This post is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center.
As employees across the world self-quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic, there is heightened attention on telework and the challenges that come with working from home.
Although telework has been the subject of a considerable amount of research in two intersecting disciplines (management and organizational communication), there is potential for strategic communication scholars to contribute to this discussion in two realms.
The recent telework push should put a spotlight on strategic communication practitioners’ personal work routines. Additionally, we should explore the ways in which strategic communicators promote telework and communicate policy to their organizations’ employees.
An early study by Baruch argued that telework is a form of flexible work in which the distinctions between our work and private lives are at risk for fading away.
Baruch’s suggestion from 2000 that telework may blur our boundaries has been revisited often in the literature and frames my call to explore teleworkers’ role identities within the context of strategic communication practice.
Teleworkers who use third spaces such as coffee shops and coworking offices interact with their immediate team members and with individuals from outside organizations that they encounter in these spaces.
For example, one might take a phone call from a colleague on a project and then immediately chat up the person sitting at a nearby table.
It’s the same for home-based teleworkers. During the work day, we can transition subtly from communication with our peers who are physically located in other spaces to communication with our family members on topics that merge our personal and occupational realms.
Our interactions in both contexts will influence our work experiences and perceptions of work in these spaces. To understand these intra and extra-organizational communication patterns, it becomes important to consider role identity and boundary navigation.
Last year I published a study in Journal of Communication Management on peer communication in a coworking office. I found that although roles may not be formally designated within these offices, individuals reflexively develop an understanding of the unofficial roles and expertise areas in these offices.
A quote from one of my study’s participants, “Hugo,” reflects this idea:
If I need marketing, if I need accounting, if I need business help, there are people here that I can go to that I’m familiar with. That’s a big thing for me …
I note in my study that these exchanges are often positive, though not always.
The study suggested that it is disruptive when one is approached by a fellow teleworker to share information or engage in informal talk in the same physical space. This is especially true when roles are not understood or clearly negotiated between two parties or when teleworkers are not in the same field.
In a home-office telework arrangement, this has the potential to contribute to family stress and difficulties getting work done.
Social distancing or no, we may not always want to talk to the person nearest us in a shared office.
Shumate and Fulk (2004) present a very helpful framework to understand role and role boundaries in home-based telework, arguing that role negotiation is fundamentally a communicative process.
Given how much marketing and strategic communication work is now occurring in home offices, there are natural practitioner-oriented studies (interview, survey, case study, etc.) to be conducted on role transitions and communication, work/family conflict, and boundary maintenance.
Such research can add much-needed depth to our understanding of practitioners’ lived experiences.
Employee-focused corporate communication is one of four interrelated dimensions of internal communication according to Welch and Jackson (2007).
I have long valued Welch and Jackson’s conceptual piece because it deftly navigates the sometimes tricky discipline boundaries between public relations and organizational communication. It informed my study on coworking office communication and is relevant to a second potential area of scholarship on telework: The management of remote employees.
Beyond the great economic and health tolls that this pandemic is taking, the incredible disruption that comes from the widespread move to remote work warrants investigation.
It is here that we should consider how organizations, through their employee communication teams, are reaching out to employees.
What messages are the most helpful in engaging employees? How can firms best promote wellness among their now spatially-distant employees? What lessons have companies learned about the deployment of tools such as Zoom and Slack and how might we apply these lessons to work once we return to a degree of normalcy? How is a company’s culture maintained or changed with the sudden move of its employee base online?
I do not want to overstate the prominence of employee communication as an area of practice. Yet we know that these teams are key for business right now and they should remain important for the duration of our self-quarantines.
To advance practice and to contribute to our understanding of stakeholder management in uncertain times, it may be helpful to look specifically at employee communication on telework.
Just as there are natural opportunities to examine practitioners’ personal work routines, there are new opportunities to address how public relations practitioners are sharing organizational messages externally and internally about telework.
I don’t want to privilege one perspective or methodology here. Although my work has been informed by Ashforth’s work on role transitions, these concerns are only part of the equation.
This pandemic is requiring us to recalibrate many facets of our lives. Notably, these changes include our disrupted work routines and shifts in our understanding of work/home/third realm boundaries.
Examining public relations work in these areas can not only advance theory but will hopefully shed light on the internal communication practices that can help all employees make the best of this difficult situation.
Justin Walden, Ph.D is an associate professor of organizational communication and public relations in the Department of Communication at North Dakota State University. His research primarily addresses flexible work, employee commitment, and technology adoption.