Internal communication in ‘hybrid’ organizations

How do we design communication and interaction in so-called ‘hybrid’ organizations, where employees work from home or at the office alternatingly? How do staff keep aligned and involved with organizations’ ambitions, and how do they keep feeling they contribute to these ambitions? And how do we ensure that employees stay connected to each other, their work and the organization?

The four purposes and the structure of Internal communication

The Dutch like going to their place of work. In 2019, over 60% of the working population travelled to their workplace every day. Less than 25% worked from home occasionally and just about 15% did so on a structural basis.

It shows that we like being together with colleagues in the same spot. And being together at work has largely shaped the way we tend to communicate in the work environment. Communicating at work, or internal communication, is aimed at meeting four distinct purposes:

  • Setting out direction and managing: where is the organization heading and what does that mean for you?
  • Tasking and Instructing: what has to be done in terms of work and in what way?
  • Involving and engaging: how to create connections with each other, work and the organization?
  • Working together and knowledge sharing: how to improve the quality of work?

Because we used to work side by side prior to Corona and the general assumption face- to-face communication is the most impactful and meaningful form of communication, internal communication has been designed in line with the condition of being closely together. We formalized communications in the form of work meetings, meet-ups, stand-ups, staff outings and town halls on the one hand, and, on the other, shaped it by informal chats at the coffee machine, getting a pat on the back or just walking into a colleague’s office to check in or ask a question. Even despite the improved technological opportunities to work remotely, face-to-face communication remained to be the most common and most effective way of communicating.

Communicating remotely: popular and challenging

And then Covid-19 hit. Working remotely was embraced massively in a few weeks’ time. However, it was mostly a compulsory embrace. The number of people in the Netherlands working from home increased to 56%, 70% of whom worked from home almost exclusively. Consequently, all communications that initially took place face-to-face, suddenly had to be carried out ‘remotely’. Work meetings went digital via MS Teams, Friday afternoon get-togethers became Zoom get-togethers and people received weekly updates from management about the Corona crisis via newsletters or digital town-halls.

As it turned out: driven by a tremendous sense of urgency, the various communication purposes could well be executed remotely – though success varied amongst these purposes. While communicating remotely about tasks and instructions works very well, organizations and employees struggle to keep up engagement and involvement. Informal conversations, connecting with each other at the office and being visible for others turn out to be a lot more complicated when working from home. There is a reason why organizations see maintaining motivation and morale among staff working from home as their biggest challenge in these circumstances.

Nevertheless, most people like working from home (more often). Mainly thanks to perceiving an improved work-life balance, faster decision-making and better (perceived) internal communication. Between 40% and 60% of staff working from home expects to do so more often in the near future, with or without COVID-19. However, they do not want to work from home full-time. They prefer to work from home for 1 to 3 days a week and the rest of their working week on location. Organizations too do not think they will return to the former state of things. Almost 85% of them indicate they expect more than 50% of their employees to work from home partially in future.

Principles for communication in a hybrid situation

Chances are that once we are all allowed to return to our workplaces again, not all staff members will go back to our offices simultaneously. Which begs the question: how can we best shape communication and interaction in such a ‘hybrid’ situation?

Most likely, they will be built on organizations’ thoughts about how best to arrange work in the future. We can think of three possible scenarios:

  • Staff working at the office as much as possible: back to how things were. Colleagues again spend most of their working week at the office, where they work together with each other.
  • Staff working remotely as much as possible: employees travel to the office infrequently and only for specific reasons. Companies such as Twitter and Facebook already decided on working completely from home in the future.
  • A mix of working remotely and at the office: the balance between the two will vary. Organizations have their staff work from home if possible but will ask their staff to meet up physically at specific moments. The nature of the work that needs to be done will decide whether staff can work from home or must be at the office.

Forms of communicating

Up to now we discussed the two elements for consideration in shaping communications or interactions internally: the purpose of communication and organizations’ chosen arrangements regarding working. A third and fourth crucial element for shaping communications is:

  • The more complex the messaging is for people to understand, the more thoughtful and considered the form of communication needs to be.
  • The more urgent the nature of the messaging is, the more the demand for physical proximity for communications rises. Please note that this is dependent on the purpose of the communication.

To put it simply: if the messaging is of an urgent nature, complicated, impactful or challenging, it is preferable to choose the most effective way of communicating. And that is perceived to be face-to-face, in each other’s proximity and via dialogue.

The ‘impact-proximity’ principle makes clear why, in general, communication on ‘tasking and instructing’ can easily be carried out remotely, while the purpose of ‘involving and engaging’ is difficult to achieve by a remote form of communications.

The same applies for working together and sharing knowledge. Research shows that staff working from home assess online collaboration positively. What it seems they are saying here is that meetings and decision-taking go relatively well online. Brainstorming, sparring, co-creating and all kinds of other ways of co-operating aimed at creating something are more complicated to achieve online. It is not considered to be impossible, but generally more effective when people are in duo’s or in a group together physically as that sparks energy and creativity.

What does this mean for you?

Large groups of people working remotely does not need to mean that specific purposes of internal communication can not be met. It does mean, however, that careful thought must be given to how these purposes can be achieved.

A start is to map out for each communication purpose, to what extent it is desirable to meet the purpose remotely. The extent may differ per group of employees, depending on the urgency and complexity of the messaging.

Step 2 is to examine whether the existing internal channels and platforms adequately support meeting the communications purposes remotely. A few questions can help:

  • Do we have the right channels in place, or do we have too many or too little?
  • Can we offer richer content to support complex messages well?
  • Are we able to reach all employees? Do they have sufficient opportunities for dialogue?
  • Do all employees know what information they can find at which platform or channel?

The questions help to come to a well thought-out and structured internal communication and content strategy.

However, it is an illusion to think that we can solve the lack of physical proximity, of contact, of being among fellow humans by selecting the right digital communication means. We also need to invent new forms of contact and interaction. Of course, we have to train employees in the functional use of tools such as MS Teams, Zoom, internal communities and the intranet. But training only will not suffice. We need to enable our employees, team leaders, managers, supervisors and directors in the best possible use of these tools for the four different purposes of communication. Properly managing online meetings, supervising creative workshops online and facilitating inspiration sessions require particular skills.

These skills may not have been required before, but they prove to be pivotal ones now we are increasingly working from home. The challenge many organizations face is not so much to technically enable staff to work remotely but to train their employees and managers in shaping their hybrid way of working such that they can perform well, feel connected and be happy.

Would you like to know more about shaping communication and interaction in hybrid organizations? Don’t hesitate to reach out to us!