How To Improve Communication In The Workplace

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Last updated: January 24th, 2024

communication in the workplace

Last updated: January 24th, 2024

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Demand for employees with strong collaboration and communication skills has continued to climb – especially for hybrid and remote roles.

The idea will be self-evident if you’ve ever worked in an organisation with more than five people. Confusion, mistakes, mistrust and resentment tend to stem from poor communication in the workplace.

One study found that 86% of employees blame a lack of collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures.

Communication failures cost businesses billions annually.

As a manager, you must improve your communication capabilities to tackle the cultural and structural barriers preventing good communication across your workplace.

I’ve gathered 7 ways you can improve communication at work right away.

(Related: Top 21 Non-Cringey Zoom Ice Breakers).

Why Is Workplace Communication Important?

A work environment where communication is clear, regular, purposeful and constructive leads to:

  • Fewer workplace conflicts.
  • Higher level of employee engagement and retention.
  • More efficient workflows,higher productivity and reduced costs.

That’s because communication – especially verbal communication – underpins almost every work activity.

An often-cited study published in the Journal of Communication found that we spend between 50% – 80% of every workday communicating, with two-thirds of that time spent talking.

Important!

Text-based communication tools (e.g., email and Slack) have increased our reliance on written communication, but the need to verbally exchange information with colleagues and customers hasn’t abated.

Why Improve Workplace Communication Skills?

The State of Business Communication report by Grammarly shows that our ability to get work done strongly depends on how well we communicate with other team members.

Important!

Communication can only be considered effective when the message or intent is successfully received, understood and acted on.

Business leaders surveyed for the report said the main benefits of effective communication were:

  • Increased productivity (72%). Better communication leads to less confusion, which prevents mistakes and increases your team’s output.
  • Increased customer satisfaction (63%). Most customer issues occur due to poorly communicated expectations.
  • Increased employee confidence (60%). Employees who can’t communicate effectively will struggle to feel engaged.

But effective communication doesn’t happen by chance. It’s intentional.

Here’s an excellent example: research published in the Harvard Business Review found that high-performing teams are more than three times more likely to begin a new project by first discussing how they will work together (rather than simply assigning tasks and getting started).

This small change in workplace communication creates superior conditions for smoother team collaboration.

(Related: Ultimate Guide To Delegation Of Authority).

Why Leaders Must Learn To Communicate Effectively.

If you’re a leader or frontline manager, your subordinates will expect you to set an example for what effective communication looks like.

But it’s not just what you say. It’s also when and how you say it.

Communication is contextual and time-sensitive, and getting your message across also depends on the mindset and preferences of your intended audience.

For example:

  • An in-person pat on the back and genuine “great job!” in the moment could have more impact on a team member than a verbose ‘thank you’ email to the whole team sent a week after the project ends.
  • An analytics report with strictly curated, commercially relevant insights, delivered at the end of the financial year, could be more useful than a monthly data dump delivered to your boss via email.

Your approach to communication in the workplace will also be influenced by whether you’re communicating:

Top-down, to your direct reports.They may require guidance, encouragement or prompting to remain accountable.
Laterally, at an equal hierarchical level.These folks expect you to foster teamwork and provide cross-functional support.
Upwards, to your manager, senior executives or the Board.Senior decision-makers expect you to communicate precisely, respectfully and without fluff.
To customers/clients.This stakeholder group expects a friendly, positive (possibly advisory) tone, consistent with your company’s branding.

7 Proven Ways To Improve Workplace Communication.

Best communicators constantly look for opportunities to improve their communication methods. I recommend you focus on one of the recommendations below each month.

1. Set Clear Expectations.

Build processes that outline how and when communication happens:

  • Which communication type is required for different kinds of messages or tasks? For example, when is a written report expected, as opposed to a quick email? Should certain documents be professionally designed?
  • Which communication tools should be used to communicate for which purposes? Is an online demo via Zoom the norm, or should employees be pushing for in-person PowerPoint presentations? Is it OK to share ideas in Slack or is there a spreadsheet where they should be added?
  • When is communication needed, and in what timeframes? For example, do you expect a weekly email progress update about a certain project every Monday morning? Or perhaps you have an organisation-wide policy of not replying to emails after 6 pm or no meetings on Fridays.
  • How team members can have input, and that their input is valued. Clarify roles/responsibilities around communication, opportunities to provide feedback and ideas, and expectations around sharing information that could impact or harm the business. 

2. Invest Time And Resources.

Effective communication is not an afterthought. It’s a core part of your responsibilities as a manager or leader, which only happens when you set aside time in your calendar for:

  • 1:1s with your subordinates (to re-clarify responsibilities and targets).
  • Weekly team updates (to discuss and clear bottlenecks).
  • Extra check-ins with your remote team members (always over-communicate with them to compensate for the lack of face-to-face communication opportunities).
  • Identifying core causes of communication breakdowns and building fixes (e.g., is the turf war between two of your employees happening because of a hiring mistake or poorly designed job descriptions?)

