Communication is the foundation block of human civilization. We communicate in order to learn more about the world around us, we communicate when we want to share our thoughts and feelings with others, and we communicate when we work together as a team. And yet, oftentimes workplace communication can be the source of internal conflict, when it should be the solution.
At a time when remote and hybrid working models have necessitated new methods of communication, there’s rarely been a better time to reconsider the communication skills within your workplace. Ensuring that every employee has the necessary skills to ensure effective communication both within their own team, with your HR department, and with your leadership team, is at the cornerstone of any successful business strategy.
Why is communication important in the workplace?
Good communication is one of the best ways to make sure everyone in your team understands what is expected of them. Not only does it keep everyone working towards the company and its overall goals, it helps to build trust and create a more enjoyable place to work.
Any member of an organization’s leadership team should understand how important communication — and in particular listening to employees — is. Every person in your business is on the payroll because they add value to the workplace. If they aren’t receiving information efficiently, or they’re confused by the day-to-day administration of their role, not only are their skills going to waste, they’re likely to become disengaged.
When workplace communication isn’t working, it can cause confusion, frustration and a lack of trust between different levels of the organization. At its worst, poor communication skills can result in increased staff turnover, absenteeism and lower levels of customer satisfaction. Ensuring all communications channels are as clear as possible is essential to a business, no matter what scale you’re working at.
How can you improve communication at work?
The good news is there are countless ways you can improve communication in the workplace, none of which require a lot of money or time to implement. Some involve working on how you communicate information effectually and putting more formal processes in place, while others focus on creating an environment that allows people to communicate more openly.
1. Make time for regular one-to-ones with employees
Even if you have an “open-door” policy available to your team, some employees will always find it easier to communicate in a more private setting, especially at their job. Whether you decide on a weekly or monthly one-to-one, make sure it’s set up as a recurring event in your calendar.
It’s okay to miss the occasional meeting, but always let the other person know first. If you consistently reschedule or cancel your one-to-one it sends the message that you don’t value your employees’ time or opinions, which can erode trust and lead to a breakdown of communication. Once lost, rebuilding that level of trust and communication can be very difficult.
You don’t need to have a strict business agenda for your one-to-ones but it’s good to focus on current priorities, set short-term goals and find out if your team has enough time, resources, and information to accomplish their goals. It’s also important to create a safe space for each and every employee to voice any concerns they might be having (whether about their degree of involvement, their importance to the company, or their salary) and share new project ideas that could be valuable for the wider team.
If you’re faced with a team that’s mostly working remotely, communication can feel more fraught — but that’s fixable. Workplace communication doesn’t have to rely on sharing a workplace. In fact, scheduling a regular videoconference meeting is likely easier than arranging a regular time and physical location. Your employees will always appreciate that flexibility.
2. Schedule weekly work team meetings
One-to-ones are important to understanding individual concerns, but it’s equally important to make sure all of your employees are aligned across the business. Weekly team meetings are the perfect time for each employee to share their goals for the week, highlight blockers and find out key information on what other employees in the team are working on. The result is greater transparency, improved communication and more opportunity for collaboration.
Team meetings are also the perfect place for managers to announce new projects or programs, progress on team goals and anything else that might be relevant. Make time at the end of the meeting for an open Q&A where each employee can ask questions and voice concerns to the whole team. Open communications promote feelings of psychological safety, further positively impacting your company culture, and the business as a whole.
At Peakon we start the week off with a team meeting where everyone shares the one goal they want to accomplish, along with any other projects they’re currently working on. Then at the end of the week, we all get together to share our successes and failures, followed by an open session where we can have a discussion and share our learnings with the team. That openness, in turn, forms the basis for all our workplace communication.
3. Follow up with effective notes and clear job expectations
Taking notes isn’t necessary during every meeting, but it’s especially useful for one-to-ones and meetings focused on a specific project. Instead of agreeing deadlines and responsibilities verbally, it’s much more effective for someone to take notes and share them afterwards. Ensuring everyone is on the same page (or document) is important — especially when communication is occurring digitally and an unstable internet connection can leave an employee out of the loop.
