Challenges for internal communication in a virtual work environment

What does virtuality and hybrid work mean?

In the world of work, virtuality is mostly associated with two dimensions:

  1. the geographical distribution of the members of a team or an organization, and
  2. the reliance on technology and electronic media for collaboration and communication. 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.

 

How well informed are employees about their organization?

Ten major challenges for internal communication practitioners

Increasing virtuality leads to various challenges regarding communication with and between employees. The research team identified ten major challenges for internal communication concerning the transition to a more virtual or hybrid work organization:

 

1. Ensuring technological access and support

  • Employees need to have the necessary hardware and software and to feel comfortable communicating and working with them.
     

2. Co-creating a virtual work environment

  • Training should be provided to ensure that all employees can handle digital tools and communicate virtually. To jointly create a functioning virtual working environment and provide support, communications, IT and HR should work closely together.
     

3. Achieving the goals of internal communication

  • To foster internal communication goals such as commitment, engagement, and participation in a virtual work environment, communications professionals must be innovative and find new approaches (e. g. interactive communication platforms and virtual leisure activities).
     

4. Gaining insights into employees’ needs and difficulties

  • 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.
     

5. Employee-centric communication

  • Communication formats and messages must be adapted to the increasingly virtual work environment in order to reach both on-site and virtual employees.

 

6. Supporting leaders to communicate authentically and transparently

  • 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 adequately emotional.
     

7. Enabling employees and executives to communicate effectively

  • To empower employees and top manager to use digital tools effectively and to communicate engagingly within their teams and units as well as with other organizational members, internal communication must collaborate with HR.
     

8. Learning new skills, innovating and being agile

  • Inclusive communication environment requires for all employees new skills and high levels of job engagement. Internal communicators need to innovate and take inspiration from employee feedback to respond flexibly to the new challenges that arise.
     

9. Minimizing the risk of a two-class society

  • Communication professionals should develop an inclusive communication strategy that integrates all employees, no matter where.
     

10. Supporting the change towards a culture of flexibility

  • In order to develop future forms of work and communication, internal communication experts must work even more closely than before with colleagues from other units, especially HR and IT. Additionally, they must create awareness and provide support for the whole organization in its change towards a flexible work environment.

Further topics: 

 

Key findings of the study

  • Potential: The study suggests that communication professionals see digital nudging as an interesting and promising method to increase the effectiveness of communication activities. Learning about digital nudging could be useful even if the method can’t be applied by communication professionals directly.
     
  • Application possibilities: Most interviewees hadn’t yet implemented digital nudging themselves. But the interviewees identified the following applications as particularly promising:
    • Supporting digital transformation
    • Encouraging learning and development as well as knowledge sharing
    • Increasing compliance behavior, especially regarding cybersecurity
    • Improving employees’ health and well-being
       

  • Challenges:  The applicability of digital nudging depends on whether the organization uses digital platforms that allow for customization, if there is leeway regarding corporate design, and whether ethical concerns can be sufficiently addressed.

 

Methodology

The research was conducted by Prof. Dr. Sabine Einwiller and her team at the University of Vienna. It comprised four successive phases:

  1. Literature review of academic and practitioner-oriented literature on virtual internal communication and collaboration.
     
  2. In-depth Interviews with 16 communication experts from different German and Austrian companies were conducted virtually in March and April 2021, approximately one year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe. The aim was to find out about objectives, challenges and suitable communication measures in times of virtual internal communication.
     
  3. Semi-structured Interviews: 60 employees in Austrian or German organizations were asked how they experience the changes to virtual and flexible working and how they perceive internal communication measures in this regard.
     
  4. Two online surveys of 1,000 employees were conducted among people employed by Austrian or German organizations with at least 250 employees.
    - The goal of survey 1 was to investigate the perception of internal communication and its effects on an organizational level. 
    - Survey 2 addressed communication and collaboration in teams.

Sixteen internal communication experts from these organizations were interviewed in March and April 2021. 

Research background

How to transform internal communication to a virtual work environment?
This was a question often asked when discussing the results of the Communications Trend Radar 2021, a research project recently completed by the Academic Society for Management & Communication. The study describes five key trends from society, management and technology that will influence corporate communications in the near future. The virtualization of communications was one of them. 

 

Research team

  • Dr. Sabine Einwiller is the professor of Public Relation Research at the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna.
     
  • Julia Stranzl, M.A. is a research associate at the Department of Public Relations Research at the University of Vienna and a member of the Corporate Communication Research Group (CCom).
     
  • Daniel Wolfgruber, M.A. is a research associate in the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna
     
  • Jana Brockhaus, M.A. works for the Academic Society for Management & Communication as a communication manager.