5 Ways to Address a Lack of Communication in the Workplace
October 25, 2022
Remote, hybrid, and distributed teams are here to stay. For the foreseeable future, the people you collaborate with may not be in the same office, time zone, or even the same country.
Early efforts to adapt to this new paradigm meant hastily shifting internal communications toward virtual meetings and company-wide messaging platforms. For many organizations, that rapid adjustment posed both a technological and a social challenge that led to an unprecedented lack of communication in the workplace.
But the news isn’t all bad.
While it might seem as though we’ve only lost capacity for personal connection as a result of these sweeping changes, myriad opportunities also emerged—some in the least likely of places. In some organizations, workplace communication grew in strides, and the opportunity for growth and adaptation continues to widen.
Adopting this new remote work toolkit also brings an opportunity to open new channels for frontline employees and others, who until recently were often left out of the conversation. Not only do these new communication channels open the door to more inclusive access to information, they can also provide employees of any designation a more reliable means of having their voices heard.
This proliferation of clear communication channels is a good thing that even the most bottom-line minded executive can appreciate. Not only can leadership benefit from the unique (and often crucial) information employees gather in their day-to-day, open communication also helps build trust and affinity.
As Alexander et. al. shared in their recent work for McKinsey, “Employees who feel included in more detailed communication are nearly five times more likely to report increased productivity.” That, coupled with the ability to share mission-critical information their unique vantage point provides, makes opening these channels essential.
So, how can organizations maximize the unique benefits of this new way of communicating, while limiting the drawbacks? As a day-one distributed team, we’ve got some suggestions.
1. Establish a set of communication standards.
Internal communication benefits from a clear set of guidelines. This fundamental step is essential for global companies with a heavy reliance on text-based communication—especially when employees can’t rely on tone and body language.
For large companies with diverse teams distributed all over the globe, interactions between unacquainted colleagues happen frequently, and there are often cultural differences to navigate as well as practical considerations.
Without clear communication standards, this can lead to a range of misunderstandings that are difficult to combat, as it may not be clear to everyone involved that there’s even a problem.
Depending on an organization’s makeup, expectations can vary across a great number of communication factors, but timeliness is a surprisingly common challenge. Numerous factors play into this challenge, but two of the most common are message medium and culture.
While some employees may have been trained to respond to messages in a certain way, or within a certain timeframe, others might find one style of communication inefficient, or another rude.
Reacting to a message on Slack rather than drafting a full response is a good example of an efficient, concise communication that could easily be missed (or misconstrued) without a shared set of standards and expectations.
Because people and organizations differ dramatically, there’s no universal set of communication standards that will fit every team. The most important goal is establishing the standards for your organization, whatever they may be, and codifying them.
If that sounds like a lot to think about, here’s a head start, based on some standards that work well for our team.
Response expectations by medium:
Email: within 24 hours
Slack message: respond within an hour or so, by the end of day at the latest.
SMS: respond immediately. Something major happened.
Responding to a message via emoji reaction:
👍 = Agreed. / Affirmative / OK.
✔️ = Understood.
✅ = This is done.
👀 = I’m looking into this.
Preempting a message:
💤 This doesn’t require an immediate response (but a DM or tag was the most appropriate way to communicate this).
[no emoji] This doesn’t require an immediate response, but please respond as soon as you can.
❗ This is extremely urgent. Please drop whatever you’re doing and respond immediately.
2. Cultivate an environment of safety.
Supporting a culture where employees don’t feel safe speaking up or sharing ideas is a surefire way to perpetuate a lack of communication. Whether they’re shining light on issues, bringing their authentic selves to work, or sharing a brilliant but partially-formed idea, research and practice both show that employees who work in a psychologically safe environment often outperform those who aren’t.
Psychological safety is a multi-faceted, intersectional element of the workplace that deserves a dedicated effort, but don’t let the magnitude of that effort be a barrier to progress. There are steps an organization, or even an individual leader can take to promote a more psychologically safe environment.
In a healthy communicative environment, employees can speak freely without fearing professional repercussions. There are obvious exceptions to this rule, namely, when an employee’s speech impacts the safety and happiness of others. But penalizing a worker because they don’t agree with a company policy or the way their manager handled something doesn’t promote healthy communication.
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) can also be a powerful venue for employees to communicate, connect with others who share similar experiences, access resources, and receive mutual support. These groups support the cultural foundation of many Fortune 500 companies.
