better able
to influence, such as work-based social support.
Our findings suggest that certain factors that are expected to predict organizational
identification in traditional settings (i.e., need for affiliation and perceived work-based social
support) may also be important in a virtual context. On the other hand, we have also
suggested that many other predictors of organizational identification found in previous
research may not be available to virtual workers (e.g., organizational dress and artifacts).
Future research may be usefully directed at comparing virtual and traditional employees to
evaluate whether and how the predictors of organizational identification vary by virtual
4.2. Implications for managing in the information age
The challenge of managing virtual work and virtual workers may be one of the key issues
impacting management in the information age. The present paper contributes to the small but
growing body of research investigating the phenomenon of virtual work. While the initial
impetus for virtual work came from advances in information technology, the implications of
this transformation are broad and far-reaching. By facilitating physical dispersion, virtual
work may give rise to a variety of centrifugal forces that threaten to tear employees from
organizations. Our findings suggest that individuals’ need for affiliation and high levels of
work-based social support may serve as countervailing centripetal forces that may be
associated with organizational identification in virtual work settings.
Our paper draws attention to organizational identification—a construct that is particularly
relevant and useful in the virtual work context. Specifically, organizational identification is
primarily cognitive (Ashforth & Mael, 1989; Pratt, 1998), and therefore may be one of the
best descriptors of individual/organizational linkages in the information age—when direct
contact between the individual and the social unit is diminished.
The finding that perceived work-based social support increases organizational identifica-
tion among individuals low in need for affiliation may have important implications for
organizations’ ability to manage the broad range of employees who could potentially
participate in virtual work programs. Specifically, whereas need for affiliation is an internal
and relatively fixed characteristic of an individual, perceived work-based social support is a
factor that managers and other organization members can influence. If organizational iden-
tification is desirable in a virtual context, but it is likely to be less strong among individuals with
lower need for affiliation, organizational representatives must devise means of maintaining
the organizational identification of those employees with low need for affiliation.
This issue may be critical because individuals with relatively low need for affiliation may
be disproportionately represented among virtual workers because they are less discouraged
by the isolation experienced in a virtual context (e.g., Dobrian, 1999; Nilles, 1994; Schilling,
1999). Also, managers may perceive that employees with lower need for affiliation would be
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better able to cope with feelings of isolation in a virtual context, and may therefore be more
likely to nominate such individuals for virtual work. In fact, articles and guides published to
help organizations institute virtual work programs contain the prescription that people who
need and like personal contact should be discouraged from working virtually (e.g., Dobrian,
1999; Nilles, 1994; Schilling, 1999). In our interviews, one manager succinctly stated a
common stereotype, “For it [telecommuting] to work, it requires people who are able to work
However, our results suggest that a policy of discouraging individuals from participating
in virtual work programs if they seem to enjoy personal contact (i.e., are high in need for
affiliation) may be misguided on two counts. First, our results suggest that need for affiliation
is positively related to strength of organizational identification among virtual workers. Thus,
individuals high in need for affiliation may be appropriate candidates for virtual work
programs because they may be more likely to remain cooperative and exhibit organizational
citizenship behaviors after going virtual due to their stronger organizational identification
(e.g., Dutton et al., 1994; Kramer, 1993). Second, our results suggest that perceived level of
work-based social support attenuates the relationship between need for affiliation and
identification. Thus, we suggest that managers and program administrators may be better
served by supporting all virtual workers than by selecting only a subset of employees as
potential candidates for virtual work.
To insure the organizational identification of even those virtual workers who are low in
need for affiliation, our results suggest that managers at all levels should find ways to support
virtual employees and to create a culture in which co-workers support virtual workers. A
variety of tactics may be helpful in this regard. In the organization that we studied, virtual
workers were offered training sessions preparing them and their supervisors for the social
realities of virtual work. The head of the division delivered an address at each of these
training sessions expressing his support for virtual work and explaining the strategic impor-
tance of the program to the organization. He further reinforced his support by publicly
sharing his own virtual work experiences and making an effort to work virtually as much as
possible. Some supervisors in the organization that we studied used weekly meetings with all
subordinates as an opportunity to convey social support for virtual workers, encourage them
to share their experiences and their learnings with one another, and provide a means for
keeping virtual workers “in the loop”.
Work-based social support often is conveyed through communication, but when employ-
ees are virtual, such communication may require a sophisticated technological infrastructure.
Our findings suggest that investment in such technology may be worthwhile. The organiza-
tion that we studied invested in the technology, in technical support to keep the technology
operational, and in efforts to change the culture so that electronic communication could be
used to convey social support. Consistent with these arguments, previous findings suggest
that electronic communication is especially important as a predictor of organizational
identification among workers who spend a great deal of time outside of centralized office
space (Wiesenfeld et al., 1999a).