The aim isn’t to call out anyone that falls short of their business objective or misses a deadline, it’s to make sure that everyone understands what’s expected of them. This ensures every employee has the information they need to execute and can prioritize accordingly. It’s also a great way to figure out when specific tasks need to be broken down further, or deadlines need to be adjusted.
To keep things fair, rotate the person who is taking notes and communicating them afterwards. Keep things brief as well: limit records of communication to what employee is doing what, and by when. For a bigger project, it might also be helpful to lay out contingencies and caveats. Do other employees in the company need to be involved, or are there any dependencies elsewhere in the business which could affect the completion date? Having clear records of your communications will make tapping resources from the rest of the business much easier.
4. Create a safe space for workplace communication
In order for team meetings to be productive, first you need to create a sense of “psychological safety” amongst your team. Psychological safety is defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”. Communication will always lack value unless each employee feels safe to communication on their terms
Essentially, you need to create a company environment and workplace where people feel comfortable expressing their ideas, voicing criticism, and asking “stupid” questions. When this happens employees are more willing to say what they really mean instead of just playing along. Communication is only valuable to your business if it’s honest.
One of the best ways to create psychological safety is leading by example. Question your employees when something is unclear. Admit when you made a mistake or don’t have the answer to someone’s question. As a manager you also need to control the flow of a conversation, and to notice when communication lines are faltering. If someone is being overly aggressive or constantly interrupting, you need to create space for others to communicate.
5. Explain why you’re asking your team to do something
Giving an employee a task without any explanation or information as to why it’s important or how it fits into the bigger picture is a surefire way to frustrate people within your team. In order for our work to be more meaningful, we need to feel that we’re contributing to something bigger than ourselves. As a people leader, communicating that value is one of your highest priorities.
Maybe you’ve asked someone to manually update a few hundred CRM records. It’s not the most glamorous task, but what if you explain that it’s part of a larger initiative to enrich new leads so that sales can hit their quarterly target? Suddenly you’ve turned a somewhat meaningless task into something that has real value for the business, simply by prioritizing honest communication.
You won’t always be able to make tasks more meaningful. Sometimes it’s better to admit that something just needs to be done, re-enforcing your commitment to meaningful, transparent communication. Honesty will show your employees that you can empathize with their situation and help to build trust. That way, when you need your employees to pull together and work on more unglamorous tasks, they’ll be more likely to engage.
6. The most effective feedback is constructive
Employees need feedback to understand if they are meeting expectations or not. Without a strong line of communication — whether a regular one-on-one meeting, or a regular digital feedback method — this step can be difficult, and that’s a problem. If communicated poorly, feedback can come across as a personal attack, but when feedback is constructive, it can help employees understand what they’re doing well and what needs to be done in order to improve. Long term, every employee will value effective communication here.
Here are a few tips for communicating constructive feedback:
- Base your feedback on observations and facts, not judgments. Use specific examples during your communication where possible, and use verbs instead of adjectives to describe a specific scenario e.g. “I noticed you interrupted James before he finished talking so that you could pitch your own idea,” instead of, “You can be quite rude in meetings and I notice you always interrupt people before they’ve finished talking.” Emphasizing the issues someone has with communication won’t make them more likely to communicate productively.
- Give employees a chance to respond to feedback. The aim of such communication isn’t for an employee to defend themselves or justify their behaviour, it’s to get their perspective on a particular situation. Turn feedback into a discussion whenever possible so that you can work together to come up with a solution — instead of just prescribing advice.
- Imagine how you would feel if you were to receive the same feedback. Hurt? Angry? Defensive? Then you probably need to work on your tone, delivery and communication methods. Feedback is an opportunity for growth, so consider how you’d feel receiving the feedback you’re giving.
7. Remember that communication is a two-way job
As a manager it’s not your job to simply hand out orders. Effective communication needs to be two-way, which means asking for feedback on your ideas from your team, giving other people a chance to speak in meetings and making the effort to listen in return. Communication isn’t just about providing your team with information, it’s about listening and engaging with their take on any given situation.
You might have a specific goal or objective that you want your business to achieve, but opening up the lines of communication with each employee concerning how to achieve those goals will give them a greater sense of autonomy and responsibility. In turn, giving your employees scope to communicate their thoughts to their team and their people leaders will result in them being more engaged when it comes time to play their part in the execution.
