The shift to virtual work is upending how and where employees get work done — and how organizations engage their internal audiences. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, the number of remote workers was on the rise, increasing by 159 percent between 2005 and 2017. The pandemic only fueled this trend. Stanford University reported in June 2020 that 42 percent of the U.S. labor force was working from home full-time.

The pivot to a digital workplace has been quick and dramatic for many organizations. Employees have had to rely on digital communication and tools to collaborate with colleagues and get their work done. Research predicts the digital workplace is here to stay in some form, with executives saying some previously on-site positions will transition to permanently remote. Some businesses, including Slack, Twitter and Zillow, may never return to their pre-pandemic work arrangements.

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New rules of engagement in the digital workplace

The digital workplace has created an environment ripe for employee burn-out if not managed effectively. There is less of a boundary between work life and home life as more employees work from home. Many people work full days with back-to-back video meetings, often with little to no time for breaks in between. There aren’t natural opportunities for healthy breaks like there were in the office when employees would grab a cup of coffee together or have informal conversations in the halls or at each other’s desks.

The always-on nature of the digital workplace requires new rules of engagement. A recent survey by FlexJobs found that 75 percent of people have experienced burn-out at work, with 40 percent noting they have experienced it during the pandemic. Burn-out can be toxic to workplace culture, with 30 percent of employees being more likely to leave their jobs due to it. Organizations that encourage employees to set boundaries will have a healthier and more productive workforce and better retain employees. Businesses can promote a happier workplace culture by:

  • Reinforcing business hours, encouraging employees to stick to them and having leaders model the behavior
  • Encouraging employees to schedule breaks and providing recommendations for how to let colleagues know when they’re unavailable
  • Sharing ideas for how employees can informally connect with their colleagues digitally, similarly to how they would have in the office environment
  • Changing the standard meeting time from 60 minutes to 45 or 50 minutes, so employees have breaks to get organized and re-energized in between meetings

It’s also important for organizations to set clear expectations for employee etiquette and behavior in the digital workplace. These expectations should feel reflective of who the organization was before it transitioned to virtual work and could include guidelines for things like:

  • Should employees have cameras turned on during internal meetings?
  • Is it appropriate to use emojis when instant messaging with colleagues?
  • What is the dress code for internal meetings? What is the dress code for external client or partner meetings?
  • What are the expectations for turning off notifications, putting mobile phones on silent and logging out of email during meetings?

Guidelines for manners and etiquette should align to corporate values and support business objectives.

How to engage and empower employees in a digital workplace

The digital workplace has also challenged organizations to rethink how they can best engage their employees to nurture and maintain a healthy workplace culture. Businesses must determine how best to engage remote employees and trusted partners (e.g., physician groups, franchisees) — while simultaneously staying connected to on-site workers.

This hybrid environment requires using a mix of digital and traditional communication channels to maintain strong, authentic connections. Organizations used to rely heavily on traditional channels (e.g., face-to-face meetings, town hall meetings). Today there are now many digital internal communication tools like Slack, Yammer, Zoom and SharePoint that either can help or hurt employee engagement efforts.

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Organizations are more likely to succeed in a digital workplace when they apply the following considerations.

1. Keep a pulse on employees with two-way communication

The digital workplace is as new for some employees as it is for organizations. It’s easy to lose touch with employees without daily in-person interactions and meetings, making it even more important to keep a pulse on how employees feel by leveraging two-way communication. Give employees the opportunity to provide feedback and input through both digital and traditional channels, including surveys, virtual town hall meetings, comment boxes, direct mail and an always-open email inbox. Back-and-forth conversation between leaders and employees establishes trust and empowers employees to play a role in solving challenges, including those related to the new virtual workplace.

Employees feel heard, understood and valued when their employer listens to them, acknowledges their feedback and explains how they’ll use it to make improvements.

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2. Understand the communication channels available

Organizations have more communication channels available to them than ever before. Audit the channels the business uses today and those it could use to better engage employees in the digital workplace. Digital communication channels could include:

  • Company intranet
  • Email (Outlook, Gmail)
  • Instant messaging (Slack, Yammer)
  • Collaboration and project management tools (SharePoint, Google Drive, Asana)
  • Video conference (Zoom, Teams, WebEx)
  • Surveys (SurveyMonkey, Qualtrics)
  • External channels used to engage internal audiences (Facebook, Instagram, Reddit)

Traditional channels may include in-person meetings or town halls, direct mail flyers, posters, mailed letters and paystubs. Consider how the business uses each channel and which are most effective in keeping employees healthy, happy, productive and engaged.

3. Show up on the right channels for the right reasons

It can be tempting to implement a vast array of digital communication channels and tools, given how many are now available to organizations. However, implementing too many can cause confusion, create distractions and hurt productivity — contributing to burn-out. It also can spread internal resources thin because, as the business implements additional tools, it needs more people to maintain them and train employees how to use them. Ensure every new channel or tool is a strategic fit by clearly defining why the organization uses it, including how it helps the business achieve its objectives or solve challenges.

Turn to two-way communication channels to get input from employees about which communication channels work best for them and which ones don’t serve a clear purpose. Be mindful that employees who work on site might prefer traditional communication methods and would not be effectively engaged if expected solely to use digital communication channels. Consider how to create a balance of different content formats (e.g., web copy, email copy, hard copy, audio, visual) to support audiences with different needs and alleviate digital overload.

As organizations adapt to the digital workplace, integrated communication can help them deliver the right message, to the right audience, from the right voice, at the right moment and on the right channel. An integrated communication strategy weaves a strategic thread through all channels and interactions to keep messages consistent to nurture a trusted, transparent and positive workplace culture. Organizations that lean into their purpose, mission and values to guide decision-making about how they show up and behave in this new environment can create a workplace that supports employees, business partners and the business’s objectives.

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