5. Foster communication between departments.
Departmental silos are common problems in which teams focus inwardly to the extent that communication between departments becomes rare. There are many reasons this can happen, such as time constraints discouraging employees from taking the time to reach out and wait for a response, or a lack of knowledge about whom to contact. Messaging and collaboration tools can help combat this, as they make every employee easy to reach, but tools alone won’t break down silos.
For new members of the workforce, establishing interdepartmental communication norms is especially important. Entering a department that doesn’t communicate or collaborate outside of itself can leave a lasting impression that follows an employee throughout their tenure.
Opening specific channels for each team where employees from other departments can come to ask questions when they’re not sure about which individual to contact is an easy way to start bridging departmental gaps. Profiles featuring roles and tags within a can also help show employees whom to contact for each type of question they may have.
Even if you create an easier pathway for communication, many won’t take advantage of it if they don’t realize it’s there. Lead by example and promote these channels through announcements, but also through your own usage.
3. Tear down office walls.
No, not literally. But think about your organization outside the context of the office as it relates to communication. You may think you have a strong culture of communication, while leaving out a major cohort of stakeholders.
In 2022, the portion of deskless workers in the U.S. reached 80% — that includes hourly workers, shift workers, on-site workers, workers who travel a lot, and anyone else who doesn’t spend most of their time in front of a computer.
Whether they're remote workers, office workers, deskless workers, or anything in-between, employees should have easy access to the information, resources, and people they need to thrive.
One of the simplest ways to do this would be to supply deskless workers with the same communication and collaboration tools their peers in the office use. Mobile apps make granting deskless workers access to your company’s intranet and messaging platforms like Slack, Google Workspace, or Microsoft 365 significantly easier.
4. Encourage consistent feedback.
No matter what methods you choose to try to address a lack of communication in the workplace, it’s important to remember that communication is a two-way street. It’s easy to get trapped in the mindset that feedback is something you give, rather than something you solicit from your team—especially for those who have spent many years in leadership positions.
Managers and senior employees not only need to commit to being available and open to communication through the same channels as everyone else, but also to commit to a proactive approach. Simply saying “my door is always open” isn’t enough.
When a new policy or strategy is put in place to improve communication, seeking feedback is a great way to show employees that management is discourse, and that your organization is committed to progress.
Depending on the size of the company, this can be done in different ways, such as a conversation on Slack, or a post on your company’s intranet. It might not be possible to talk to everyone at the same time, but covering all levels and regions is essential.
5. Use meetings (and employees’ time) wisely.
Meetings are still a big part of internal communication at most companies, but with the rise in remote and deskless work and distributed teams with different time zones, meeting fatigue and time zone issues are both a real concern.
Getting people from all over the world into a meeting at the same time can require a lot of effort, and the strain it puts on the schedules and work-life balance of participants can be significant.
This cost can be worth it in many cases, as it is productive to sync up in real time every so often. But research shows that meetings have increased in both frequency and length in the last 50 years, and the effect on productivity is less than ideal.
Sometimes less is more.
Increasing the quantity of communication without effort toward a matching increase in quality can lead members of the team to tune it out. Think of any time you’ve been put into a noisy environment—your brain eventually tunes out everything but the most novel sounds. The same thing happens with organizational communication.
If you’re invited to hours and hours of meetings, it’s easy to get to a state where you’re tuning out all but the most novel ones.
Many teams that are trying to cut down on unnecessary meetings ask themselves a vital question before setting up a Zoom call: Can it be covered in an email or a Slack message? Can we communicate this information through an intranet post or video, and open the floor to discussion asynchronously? If the answer is yes, it’s worth weighing the costs and benefits of a synchronous meeting before calling one.
Consider each attendee’s expected contribution to the meeting. If that contribution isn’t clear, protect their focus time and share a recap. Consider sharing the meeting agenda openly if possible, and let all but crucial attendees self-select.
The Bottom Line
To improve communication in the workplace, you need to value communication. This means seeing value not only in the increased efficiency and productivity that strong communication can bring, but also the value in the voice of employees.
Making improvements in any area of a business requires an investment of time and resources. Communication is no different. This investment might come in the form of software and hardware updates, hiring personnel, or committing time to building personal connections.
Software is also crucial, as it allows workers to contact one another quickly and easily, as well as access the knowledge and organizational resources they need for quality communication.