Guest blog: Developing online communities in the workplace - By Katie Joyce, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies at Bristol Business School, University of the West of England

In this guest blog, I reflect back on my recent research findings into the emerging field of ‘Virtual Coaching’.[1] I share some thoughts and ask questions in the hope of stimulating ideas around the development of online communities in the workplace.

Love it or hate it, technology is changing how we communicate with each other.  Internet based communicative platforms have become increasingly central to both our social and professional lives. How many times has a form of ‘virtual’ communication* you’ve engaged with had a direct impact on your thoughts for that day? Executed successfully, positive interactions via, for example, email/text/tweet/blog may put a spring in your step for the rest of your day; but handled poorly, a brief exchange of words, displayed only as text on a screen, may leave you feeling confused, dejected and possibly isolated.   

A meme on Twitter caught my attention, it claimed: “Culture cannot be changed through emails and memos, only through relationships, one conversation at a time.” [2]  Indeed, I consider this sentiment to carry great importance and absolutely believe human contact and connection is a priority and something we should never lose sight of.  A lively debate certainly exists in the field of ‘Computer Mediated Communication’ as to whether remote technology acts as a barrier to effective human communication.[3] Some authors consider it a cold and impersonal medium and claim emotions are difficult to express.[4]  Concerns largely stem from the absence of emotional embodiment and one’s verbal and visual cues when using non face-to-face communication methods.  However, other studies have found any such barriers dissolve over time and claim emotional communication online and offline to be surprisingly similar.[5] 

Research I completed in the field of ‘Virtual Coaching’ practice, provides empirical evidence supporting this latter view.  I developed an online blog community for newly qualified clinicians in the NHS, featuring the presence of a ‘virtual coach’.  As a coach myself, I was keen to explore if a remote coaching intervention could help to develop early career potential.  This is typically a time of intense transition and often results in significant performativity pressures for employees.  I opted for blogs as my communication medium because they are said to: “Offer an intriguing platform for personal communication, reflection and expression, creating space for emotional and informational release.”[6]  Participants blogged on a diverse selection of professional development topics linked to their early career transition experiences. 

 *Virtual communication is used here as an umbrella term to refer to any communication medium that does not rely upon the physical presence of another person

Current literature in this field reveals a paucity of research evidence and theoretical frameworks underpinning Virtual Coaching practice.  This is rather surprising given remote coaching methods have become so widely used in the business sector because of the perceived positive outcomes associated with it, such as greater accessibility, flexibility and cost-efficiency.[7]  Consequently, I was curious to explore this gap in the research further.

My study found no firm evidence to support the claim that remote technology causes a barrier to human communication or expression of emotion.  On the contrary, members expressed a variety of emotions and rapport developed quickly.  There was evidence of honest reflective thinking, positive psychology development, collaboration, creation of knowledge and a strong sense of community. A number of positive transformative behavioural changes were also seen to occur.  Having 24/7 access to an alternative ‘space’ to turn to was welcomed by all; conversation flowed fluidly and flexibly.  Real-time learning needs were addressed in a timely manner and reflective thoughts which may have drifted away in the face of a new day, were swiftly captured.  Additionally, members found the process of writing cathartic and a range of embodied emotional and attitudinal changes were experienced as a result.

Perhaps if we just pause here for a moment, and consider the last time you experienced a misunderstanding via email.  How did you feel?  Can you identify any barriers to the communication shared? Or conversely, maybe a simple exchange of words via email made you feel like you’d been properly listened to and appreciated?  What factors influenced this positive outcome?  There are likely to be many variables, so is it therefore too simplistic, to adopt the view that technology always act as a barrier to effective communication?  Could it be suggested that learning to improve the quality of our online conversations is what’s required to afford us greater opportunity to stand a chance of positively impacting organisational culture?  Striking a balance in how we communicate with each other is surely a key factor to finding smarter ways of working?  

So how can this technology work for us in our organisations? Why might we launch an online community?  How might we improve the quality of online interactions within our teams?  We’re taught to write letters at school, but how many of us have been taught how to write electronic messages effectively?  We’re taught coaching skills, yet are rarely educated on how to coach when we can’t see the person in front of us. Do you sigh in response to receiving emails where your message has been completely misinterpreted?  Yet, in the absence of body language and verbal cues, how can we effectively demonstrate we’re actively listening to each other?  It’s no wonder so many misunderstandings arise. Can we learn ways to avoid common e-communication pitfalls?  Is there a recipe for success?  If we can crack this, surely the potential for establishing effective ‘online communities’ becomes limitless? 

It is beyond the scope of this blog to present in-depth examples and discussion of my findings. Although, I must briefly continue here, to summarise some of the key positive outcomes my online community gave rise to. Creating an accessible space to visually share professional conversations, where there isn’t much capacity to converse in a working day, made members feel that their thoughts and feelings were being properly listened to.It created a thinking environment which helped members to evaluate their development and plan next steps. The online space allowed precious time to pause and respond to coaching questions at one’s own pace. It became a safe, supportive place for members to ask “how?” and “why?” questions.  The space was also considered to offer a much needed reprieve from the intensity of clinical workplace pressures.  Also, one participant explained how talking in the virtual space made her feel less socially isolated and more connected to her peers.

The participants were unanimous in commenting on the benefits of engaging with the online platform.  Indeed, my evidence supports the notion that remote coaching via online platforms should be considered a viable coaching intervention and also addresses the gap in the research on how to use it.  Earlier, I posed the questions: “Can we learn to avoid common e-communication pitfalls?” and I asked if there’s “a recipe for success?” My research addresses both questions and the short answer is yes; if we educate ourselves about virtual communication and raise awareness of potential barriers to effective e-communication, together with learning how to manage a coaching conversation in this unique space, we stand to greatly improve the quality of our online conversations.

As both lead researcher and participant (as coach) in this study, I experienced first hand the the transformative power from engaging remotely in an online community. However, in no way do I suggest that virtual coaching methods should replace traditional face-to-face coaching methods, rather I suggest it should be viewed as offering the coaching profession an alternative, complementary coaching tool to improve accessibility, flexibility and broaden its scope of inclusivity. For example, such forums could be utilized as a means to: drive performance in remote teams; extend workplace conversations; introduce peer mentoring schemes; extend coach-client contact time; improve access to supervision; and improve access to coaching/mentoring for clients/employees with hearing impairment/mobility issues.

Finally, it is my belief that any organisation whose employees undergo significant periods of transition, regardless of industry, will stand to benefit from developing online communities. An abundance of virtual communication mediums are available to help us achieve smarter working practices.  Associated communication barriers only become an issue if we fail to address them. I believe every conversation has the potential to be transformative. Therefore, we should work together to find innovative ways of working to ensure we create value in every conversation we share, whether in person or virtually.  No one size fits all and communicating virtually does not appeal to everyone, but if we can raise awareness of the many positive outcomes associated with it and provide a mixture of options to increase opportunities for people to talk and network, it has the potential to have a hugely transformative effect in our organisations.

Full references/further discussion available upon request:


[1] Joyce (forthcoming publication)

[2] @SteeleThoughts (05 November 2016)

[3] Derks et al (2008)

[4] Culnan & Markus (1987); Rice & Love (1987); Sproull & Kiesler (1986)

[5] Walther (1992); Walther & Burgoon (1992); Walther et al (1994)

[6] Jones & Alony (2008, p433)  

[7] Mann (2015); Clutterbuck & Hussain (2010), Van Dyke (2016)