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 my literature review.
The virtual workplace is where individuals work from various locations distant from their colleagues and managers (Cascio 2000). Compared to the traditional workplace where all employees are located in the same place, this dispersion calls for a different set of skills both from employees and managers, since they rely heavily on technology to get work done and connect with each other (Gibbs et al. 2017; Edwards and Wilson 2017).
High level of trust
This scattering calls for a high level of trust from each other and from the managers (Helms and Raiszadeh 2002; Panteli 2004; Grant et al. 2013; Parker et al. 2020). Hoefling (2012) suggests that trust can be made possible by technology and tools that work out of the box, pragmatic and efficient. In a recent study on communication, collaboration, and belongingness in virtual teams, technology, and trust were found to be the main enablers of communication, collaboration, and virtual social team activities for belongingness (Fristedt 2021).
It is not surprising that belongingness figured in this last study because one of the main challenges of virtual work has been found to be isolation or workplace loneliness (Bartel et al. 2012; Baert et al. 2020; Wang et al. 2021; Moens et al. 2021). This finding is visible in research on virtual work experience before and during the coronavirus pandemic.
Isolation and loneliness
I posit that if belonging at work means being part of a team and being needed (McClure and Brown 2008; Filstad et al. 2019), isolation and workplace loneliness are its direct opposite.
Isolation and loneliness have been found to be a silent epidemic sweeping virtual workplaces or relationships with virtual arrangements (Erdogan 2008; Ozcelik and Barsade 2011; Wright 2015; Ozcelik and Barsade 2018; Ozcelik et al. 2020; Stockwell et al. 2020; Çetin, 2021; Moens et al., 2021). It may thus be assumed that the anxiety generated by the pandemic is not the main driver of loneliness or isolation in the virtual workplace; the physical distance of teams appears to play that role.
Perlman and Peplau (1981) defined loneliness as “the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relations is deficient in some important way, either quantitatively or qualitatively” (p. 4).
In the State of Remote Work reports from 2018 to 2021, loneliness was mentioned as one of the main struggles of employees working virtually (Buffer 2021). Loneliness results in weakened work performance, limited creativity, impaired reasoning, and decision-making (Harvard Business Review 2017).
Lockdowns create more lonely employees
In another study based on positivism philosophy, it was found that the majority of employees felt lonely at work during the coronavirus pandemic. This affected their organisational commitment and work performance (Bartholomeusz et al. 2021).
Due to prolonged lockdowns, employees may experience not only isolation but reduced ability to read non-verbal cues which are important in successful teamwork (Ozcelik et al. 2020). This disconnection can lead to loneliness which may induce bigger problems when not noticed and resolved. It was demonstrated that the lonelier employees get, the more vigilant and defensive they become. This in turn diminishes their ability to build meaningful interactions with colleagues.
In the next blogpost, I will write about the opportunities for internal communication in the virtual workplace.
- You will find a full list of references here.