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Tech can increase your sense of belonging

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.
Empowerment theme per participant.

The third dominant theme that appeared during the interviews is Empowerment. I chose this word because these are actions that empower employees to do their jobs autonomously from home. It is an important element of the virtual workplace where employees are expected to be independent. These elements include technology, a good onboarding to an environment of safety and trust where they can speak up or make their own choices. This also includes quick feedback which makes them feel that “there is someone at the other end of the line” (Participant 11).

This theme was the most dominant theme in the interviews with four employee participants and the second dominant theme for five participants.

Organisational identification increases sense of belonging

What is most important for newly-hired workers is good onboarding to get them to know the company, their colleagues, and the working culture. Unfortunately, 40% of the employees interviewed were unhappy with how their onboarding went. As a first step into organisational identification, it was a missed opportunity.

“I really missed good onboarding. I had to find out a lot myself. I felt like floating, swimming because I was just left on my own. It was hard to get hold of my colleagues because of the virtual setting and when I did, they were all busy! I expected that I would get a buddy in the organisation, or maybe someone would check in with me, you know. Or that there would be maybe a coffee session with all newcomers every week, in the first month, but there’s none of that!”

“There was no handover planned. I don’t believe it was a respectful way to start. It was very challenging when not everything is documented. I’m not saying that everything needs to be handed over to me on a silver plate with everything clarified but if I need to deliver from day one, and I’m not given the information… It took quite some effort and personal suffering to be completely honest, to power through that.”

Learning takes time

Along with organisational identification, learning takes time in the virtual workplace because newly-hired employees cannot pick up non-verbal cues from their colleagues. Not seeing what their colleagues are doing at the moment makes asking questions feel unnatural.

“The knowledge that you acquire just by being in the office is an unwritten knowledge. You get it by sitting at your desk, eavesdropping at the coffee machine or by the corridor. This no longer happens. So you need to be constantly online and talking to people. And still, you don’t know everyone. That is the biggest challenge. It takes longer to get to know the company and all these unwritten rules that are part of the company and knowledge.”

“You have to know information within the organisation to push some projects forward. In the physical workplace, you can do this by tapping someone on the shoulder. In this (virtual) workplace, you lose that possibility. You are able to establish relationships but it just takes much more time and much more effort. So I would say for me, that’s the biggest challenge in terms of learning how the work is processed and set up.”

“I couldn’t see what my colleagues were doing so I couldn’t learn from them. Normally, in a physical office, you would pick up cues easily, or you would have casual conversations asking about just small things like, ‘okay is it normal that this customer is asking this or that?’. You learn from these conversations and they are so helpful to do your job.”

This invisibility can also lead to issues of trust which several studies have put forward as necessary among colleagues and from leaders in a dispersed workforce (Helms and Raiszadeh 2002; Panteli 2004; Grant et al. 2013; Parker et al. 2020). In 2016, Willis discovered that trust, along with belonging, is one of the factors that affect the job satisfaction and outcomes of virtual workers. This kind of workplace can benefit from effective internal communication which can lead to trusting relationships (Jo and Shim 2005), organisational commitment (Walden et al. 2017) and job effectiveness (Thornhill et al. 1996; Chen 2008).

Quick feedback

Employees also appreciated quick feedback which reinforced their commitment to do better. In the virtual workplace, what proved effective was getting recognition through apps that are either set up by the HR department in partnership with internal communication.

“We have a very nice recognition culture here. We use a platform where colleagues can recognise you for what you did and then you get points. The points depend on the impact that you had. So, if you want to recognise a colleague, you just go into the system, pick the person you want to recognise, and you will be given a short survey on what this person did. Did they go beyond their role? Did they positively impact a small team, or a bigger department, or the whole organisation? The system itself will advise on the points and then you can collect those points and shop with it. It works because you really get direct validation of your job. Sometimes you don’t even know how much you impacted others. This tool makes it easy to feel appreciated and be recognised. It makes you push yourself, motivates you to impact others in a positive way.”

Unfortunately, with the IC professionals I talked to, onboarding is an activity they hardly have a say on. Employees interviewed mentioned that while their application processes are usually handled by HR, onboarding is usually managed by team leaders, supervisors, and line managers. Employee experiences suggest that line managers are not trained or do not have the skills to do it well.

How IC can help

This provides an opportunity for IC professionals which they seem to be aware of but not empowered to do themselves due to lack of resources. These opportunities include training managers to onboard new team members or creating a group of employee ambassadors who could speak for and want to speak for the organisation. Since onboarding is all about organisational identification, taking care of onboarding new team members can be a task for internal communication itself.

“Assigning people a buddy would be a really good onboarding ingredient. Even though you have your line manager, and even if they’re open and warm, and encourage you to reach out, they’re also always very busy. You don’t want to appear too needy, especially when you’re new. It’s nice to have a no-pressure buddy who maybe works from a different part of the organisation and can help you with all the day-to-day questions or can give you background information. It also has the side benefit of giving you some connections outside your team, which you also don’t build up as easily if you’re online only.”

“I really think for managers, a huge part of their job has to be advisory. It has to be that kind of coaching role. And I don’t think that’s happening. I think giving managers training, giving them clear expectations, and making sure that two-way communication really flows between the people on the ground and the senior leader shipped via the managers, that is the way.”

“When organisations make more funds available to support communications internally, then we can do more. Let’s free up teams to be able to do coaching as well as delivery or hiring people to do the training and coaching to build up the skills so that the communication people can do their jobs.”

Next up

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


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