Together but apart: Achieving key goals of internal communication in a virtual world
Alongside the transformation of work environments during the COVID-19 pandemic, internal communication underwent a decisive switch towards more virtuality. Although a change was long overdue, its speed created a multitude of challenges particularly through the greatly reduced personal contact.
That’s why the Academic Society for Management & Communication teamed up with the University of Vienna to carry out a wide-ranging research project on the ups and downs of a virtual or hybrid work environment internal communication professionals have to face.
Below, we outline the challenges of a virtual or hybrid work environment and explain how they can be addressed. We will devote a subsequent article to the negative effects of an increasingly virtual work environment and how they can be avoided.
Engendering and strengthening employees’ affective commitment, job engagement and cohesion isn’t easy. Certainly not, if the work environment is changing increasingly into a virtual one. Virtuality is often defined between computer-mediated and face-to-face interaction. When employees work partially from home and partially in the office, the term „hybrid work“ is often used. A hybrid work model typically involves more flexible work arrangements but brings new challenges for operations and communications.
One of the main challenges in an increasingly virtual work environment is to ensure employees have the necessary hardware and software. It sounds like an obvious one but at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this wasn’t the case in many organizations. Many employees need to be taught how to use digital tools effectively.
Also, communication channels and messages must be adapted – what worked well face-to-face now needs new creative formats that address and include everyone, including those working on-site. Being stuck in a virtual meeting all day isn’t less than ideal as the risk of being excluded from the communication flow because of being a worker on-site e.g. in production. It can’t be stressed enough that listening as well as evaluating communication measures and employee feedback in times of changes are pivotal for the improvement of communication and consequently the working climate.
Moreover, during times of change, leaders are much more in the limelight. An increasingly virtual work environment demands different leadership communication styles and skills. CEOs’ and other top managers’ communication efforts are the most effective when they are authentic, transparent, and sufficiently emotional.
» Communication has changed. It’s no longer just about pure information. It’s also about interaction and dialogue to create understanding, motivate employees, and improve collaboration and processes.Nina Skrzyszowski, Senior Communication Manager, B. Braun
Employees participating in surveys regularly ask ‘Why am I actually here? How can I contribute to the overall success of the company? What is the value to society of my work?’«
Convincing employees to get involved
Something that was relatively easy to achieve in times of low virtuality by means of employee events, hallway conversations, interdepartmental meetings, etc. has now become a challenge. To inform employees about organization’s goals, values and future developments, corporate events such as virtual town hall meetings with the opportunity to ask questions can help.
While virtual dialog formats with executives, such as CEO home stories, can create proximity, shared virtual lunches or online escape room games can compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact. Showing recognition, appreciation and support, e.g. through the awards for special achievements, can also promote employee engagement.
Enabling managers to increase their employees‘ motivation
Internal communication experts consider fostering job engagement and motivation important goals. However, they see managers as mainly responsible for communicatively driving these two goals. That’s why internal communicators are increasingly taking on the role of coaches. These communication trainings are designed to implement a trust-based leadership style and the improvement of the communication skills.
Regular meetings between managers and communication experts to discuss challenges and solutions together are helpful. In addition, reminders with tips help to motivate their teams more easily in their day-to-day work. Surveys can also be conducted to identify the needs and concerns of their own employees.
Ensuring that all employees can participate equally
Participation is complicated when employees are physically remote. To facilitate participation in a hybrid work environment, internal communication must ensure that all employees have a similar degree of knowledge and equal opportunities to meaningfully raise their voice.
The intranet and internal social media play an important role so that employees can comment on, like and share contributions. Publishing blog posts from employees and video statements from the CEO with a comment function can also lead to more employee participation. Virtual workshops on specific topics and in small groups create additional opportunities for employees to exchange ideas.
Bringing employees together
Working remotely creates not just a physical but also a psychological distance from the organization. Relationship-oriented, supportive, appreciative communication is crucial for creating a sense of community and cohesiveness, e.g. through building a common identity by using the word “we”.
To help employees feel connected to the organization despite a lack of interaction, virtual events such as virtual after-work drinks, virtual yoga, and virtual cooking are important. However, it’s important to take cultural and regional differences into account.
» Transparency, relevant content for different target groups, and interactive ways to communicate are key. When our colleagues react, ask questions or comment, we have to respond adequately. Ignoring them is the worst thing you can do.Birgit Ziesche, Head of Global Internal Communications, Henkel
Today, we in Communications need to address challenges and problems proactively. We aren’t just senders of company messages. That was in the past. Today, we give guidance, explain the context, and consult leaders. «
About the study
Accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an upswing in the digitalization of the world of work. The result is a hybrid work environment with new challenges for operations and communication: How to achieve commitment, engagement, and participation in a virtual work environment with reduced personal contact?
A research team from the University of Vienna funded by the Academic Society for Management & Communication conducted an extensive study in 2021 to shed light on these matters. They interviewed 16 internal communication experts and 60 employees and surveyed 1,000 workers.