Managers also should encourage other in-office employees to support virtual workers. To
do so, managers may need to seek out and reward the activities that people who do not work
virtually must perform to make up for the absence of their virtual colleagues. In our
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interviews, some virtual workers were dismayed by the resentment they experienced on the
part of their in-office co-workers (many of whom had to do extra work to make up for the
absence of their virtual colleagues).
Work-based social support may also be conveyed when managers eliminate those activ-
ities that convey a lack of support for their virtual employees. For example, some of the
virtual workers that we interviewed complained about the perception that their managers
called frequently to “check up” on them, and some virtual workers experienced pressure from
managers and co-workers to come into the office more frequently. Nonvirtual organization
members may play a critical role in virtual workers’ success. To manage this effectively, we
suggest that virtual work programs should devote resources to training and assisting the
employees that virtual workers leave behind in the office.
4.3. Limitations and future directions
As with any other study, our findings must be interpreted within the boundaries of the
research methodology we utilized. In calling attention to these boundaries, we simulta-
neously suggest directions for future research.
Perhaps most importantly, the findings may be affected by common methods bias because
all variables were measured in the same survey at the same point in time. While this concern
cannot be eliminated entirely, common methods bias is unlikely to be responsible for the key
interaction results that we obtained. In particular, common methods bias should affect all
respondents equally. Thus, it is not clear why the relationship between need for affiliation and
organizational identification would be stronger for some respondents (e.g., those who perceive
that the level of work-based social support they receive is relatively low) than for others.
The correlational design of our study allows us to conduct an initial exploration of the
associations between need for affiliation, level of work-based social support and organiza-
tional identification among virtual workers. However, this design does not permit us to draw
any causal linkages. Thus, this research may be most appropriately viewed as an initial,
exploratory investigation of the new phenomenon of virtual work. Longitudinal research is
necessary to investigate the causal relationships among the variables included in our study,
and such longitudinal research may be facilitated in the future when mandatory virtual work
programs remain in place over an extended period of time.
It is also important to note that our study may be best viewed as a study of the transition
to virtual work, and thus is a study of organizational change. In fact, virtual work itself is
evolving and adapting as technology, organizational structure and social norms are changing.
At some point in the future, virtual work may become the norm, and employees may never
experience what we now consider “traditional” (i.e., nonvirtual) employment relationships.
The present study is most relevant to organizations and employees for whom virtual work
represents a form of organizational change. Our results may be less relevant to the world of
the future where virtual work may be the norm.
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5. Conclusion
In sum, the present study explores the relationships between need for affiliation, work-
based social support, and the organizational identification of virtual workers. We find that
need for affiliation is positively related to organizational identification, but that relationship
is attenuated when the level of perceived work-based social support is high. Our results have
implications for the selection of virtual work program participants and the management of
virtual organizations as well as for the study of organizational identification and management
in the information age.
The authors wish to thank Caroline Bartel, K. Michele Kacmar, and three anonymous
reviewers for their constructive comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. This
study was funded, in part, by a grant from the SHRM Foundation. The interpretations,
conclusions, and recommendations, however, are those of the authors and do not necessarily
represent those of the foundation.
Semi-structured interview questions
1. Has your job changed since you started telecommuting? How?
2. Has your relationship with your manager changed? How?
3. Has your relationship with your coworkers changed? How?
4. Do you feel that you received all the support you needed to telecommute?
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A company's sales workforce must be able to present their products and services using state-of-the-art personal computer technology. To communicate effectively with the company's main office, a salesforce working in the field must also be able to collect and transmit order data from remote locations. The authors studied how a company combined salesforce automation with a telecommuting program to create two new business strategies designed to improve organizational performance. The authors not only describe a successful "telework" program, but they also provide a framework for conducting a cost/benefit analysis. They conclude that the start-up cost of the telework program was high because the IT infrastructure was not current, however, the direct costs and savings offset each other within 3 to 4 years. In addition, they report that ongoing costs declined rapidly, depending on the number of new teleworkers joining the organization. The telework program enhanced accountability because the new software applications allowed managers greater oversight of employee activities, Productivity also increased. After learning how to increase the speed and accuracy of internal operations. the salesforce spent more time with customers and generated more sales. By integrating technology into business processes, the telecommuting program also spurred organizational adjustments and cultural change. Gradually, business managers adjusted policies and procedures to conform to the program's technical and business needs. They shifted from managing by attendance to managing by results, which depended on a reliable IT infrastructure and technical tools for communicating with their employees. The telework program quickened the pace of IT adoption at this company by linking IT improvements to the organization's mission and survival. This mobilized the salesforce, the information systems staff, and middle managers to adapt to and accept the new business environment.