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The impact of digital communication on employee wellbeing

Unhappy man in background with digital blue lines in foreground

By Dr Barbara Bechter, August 2023

Despite digital communication technology changing the way we work, there’s still little known about how these technologies facilitate and shape employee interaction and wellbeing. To fill this gap, I’ve been working with the Shared Services Forum UK (SSF UK) and Associate Prof Paddy Ross from the Department of Psychology, to understand the impact, direct from business. 

Shared Services is a growing business sector that’s highly exposed to technological innovation. This industry is characterised by the extensive use of digital technologies offering new opportunities to increase firm efficiency while reshaping how people interact in the workplace. Although Shared Services Centres were already experienced in offering flexible work arrangements, Covid-19 provided them with an opportunity to test existing knowledge on remote working in an extraordinary pandemic context. 

SSF UK is a not-for-profit, national membership community for the Shared Services sector. It connects like-minded practitioners across the sector, bringing together a wealth of cross-functional knowledge, experience and opinion. Members operate in a variety of professional roles from both public and private organisations representing numerous business sectors, all with a common interest in the evolution and sharing of best practices for Shared Services. The forum reaches thousands of leaders, practitioners and specialists across the UK, working within Shared Services and Global Business Service operations. 

Together with Lisa Hooley, SSF UK’s Board Director, I’ve been able to gain valuable insights from a wide network of companies. The initial research investigated how the adoption of digital technologies affects communication among and between employees, and management. The need to belong and to feel connected to others are basic human needs – social interactions play a fundamental role in shaping employees’ psychological wellbeing, which in turn has a positive impact on how satisfied they are with the overall quality of their workplace. 

Our findings revealed that employees are most satisfied with face-to-face interactions in the workplace. The higher they rated the effectiveness of face-to-face live communication, the higher the job satisfaction score. Employees who rated text-based communications (emails, business communication platforms) as more effective scored lower on psychological wellbeing. The more an employee uses telephone technology, the worse their overall job satisfaction and social connectedness was found to be. We were interested in whether the use of social media enhances social connectedness. The findings suggest this isn’t the case. Increased use of social media for communication was found to result in both lower job satisfaction and lower social connectedness.  

The research also considered work relationships and wellbeing and found a positive relationship between seeking help and guidance from managers and colleagues, and job satisfaction. We found that seeking help from friends and colleagues correlated with feelings of social connectedness, while digital self-help and guidance tools are detrimental to psychological wellbeing.  

Reduced face-to-face meetings and interaction will continue long after the pandemic is over, therefore an understanding of how this technology affects our ability to communicate, interact, and how it affects our judgements is crucial. Building on the findings of this pilot, we’re currently investigating the role of digital communication technology on employees’ willingness to exercise their voice in the workplace. Further research is planned in collaboration with SSF UK, which will contribute to a better understanding of how digital technology affects social interactions and its impact on individual and collective forms of agency, influence, and power in hybrid workplaces. 

The engagement from the SSF UK network was invaluable in providing insights into the technologies used in member companies and revealing both the positive and negative impact of the communication tools that we all use.   

The findings of our research are clear. Having experienced a significant period of rapid change in expectations over the past 1-3 years in both digital technology and wellbeing in the workplace, a number of traditional elements of organisational design are still evolving through digital technology and other factors – particularly expectations around employee experience and engagement, communication, remote and hybrid working approaches, and management and leadership practices – all which directly affect employee voice and wellbeing. Members of SSF UK are managing priorities around these factors on a day-to-day basis across their Shared Services operations, and so all the insights generated from the research have been welcomed, as they work through how to best respond and manage the change in their setting.   

I’m looking forward to continuing the collaboration with SSF UK as further research into these areas develops, particularly given the growing relevance they have in the future of work. Certainly, this kind of collaboration and knowledge exchange with industry enhances opportunities for impact on both sides. 

More information on Dr Barbara Bechter's research interests.