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It’s a hybrid world: Tackling negative aspects of virtualization with internal communication
A turbo-change to virtuality and an upswing of a virtual and hybrid work environment – what can go wrong? Virtualization usually leads to more flexibility, it entails more freedom and independence in terms of working hours and place of work. But when the boundaries between work and private life become blurred, virtuality can also pose risks.
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.
The introduction of more virtual work often has a significant impact on the organization’s culture. The “culture of presence,” where work is done on-site during designated times, is shifting towards a “culture of flexibility”. This kind of culture has its advantages as it entails more freedom and independence in terms of working hours and place of work. Yet it also has certain drawbacks because it’s often associated with an “always-on” mindset which can have a detrimental impact on employees’ psyche. It can trigger a phenomenon termed “technostress” which means feeling like your personal life is being invaded, digitally monitored, or struggling to keep up with the constant changes and developments of virtual desktop infrastructure (Nimrod, 2018). An increased sense of technostress leads to more job stress, the person feels overwhelmed and exhausted.
To find their way in the virtual world of work, employees need not just technical but also psychological support. This includes clear rules for dealing with the blurring of boundaries between work and private life as well as transparent information about the organization’s goals and medium-term plans regarding remote work.
How can organizations foster a healthy culture of flexibility?
- Implement virtual formats (e.g., podcasts, vlogs) regarding the issue of technostress and blurring boundaries
- Communicate life-hacks to prevent technostress and handle blurred boundaries
- Coach managers to support their co-workers
- Regular communication of expectations and rules by managers
There is furthermore the risk of a two-class society that communication professionals need to be aware of. Organizations with a high proportion of blue-collar workers face a major challenge when increasing the virtuality of work, because shop floor work can’t be done from home. Oftentimes, production workers are also excluded from digital internal communication because they don’t have computers, impeding their access to the intranet. Consequently, being able to work from home may deepen the divide between those who can and those who can’t.
Internal communication must help to foster an inclusive communication culture where all employees – whether working from home or on-site – feel equally appreciated and included.
Which specific measures can be inserted to reach all employees?
- Shop floor visits by top management
- Info screens, QR codes and flyers to communicate important information and messages of appreciation in production sites
- Posters bearing appreciative messages and statements from the CEO
- Sending text messages with warnings and instructions to employees’ cellphones for e.g. on an employee app
- Free lunches and personal protective equipment
» After the lockdown had been imposed, a wave of people started sharing photos of what it was like working from home, including selfies with their pets. This caused some frustration among blue-collar workers as they felt aggrieved.Caterina Taeger, Head of Employee Communications, Siemens AG
That’s when we started the campaign #InThisTogether with various communication activities to show the appreciation from all employee levels, e.g., plant visits from our board members as well as video messages and ‘thank you’ quotes displayed on digital screens at the production sites around the globe. «
Eight lessons learned by internal communication experts
- See yourself as a strategic business partner! Internal communication is not just a supplier of content and services – especially in times of crisis and change towards a hybrid work environment.
- Think and act more strategically in the hybrid work environment. This means setting clear goals, developing measures to achieve them, and regular evaluation.
- Have a sympathetic ear for employees’ problems and concerns.
- Communicate in an authentic, short, transparent, and emotionally charged manner. Employees need relational communication to commit themselves to the organization and show engagement.
- Empower employees and managers so that they can effectively communicate and contribute themselves. This improves communication and makes the message content more interesting and expedient.
- Strengthen the expertise of internal communication practitioners because with communication needing to be fast and two-way, outsourcing is becoming increasingly unattractive.
- Think “out of the box.” Be courageous and experiment with communication formats and messages to find the most suitable ways to communicate in an employee-centric manner.
- Increase the proficient use of virtual and digital (communication) tools in order to apply them effectively in an employee-centric manner.
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.