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IC strategies that work: nurturing leadership

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.

Data shows that there are four elements that can make belongingness in the virtual workplace a possibility. It also shows that when the tangible structures of an organisation are eliminated, as we have experienced during the pandemic, those working virtually will have to overcompensate in other ways. Belonging in the virtual workplace setting is no longer about a place but about what makes up that place for individuals. It is about identification with the organisation itself and its people, mattering, being seen, and feeling cared for.

Employee interviews have shown that they welcome nurturing leadership, especially when working from home. How should leaders be and how can IC help?

Building a culture of trust

Employee interviews demonstrated that they value feeling cared for and being empowered to work autonomously in the virtual workplace. This seems logical if they are working from home and some of them, alone. This provides an opportunity for internal communication to promote a culture of empathy and trust in the virtual workplace through the messages they send or the activities that they choose to promote in the workplace.

It can be the job of internal communication to listen to employees, recognise their needs, and tailor activities and actions to these needs. Neill and Bowen (2021) highlighted the need for organisational listening during the pandemic in their study where they suggested that to provide emotional support to employees, listening is a necessary skill.

For this to work, internal communication can design assessment systems with every activity and track what worked and what did not work. They can either do more of what worked and adapt what did not work to keep employees engaged and feel cared for.

Constant and empathetic communication

Leadership communication is another IC territory that can be enhanced while working virtually (Men and Bowen 2016). IC’s role beyond training managers to connect constantly and empathetically is to start with the top leaders of the organisation. When CEOs start meetings by asking how people are doing and showing that they care, it sets the tone for leadership and other managers follow (Men et al. 2020). When top leaders set the trend, training may not even be necessary since line managers will just copy. Social learning theory suggests that most human behaviour is formed through observation and modeling (Bandura 1977).

Open up

To supplement this, internal communication can create informal sections in employee newsletters where leaders tell personal stories whether they are about challenges or winning moments. This sends the signal that leaders are human beings too and in times of crisis, they also struggle. It invites employees to open up and share their own experiences which have consistently been defined as giving them a sense of belonging.

Recent internal communication research suggests that empathetic language by leaders induced positive emotions in employees and improved organisational identification (Yue et al. 2020: 1). Emphasis on leading by example and work-life balance were also much needed (Bojadjiev and Vaneva 2021) as managers did not only have to manage work processes but also their employees’ emotions (Yeomans and Bowman 2021; Einwiller et al. 2021; Ecklebe and Löffler 2021).

Next up

In the next blogpost, let’s take a deep dive into the new model for virtual workplace belonging.


  • You will find a full list of references here.
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