An important step in developing two-way communication is recognizing that each employee won’t communicate in the same way. Having an unstructured project meeting, for example, may lead to the extroverted employees and their ideas taking prominence — so make sure to check in with any quieter, more introverted employees too. Embedding two-way conversations into your workplace communication culture involves more than providing windows for employees to pitch in at the end of meetings.
8. Communicate with employees on a personal level
Communication isn’t only about making sure the right people in your organization have the right information, it’s about being able to connect with people. You can’t praise the virtues of communication in a meeting and then immediately lock yourself in a corner office afterwards.
Lead by example. Get to know your team beyond the world of your business — and other employees too! Don’t worry about being too personal in your communication: it can be something as simple as asking about their weekend, remembering their partner’s name or finding a few common interests that you can talk about when the conversation isn’t focused on a work-related issue.
Get out of the workplace every now and again. Being able to spend time with your colleagues outside of a work environment can help to build real friendships, which can result in more honest communication and a much more supportive and enjoyable work environment.
More than that, recognize that your remote employees are likely struggling with workplace connections. When digital communication is so often limited to discussing a project or going over the business targets for the quarter, it’s easy for your employees to feel isolated and disconnected from their team. Communication isn’t solely about sharing pressing information — it should have a personal component too.
9. Know the value of Slack and other tools for communications
With remote work and hybrid working models becoming more prevalent, it’s likely that your employees aren’t always going to be in one place at the same time. And while face-to-face communication can feel more productive than chatting over Slack or a video call, that doesn’t mean employees who aren’t in the workplace should be made to feel less important. Effective communication relies on understanding each person and their individual needs.
Messaging tools aren’t a one-for-one replacement for face-to-face meetings, but that doesn’t mean they’re not effective. Slack and other instant messaging software enables employees to share files and voice chat on the fly, replicating, and, in some ways, improving on, the shared workplace. Meanwhile, video conferencing apps, such as Zoom, provide a much needed visual connection from one employee to another (or many more than that!) — just don’t force employees to always have their cameras on.
Software that enables communication and information sharing amongst employees — no matter where they’re working from — should be at the cornerstone of any forward-thinking workplace in 2021. Seeing in-person communication as the be-all and end-all will limit how your business can grow and evolve in this new world of work. That’s why including all employees in all communications (as and when they are relevant to their job position) is crucial.
10. Ensure your team can provide confidential feedback
Even in a perfect world, there are still things that people will only feel comfortable expressing confidentially. For your business to have a culture that promotes open communication, there has to be an opportunity for employees to express themselves with total freedom from judgement or accountability.
By offering your team a way to submit feedback confidentially, it gives you the opportunity as a manager to uncover hidden issues that are affecting your employees and the wider business. As ever, the more information you have, the more you can respond to the needs of each employee. And the only way to gather information is to choose the right method of communication.
At Peakon, we provide employee engagement surveys that help do just that. By enabling regular confidential communication (we recommend fortnightly, or even weekly) you gain insights you might have otherwise lost — especially when employees are away from the workplace. In fact, regular employee surveys tie together so many of the points we’ve already made about communication, from providing an avenue for two-way conversations, to encouraging constructive feedback.
But confidential feedback isn’t limited to one form of communication. For smaller organizations, you can use a tool like SurveyMonkey to collect employee feedback on a regular basis. What’s crucial is that your employees have a space that’s genuinely safe for them to express their thoughts and feelings on the business. That’s the best way for your business to evolve.
Effective communication requires consistent effort
Most of us know how to communicate with our friends, family and significant others, but why can it be so much more difficult to do so in the workplace?
Often effective communication boils down to creating an environment where people are comfortable enough to express what they’re really thinking, challenge ideas and ask questions that might come across as stupid. Managers need to set an example for their team and the company as a whole by demonstrating what it means to be a good communicator. That means practicing good listening skills, giving staff members an opportunity to speak, setting clear expectations and providing regular feedback.
What are you doing right now to promote good communication in your workplace? And how often do you create space for listening to each employee? Those two questions are essential for any workplace communication strategy, and essential for any successful business.