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I'll tell you something: Now more than ever HR must translate culture into digital spaces

26 Mar 2020 By Ian MacRae

People professionals must make sure their ways of working are futureproof as businesses move increasingly online, says Ian MacRae

Business communication is becoming increasingly digitised – particularly, of course, as more and more employees work from home in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Company social networks and channels such as Team, Slack and a host of competitors have been moving steadily in over the past few years to digitise formal and informal company communication. Which means such platforms are becoming ever more extensive and complex. 

Some staff will thrive better than others in a digitised environment, however. On the plus side, flexible and remote workers can become more integrated into the business; connection becomes easier for those who are technologically proficient. But some will express distaste at the loss of face-to-face interaction and physical and non-verbal communication, and will struggle. 

But, love it or hate it, the office is – regardless of the impact of coronavirus – becoming more digital. Even people who work in the same building, on the same floor or even in the same room are often now communicating digitally instead of verbally. The challenge for HR and leadership is shaping the company culture as it moves and evolves within the digital space.

In an ideal world we could copy and paste the firm’s mission, vision and values statement on to the social pages and internal communication channels to instantly upload a company culture online. 
But we know leaving people without guidance and leadership in unmonitored corners of cyberspace can lead to extraordinarily undesirable behaviours. Everything from cyberbullying and sexual harassment to presenteeism and out-of-hours communication can crop up and become a barrier to engagement and productivity. When the cultures of digital platforms are not explicitly managed and shaped, these can amplify problems instead of making improvements to culture.

In many cases, HR guidelines, codes of practice and ethics can easily be adapted. There shouldn’t be different rules in physical space versus cyberspace; the same rules just need to be translated.

Good behaviour must be modelled in this new environment. HR and managers must demonstrate the type of interaction and communication that is desirable. First, HR must define and communicate what the different channels are for. They must also solicit participation in appropriate channels. Just like in traditional meetings, some people may dominate, so be sure to involve people less likely to speak up.

HR and managers must also set clear boundaries. Setting up and defining what constitutes out of hours should be a priority. Additionally, different platforms may be more appropriate for personal or private communications. Personal and professional boundaries should be clearly delineated. Some offices have different expectations about what is acceptable, but professional channels must be kept professional. 

Finally, HR must ensure the platform remains efficient, do regular housekeeping on digital communication channels and not let a platform intended for clear communication become bloated, irrelevant or tangential. 

It’s essential, as more business moves online – both as a result of coronavirus-fuelled remote working, and just generally – that HR takes an active role in shaping digital comms. Building an effective and positive corporate culture is neither quick nor easily, and the same is true when communication moves into the online world.

Ian MacRae is a work psychologist and author of Myths of Social Media

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