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Belonging is organic

This blogpost is part of the “Belonging is a mindset” blog series derived from my academic research on ‘internal communication and belonging in the virtual workplace’ for the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. The data from this study was collected from new hires who started their jobs in the middle of the pandemic and internal communication practitioners. This blogpost is part of the findings and results section.
Authenticity theme per participant.

The second dominant theme that came out during my research is called Authenticity. This pertains to spontaneous, non-transactional, organic moments of connection such as chats before and after meetings, virtual coffee chats, small talk or virtual catch-ups, bumping into someone in the watercooler in a physical office, events that are serendipitous. I used the word Authenticity to code this theme because these are actions that bring out the authentic self in people and relationships. Stephen Joseph (2017) defined authenticity as, “when people feel truly accepted for who they are, they don’t feel the need to put on a façade” (p. 10). 

Virtual feels unnatural

This was the most dominant theme for three of the 20 participants and the second most dominant one for five participants. The interview participants noted that this is what they miss the most in the virtual workplace and are uncertain if it can ever be replicated since the organic way of connecting people is no longer there. This means that there is more effort necessary to build it.

“Conversations feel unnatural, I think, especially in the beginning because you still have to discover the culture and the atmosphere and how people behave so you do not know what the social norms are and I think, in reality, you can judge better. You can also have a better feeling about how people behave and what is accepted and what’s not accepted, and from a screen, you can only judge up to a certain degree.”

“You don’t get to see the way they dress, the way they speak because a lot of them have their cameras off. So how do you get a sense of belonging? You don’t. You don’t know how they make their coffee, how they drink it, or if they put one spoon of sugar in it. You don’t get to see that. The bonds, the connections that you make in person are different from the ones that you meet virtually. You don’t get a sense of belonging from a screen.”

“I really have to constantly be the one proactively sort of forcing a connection with everyone, whether that was a social connection or workwise. It is exhausting. I kind of feel like I’m floating out here by myself.”

Connection builds trust

The need to connect is in line with the findings of McClure and Brown (2008) where they suggested that ‘connecting with colleagues and feeling included’ is one of the six elements of belonging at work. When this need for connection is not satisfied, employees feel left out, develop a low self-concept and feel like not contributing (Waller 2020). In virtual teams, non-transactional or the social form of communication was found to build trust and is encouraged (Greenberg et al. 2007).

Unfortunately, as employees affirmed, the virtual workplace has a way of turning people into functional beings with every appointment having a goal.

“What becomes a bit taxing around remoteness or virtual working is the flip side that everything has to be so scheduled. Like you end up with your calendar with a bunch of really planned interactions with people. Instead of, you know, spontaneity, which you would have, and also the ability to meet people that you would otherwise get in the office environment. There would be events where you just start chatting with random people and somehow you end up growing your network. Now it’s a lot more intentional. I’m going to meet you because I have an agenda. So I do miss that aspect of spontaneity.”

Lack of connections makes employees feel isolated, especially during the pandemic, and proved to be the biggest challenge in the virtual workplace (Baert et al. 2020; Wang et al. 2021; Moens et al. 2021). Feeling lonely at work was found to be experienced by a majority of employees during the pandemic which affected their organisational commitment and work performance (Bartholomeusz et al. 2021).

How IC is helping

Internal communication tried to mitigate this need through virtual events and internal social media with mixed success. Some employees found encouragement in virtual events although it did not work for everyone. Most virtual events were only exciting at first but without a real goal, they quickly became a bore.

“Sometimes you have these informal drinks which made me think, ‘but now we are going to sit with each other and do the drink behind the camera’. For me, it felt a bit forced. I cannot break the ice. I also think it’s a lot of people. It is funny though because I have to sit down and pretend that I am having a Friday drink.”

“You cannot force spontaneity. We had an Easter breakfast online with everyone eating in front of the camera. It was a nice gesture but really weird, you know, like seeing people eating in front of the camera. There are just some things you cannot copy online.”

What worked was when internal communication, in partnership with HR, developed teaming events or regular meet-ups which created the space for small talk.

“Something that did help me with that sense of belongingness was an activity that HR organised which was kind of like a games night. We were all online, super fun and really, really nice. I felt that I belonged because I was having this sense of achievement with colleagues I don’t usually work with while getting to know each other and we won!”

“There’s a (virtual) Coffee Corner. I used to go there every morning but there was usually only one guy who also came. I got to know him quite well because we did talk about work, but it’s not always about work. I learned about his hobbies. I felt that it broke the boundary of work-life. I did start feeling, getting the feeling of belonging from that experience.”

Keeping it interesting

Internal communication professionals found that the challenge behind virtual events was to keep it interesting and make the events really matter to colleagues, making it about them (employees) and not about the organisation.

“It’s always very important to connect our people to make people stay together to make them feel the belongingness to the company, so we, for example, celebrate the festivals or some important days important to people. We go through and see if there is something we can do like an online campaign, like Mother Language Week, Mother Language Day and to give the spotlight to our colleagues by sharing a piece of their culture.”

“The biggest challenge I think is how to keep it exciting because people get bored now of all those meetings. Looking at faces, listening to broadcasts, you don’t pay as much attention anymore. Of course, we did try to use Mentimeter for questions but it also fades after you’ve done that several times. You cannot do an online quiz all the time. I think we need to do something else and what you do see is that people feel that they are more and more on their own island so it is a challenge to add serendipity and cross-departmental interaction. You really have to enforce it or so because otherwise people just focus more and more on their own stuff.”

Internal communication used technology to enforce serendipitous interactions through internal social media. The reactions of employees are varied. For it to be a success, employees need to understand the technology and have the space in their agenda to interact.

“Something that really helped me at the beginning was, you know, this app called Donut. It is an app on your phone that invites you to have a 15-minute conversation with a random colleague. I found it very handy because it was important for me to get to know other people in the company who were not necessarily in my team. After three months, I just disconnected the app because the workload was so high. Connections with colleagues are so important and the company should give the time and space to make it happen. Not just give the technology and expect connections to happen by itself.”

“I think most people feel just completely overwhelmed because we have so many platforms like virtual platforms as a way to communicate. For me, it’s overwhelming to try to check Yammer then check Teams. I’m a member of like, I don’t know how many different Teams groups. Teams groups, chats, the newsletter, the CEO videos. It’s overwhelming to me.”

“I really like the Slack way of working. I must say that. Yeah, it had a learning curve. So for a moment, I mean, I can get in and I have probably 50 channels, which, at some point, if you’re not used to having that many channels in Slack, is overwhelming. So it is very difficult to manage, like several conversations at the same time. Now I’m used to it and I have probably 10 or 15 conversations happening at the same time.”

Next up

In the next blogpost, let’s take a deep dive into the EMPOWERMENT theme.


  • You will find a full list of references here.
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