There is no shortage of tools available to support communication. It can be overwhelming with the number of places we’re getting information from - not only in our work. Despite this, communication still presents a challenge to business. Employees still complain they don’t have enough information to do their jobs.
Getting communication right can be especially challenging when people work remotely. When people cannot see or overhear what is happening in the workplace then communication may need to be more planned. Whilst in the workplace information often travels more effectively through teams, this can still lead to information about the wider company being missed.
So how do we get the balance right?
When thinking about what you communicate, don’t forget to ask yourself why. Why do I need to send this message? Why does the person receiving it need it? How will it help them?
It can be tempting to communicate everything in the name of transparency. The problem with this method is that it leads to overwhelm and can result in key information not being communicated. When we say we’ll share everything to be transparent it results in not having a plan for communicating key messages.
There is nothing wrong with transparency, far from it, it’s a good thing. However, we do need to plan what needs communicating, how we’ll communicate it and when.
What to communicate?
With tools ready and free to use it can be easy just to deliver messages without really thinking them through. Many organisations have started sharing everything in the name of transparency.
Before even thinking about the tools, think about the information your people need to do their jobs. This will include information about the company as a whole. People feel engaged when they know about the company’s successes and progress and how their role relates to that. Particularly in times of economic uncertainty a lack of information about company performance can lead to anxiety.
People need to know what is expected of them, what good and success looks like. When people start they need information about the culture, how things are done, who people are and where to go for help.
It is useful for people to know what is happening elsewhere in the business, it gives them the opportunity to spot opportunities for teams and departments to collaborate and avoid doubling effort.
Exactly what communication is needed and happens within your organisation will be specific. It’s a good exercise to think about what is needed and to ask people what they need and want. When doing staff surveys don’t stop at asking people if communication is good, ask specifically - do they have all the information they need and ask them to list information they feel they are missing.
How to communicate?
With the trend in fancy new tools, there is a tendency to focus on this before we think about the what. Tools end up being blamed for overwhelm and lack of information. The reality is, it is how we use the tools rather than the tools that are to blame.
Communication only works if the message is received in the way the person delivering the message meant it to be received. Which in the first place means it needs to be received. This doesn’t mean landing in the inbox, it means actually being read and taken in.
When thinking about how, ask some key questions:
- Should this be broadcast or discussion?
- Do people need to be able to ask questions or give eedback?
- Is it urgent?
- Is an immediate response needed?
- Is it information that is needed right now? Do we need to know it exists as a reference tool for the future?
- What is the impact on the person receiving the information?
Depending on the type of work a person does, constant notifications can be incredibly distracting, particularly if focus is needed. Repeated stopping of tasks to respond to messages is inefficient. When it was just email we were often advised to turn off notifications and plot a time in the day to respond to emails. Whilst this advice may be outdated, the fundamentals still apply.
When information feels like it’s being fired at us, we can shut down to receiving it. How many of us go through emails hitting delete without even opening, deciding whether we want to read based on the subject heading alone? Whilst this may be how we are used to dealing with marketing emails, this can be problematic within organisations where key information is being shared by email.
We could go into the pros and cons of each type of communication tool, we won’t in this article but will give some examples.
The team or company update - often distributed by company newsletter. Whilst it may go out by email that can be replied to, it is fundamentally a broadcast. This doesn’t allow questions to be asked and there is little tone of voice in the delivery. In fact, if it may not even be read, if it arrives at a bad time or the receiver doesn’t value it. Lack of value in the information may even come from the lack of ability to ask questions. On the other hand, broadcast via a newsletter is efficient for the person delivering the information and allows people to read it at their leisure (not forgetting the risk they won’t read it). A meeting or video conference can move this from a broadcast to a discussion (depending on the format of the meeting). People may value this more if they can ask questions and raise feedback. This does however require everyone to be available at the time of the meeting. Done too regularly and perceived value may reduce.
When it comes to engaging people two way communication is a valuable tool as it enables people to feel part of the discussion rather than being talked at.
Instant messaging tools are increasingly popular. They can be more useful than email as they collect conversations together and allow communications to be organised. Communication is more conversational and of course instant. However, the instant nature can lead to overwhelm and constant responding to notifications preventing focus on other tasks. Just because communication can be instant does not mean it needs to be instant. Being able to send a message when convenient can allow the receiver to receive and respond to that message when it is convenient to them. A culture where people can turn off notifications and organise their day between communication and other work tasks can be useful. This may require another method for communication that is reserved for the really urgent, such as a phone call. Not forgetting that sometimes picking up the phone is more efficient than a typed conversation.
Information that needs to be available for reference in future is unlikely to be usefully stored in an instant messaging system, although this system may be used to remind people the information is available.
So much choice exists when it comes to communication tools, it can be easy to use too many or close down to them all and use too few. Such cheap and readily available methods can stop us thinking about what we really need to communicate. Communicate what people need and use the right tools for the job.
When to Communicate?
The advantage of the variety of tools we have is that many don’t require the receiver and sender to be in the same place or even in the conversation at the same time. This is great for flexibility as many communications are not required to be immediate. This does require a culture where people understand that sending a message does not mean an immediate response. This allows people to work at different hours but should not mean people are expected to reply out of hours. What is “in-hours” for one person may be “out-of-hours” for another, this is the benefits of working flexibly and communication methods must allow for this.
Even during the working day, being “always on” can be problematic for efficiency. Allowing people to turn off communication channels to focus on work is important for many roles.
Communication doesn’t just happen, at least getting it right doesn’t just happen. It is important for engaging your workforce and maximising performance and productivity. Know what information flows in your business, what people need to know, why and then use the most appropriate tools for sharing information. Two way communication is important for engagement. Avoid broadcast where possible and encourage feedback and questions.
Act on feedback and questions to ensure people feel listened to. Using methods that encourage feedback and questions but ignoring them when they come in will quickly make these methods worthless.
Don’t get overwhelmed with tools, look at those available to you, what you may want to use and how. Ensure you are using the right tool for the message and use a mix of tools to suit the needs of your business.
Silk Helix can help with getting communication right, we’re happy to have a chat. If you’re not sure if you’re doing the right things or want some tips on how you can improve send us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Article last updated: 27 May 2020
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