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Consequences of virtualization

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Virtual corporate communications is one out of five key trends identified by the Communications Trend Radar 2021 that we believe will change communications. For several months now, virtual communication has been the top priority for most communi­cations departments. Internal work processes and collaboration had to be virtualized, while contact restrictions called for new digital formats to stay in touch with internal and external stakeholders. Since virtual formats will remain an integral part of the media mix in the long term, communications departments need to develop strategies with an appropriate cost–benefit ratio.

Effects of virtualization on communication departments

„Let’s do it virtually!” has been a common phrase and a widespread way of doing things in businesses around the globe since 2020. The pandemic has accelerated the digitization of workplaces so rapidly that video calls, virtual conferences and digital get-togethers are already considered the “new normal”. 

When looking at the effects of virtualization on communication departments, two aspects stand out: 

  1. Virtual management and leadership: Almost overnight, workflows, management and leadership processes had to be virtualised during the pandemic – a huge challenge not only for communications departments but all other corporate units, too. They had to design virtual collaboration processes internally as well as with external partners (such as agencies, freelancers, or service providers). Moreover, virtual leadership has become a key issue when executives operate from home. This again is closely intertwined with corporate culture and employee engagement. It poses the question: What can corporate communications do to foster motivation and collaboration among employees and how to keep up the team spirit?
  2. Virtual communication formats: Communication teams in particular face an additional challenge: the execution of virtual communications between the company and its external and internal stakeholders. The scope reaches from offering virtual press conferences, to organizing virtual annual shareholder meetings, setting up virtual trade fairs and even planning virtual Christmas parties. But virtualization as such is complex. Communicators often lack the experience with new virtual formats and typical advantages of established live events no longer apply. New solutions had to be found based on trial and error and often with little preparation time. Against this backdrop, the new formats have been surprisingly successful. Obviously, many solutions cannot fully compensate for the advantages of face-to-face formats. But virtualization has found its way into corporate communications and is expected to persist in a hybrid world consisting of both virtual and real elements.

Virtual town halls are a great technical solution to communicate with employees internationally and across our different locations. However, I believe the quality of communication suffers, as no real dialogue can take place.”

Stefanie Hansen, Head of Communications Austria, Germany, Switzerland, BP Europe

Virtual communication formats have come to stay

As already said, the end of the pandemic is unlikely to also mean the end of virtual corporate communications. We believe that it is an important development that will continue. What’s more, communication departments stand to benefit from virtualizing their work in many ways: 

  • Reaching significantly larger audiences
  • Overcoming boundaries as virtual formats can involve stakeholders around the world
  • Saving time due to less travel and fewer physical meetings, freeing up time for other tasks
  • A positive impact on the environment if virtual solutions have a smaller carbon footprint than live events, which often include travel, facilities, and catering

But let’s be clear: Expectations towards communication departments will grow to offer both virtual and real formats in parallel in the future. This means that even more resources will be needed than before. Finding the right mix with limited resources to satisfy the different needs of numerous stakeholders will be crucial.

Virtual communication with employees via social media is gaining in importance. This has multiple advantages: greater reach; a broader, stronger impact; direct, non-hierarchical, interactive exchange; and relatively lower costs per person.”

Dr. Felix Gress, SVP Group Communications and Public Affairs, Continental

What lies ahead for communicators?

In many areas, virtual communications already run very smoothly. In other areas proven and successful strategies are still missing. Three examples that will need further investigation:

Can stakeholder dialogues succeed in virtual settings?

Many companies have been using stakeholder dialogues to build relationships with activists, opinion leaders, and representatives of different groups in politics and society. These formats allow for a personal and topic-centered discussion in a protected environment and thus helps to ensure legitimacy of business operations. However, transferring stakeholder dialogues to the digital world is complicated. That’s why the Academic Society has initiated an in-depth research project looking into success factors for virtual stakeholder dialogues. You can find the results here. (Link zu virtuelle Stakeholder-Dialoge) 

How to keep remote workers involved and motivated?

As for employee communication, many virtual formats have been introduced to keep employees informed in the short term. But looking ahead, the question arises how to keep them motivated and engaged in the long term – especially those employees who work most of the time or exclusively from home? What long-term effects will virtual collaboration have on corporate culture and identification with the employer? Employee communications can certainly play an important role to keep up motivation and commitment. These questions will be explored in a second in-depth research project by the Academic Society. The results are presented here. (Link zu Mitarbeiterbindung bei virtueller Zusammenarbeit) 

How can communication departments find the right balance? 

The past months have revealed a noticeable oversupply of digital offerings. There are free webinars for nearly everything: many register, fewer attend, and it remains unclear how many participants really pay close attention to them on their screen. This has consequences. A fatigue (also refered to as “Zoom fatigue”) of digital formats is emerging, while the desire is growing to return to face-to-face formats. Communicators should therefore consider which of their offerings are crucial in terms of presence, which are best staged digitally, and which can be dispensed with altogether – to protect both their own resources and those of their audience.