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.
Support is the most dominant theme of all four themes I found during my research. This refers to a human support network that is mostly led by the line manager in a newly-hired employee’s experience. This could also be performed by a buddy, a colleague, a mentor or HR. This theme was most dominant in the interviews with nine of the 20 employees interviewed and the second dominant theme for seven of the interview participants.
Having a good relationship with their managers seemed to contribute to a sense of belongingness for 95% of the participants. Those who admitted having a difficult time with their managers were also the ones who felt that they did not belong in their workplaces.
Good managers, key to belonging
I was able to come up with a Y and N conclusion for this table when I asked employees if they felt that they belonged in their workplaces, how their relationship with their managers are, and if their sense of belongingness is caused by the quality of their relationship with their managers. This matches the findings of Belle et al. (2015) which suggests that a good employee-supervisor relationship is one of the several factors that lead to a sense of belongingness among teleworkers.
The interview participants found a support network extremely important as they enter a new organisation, especially in a workplace setting where it is easy to be invisible and connections do not happen automatically. Most of them pinned their hopes on their managers where belonging should start as they set the tone for the team. However, employees were disappointed because it was not a priority either due to lack of time, awareness, or skills:
“I have a manager with whom I did not get meetings or one-on-one meetings. It made me feel lonely. The first time I met him was on my first day and the last day was before I went on sick leave. He said it went so well with me that he forgot about me.”
“I am mostly on my own, it is a very solo function… My manager was very difficult to get hold of. We did do a half-hour one-to-one week but there wasn’t really room to talk to him in between that… I’ve definitely found it harder to motivate myself. Maybe it has to do with belongingness. I don’t know. It has been very tough.”
“I don’t have a proper people manager. I don’t think I was learning from him but he knows all about the company. So I’m learning the process but not in terms of knowledge of the business. He doesn’t connect with me. We haven’t had a conversation in a month and a half. I don’t think that that’s okay, especially in this virtual setting when it’s already hard for people to see you or to see them. Especially, understanding that in the past seven months, I have been bounced between three managers so this is my third manager. I don’t think that’s correct. So, I don’t feel valued in that way. I don’t feel like I belong.”
Regular and positive contact
Employees’ need for a supportive manager who conducts regular one-on-one meetings with them is consistent with Baumeister and Leary’s findings that belonging has two main factors: regular personal contacts and a perceived interpersonal bond (1995). They asserted that belonging is achieved when these interactions are positive, stable, and have the promise of continuation in the future.
The need for managerial facilitation for a successful sense of belongingness at work matched Welch and Jackson’s internal communication framework (2007) where they suggested that it is the managers who facilitate commitment, awareness, understanding, and belonging of employees.
Aside from their managers, employees also expected follow-ups from HR and were discouraged. All of the new hires interviewed only had communication with HR during the application period. Once they were hired, they no longer heard anything from HR.
“They did the onboarding very well. It was one of the things where I really felt like I belonged because they put so much into the training and it feels like they’re really putting a lot of resources into you to make you better, but as soon as I came out of the online camp, that just dropped off completely. It would be nice if they realised that just because you’ve been in a company for three months after the onboarding does not mean that you are completely folded into the company. They should not leave that up to management.”
“I think maybe the organisation could have invested more in the beginning to let me get to know the company, and also other people from the departments. I think that also contributes to the feeling of belonging.”
How IC can help
The lack of a support network made employees struggle and even question their abilities or their worth. They felt invisible which made it harder to make an impression. One employee specifically noted that in the absence of input from her manager, she was forced to rely on internal communication for guidance.
“You’re working virtually so you need to have a lot of information to manage your work. Plus, my manager is not the type of person who will spoon-feed me with all this information. She also expects me to sort these things out by myself. So everything that I do is, you know, kind of self-managed. If you don’t know your line of communication and if you don’t know the process behind it, it will be difficult for you to solve your problems. So I need to make sure I have read those communications because you don’t know when you might need that information.”
Internal communication professionals can provide support in this matter through training managers on how to communicate with their team in the digital space, regularly and empathetically, especially in the time of a pandemic. IC can also help line managers bring consistent messaging to new hires to help them identify with the organisation.
Along with this, IC can conduct regular catch-ups with line managers when there are big announcements from leadership to make sense of the communication that they have to deliver to employees. IC professionals even suggested taking the burden off line managers completely to make sure that belonging does not become a matter of manager identification alone.
“People are now used to not having a manager in their face, five days a week, and internal communication can take up some of that load. Both in terms of reducing the pressure on managers and or reducing the need for management.”
“The manager becomes the hub through which the organisation connects with employees, and the employees don’t really connect with each other. Belonging needs to be more than how you affiliate with your own manager. It’s how you affiliate with the organisation. How do you feel about it? How do you connect with the larger vision, the values, the purpose, the culture, all that stuff? The more that’s dependent on the line manager, the more that you have a single line of failure within that system.”
“Internal communication has been trying to make allies out of line managers for the last 30 years. There’s a basic problem with that which is that line managers are an intermediary between the organisation and the employee. They’re a filter, and they have their own self-interest which [sometimes] contradicts the interests of the organisation or the interests of, you know, communicating effectively, transparently, powerfully.”
In the next blogpost, let’s take a deep dive into the AUTHENTICITY theme.
- You will find a full list of references here.