This blog is provided by the IPR Organization Communication Research Center

The COVID-19 pandemic led to the massive spread of remote working. Remote working already existed before the health emergency but the pandemic caused its sudden and prolonged adoption by millions of workers worldwide. And even with the pandemic fading away, it is expected that a high number of organizations and workers will continue to leverage this way of working leading to the extensive spreading of the so-called hybrid work contexts: employer’s premises, employees’ personal workstations, and digital platforms for collaboration will constitute a single working sphere.

The transition to a stable hybrid work context requires a series of elements: investments in technologies and in the ability to master them; the evolution of office spaces and the adjustment of employees’ personal working stations; the development of organizational models and human resources practices; new managerial styles.

What about the evolution and the role of employee communication? To explore this issue, the Working Group Employee Communication at Università IULM conducted three focus groups between April and July 2021 to gather information from 26 senior internal communication managers, internal communication specialists, and experts from 16 companies. Findings show that remote working makes it more difficult to cultivate interpersonal relationships, create a sense of belonging to the group and to the organization at large, socialize people with the organizational culture, exchange and generate innovation, stimulate group creativity, interact among colleagues, to have informal and impromptu communication, and to preserve the social and emotional side of work experience. Therefore, the employee communication department is called to create opportunities for networking and socialization. And leaders should find their relations with employees on mutual trust, human empathy, and inclusiveness.

Furthermore, employee communication is called to sustain the change processes. At the beginning of the pandemic, employee communication was key to sustaining the sudden move to remote working. Now, employee communication is called to support the change from a set of full online working modes to a hybrid one including at least a partial presence at the employer’s premises. During the intensive adoption stage of remote working in the first pandemic phase, most employees developed the belief that this condition works very well and increases productivity, creativity, and personal well-being. Companies should now communicate that, in order to gain a net benefit from remote working, a partial coming back to the physical workplace is necessary. Implicit communication based on actions and the explanation of immediate benefits will help to perform this change process.

A crucial challenge is also one related to employee engagement. In hybrid work contexts, a certain use of remote working can improve the work-life balance and therefore boost employee engagement. Nevertheless, spatial and temporal distance brought by prolonged remote working can threaten the level of engagement. In this context, it will be crucial to sustain employees’ sense of belonging, which is connected to employee engagement. To achieve this, moments of physical aggregation have to be reconstructed, especially those mainly related to sociability that has been lost with the full transition to remote working, such as aperitifs and coffee breaks.

In parallel, to sustain engagement the efforts for sense-making remain crucial since it is necessary to create unity and sharing on business objectives in a context of higher physical and relational distance than in the pre-Covid era. To address this issue the employee communication function will have to help leaders in generating sense-making for employees and provide adequate development and training tools for smart leaders. In this sense, a fading border between training and communication is envisaged, to sustain effective leadership communication and to help managers to become successful “coordinators of relationships” in dispersed teams. This is an open issue that could lead to a rapprochement of the two levers to respond to a concrete need and will be key to facilitating effective communication of business objectives and to facilitate collaboration within and between teams.

In conclusion with the emerging hybrid work contexts, the role of employee communication will be more and more focused on facilitating relationships and creating meaning in organizational communities. For this reason, it will prove to be crucial in the process of the cultural evolution of organizations.

Alessandra Mazzei is Director of the Centre for Employee Relations and Communication at Università IULM in Milan, where she is also Coordinator of the Bachelor Program in Corporate Communication and Public Relations and Deputy Director of the Department of Business BLECB “Carlo A. Ricciardi”.

The Working Group Employee Communication @Università IULM is a group of 15 companies that partner the Centre for Employee Relations and Communication (CERC) at Università IULM to conduct topic-focused research. In 2020-2022, the Working Group Employee Communication includes: Campari Group, Cromology Italia, E.ON, Eni, Ferrero, LFoundry, MM, Sanofi, Sella, Snam, Takeda, Unicoop Firenze, Unipol Group, Vodafone Italia and Whirlpool EMEA.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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