(Related: How To Motivate Employees As A Manager).

3. Listen Actively.

A lot of young managers fall into the trap of believing that workplace communication means “better speaking ability”.

Listening is the other half of the communication equation.

Listening is not just hearing, but understanding the other person’s worldview and responding to what they’re saying.

Practice active listening by setting aside what you think the other person is saying and making an earnest attempt to view the issue from their perspective.

Important!

The most argumentative, stubborn people often seek to be understood, rather than to win an argument. Show them that you got their world, and they’re likely to back off.

For example, if a colleague is upset that they have to work overtime, you could respond in one of two ways:

  • John, I think you’re overreacting. We always work overtime; a few more hours won’t kill you.”
  • John, I know your family is important to you, and working overtime means you get to see your kids a lot less. That said, we have huge targets this year, and we can’t do it without you.”

4. Make Every Channel Earn Its Place.

When was the last time you audited the communication channels within your workplace?

You can reduce crossed wires by eliminating silos that inevitably occur as your organisation grows (or shrinks).

Take a closer look at:

  • Digital communication tools. Are there redundancies? Are some tools not widely adopted? Can you consolidate systems or train people to use them more fully?
  • Document management processes. Do you have specific file naming conventions and clarity on where information is stored, and how it’s shared? Do the right people have log-ins and suitable permissions, or do “gatekeepers” control access?

Expert Tip.

Look for opportunities to cull the barrage of useless communication in your organisation. I guarantee you that 70% of weekly CEO emails, bi-weekly intranet articles, daily stand-ups, engagement surveys, fortnightly staff morning teas, monthly reports, daily email notifications can be binned, and company performance wouldn’t suffer. Most of it serves only to distract, bore or overwhelm people.

5. Make Every Meeting Count (or cancel it).

Yes, some meetings are critical, and you need to have them face-to-face.

Important!

Never shy away from uncomfortable conversations (e.g., the need to help an underperforming employee get back on track) in the name of “efficiency”.

But I encourage you to look for opportunities to “step down” the bandwidth of your less important meetings. In other words:

  • Can the F2F meeting be replaced with a video call?
  • Can the video call be replaced by a recorded desktop video?
  • Can the desktop video be replaced by a screenshot?
  • Can a screenshot be replaced by an email?

If you decide that a meeting is necessary, be sure to:

  • Know the purpose of the meeting. Have a specific agenda for it. Then, only include relevant attendees: those responsible or accountable for achieving the meeting’s goal.
  • Be purposeful in how you run the meeting, even if it’s a casual check-in — commit to being attentive, distraction-free, honest and sincere. Encourage the same in others by creating standards of behaviour (i.e., no phones, no interrupting, no side conversations).
  • Require everyone to prepare in advance. Share any documents to be read, past meeting notes to review, or brainstorming prompts beforehand and give people sufficient time to consider these before meeting to seek input.
  • Follow up, by sharing the outcomes and next steps in writing after the meeting. Also, follow-up on progress towards next steps in any subsequent meetings.

6. Know Your Audience.

Ask employees to directly share their communication preferences and make the answers accessible to all team members (with permission, of course).

How do they like to receive information, and in what tone?

Important!

Some people are top-down thinkers, while others are bottom-up thinkers. The former need to understand the context before the detail, as this allows them to “put” the information into an “appropriate” area of their brain. The latter types prefer to receive the information first, and do the segmenting later.

  • How to communicate with a top-down thinker: “James, our sales are down. Here are some factors that may be causing this”.
  • How to communicate with a bottom-up thinker: “James, I noticed that we’re not making enough sales calls and our close rate has slipped. I suspect these factors are responsible for our recent decline in sales.

Consulting firm Sequoia encourages communication across its teams through the development of ‘user manuals’, written by each employee in response to prompts like ‘the best way to talk to me is’ and ‘how I prefer to deal with conflict is.’

Did You Know?

A global survey on communication styles at work in 2022-23 by Niagara Institute found that professionals struggle the most with saying what they mean in the moment (32.2%) and feeling confident enough to share their thoughts (27.7%). Most people agreed they’d only speak up at work if they’d had time to collect their thoughts first (63.9%).

7. Stick To Facts, Not Stories.

Do you have a person on your team who tends to ramble while the rest of you check out? You can help them communicate better by introducing the idea of “facts vs stories”:

  • Facts are events that happened – things everyone in the room would agree on.
  • Stories are a person’s interpretation of the facts.

For example, a customer complained about your team’s deliverables. That is a fact.

A customer complaining because they’re prejudiced against you, or they’re an angry person, or they’re a “bitch” are all stories. They’re not provable nor helpful.

Some stories are unavoidable. As humans, we use them to construct our worldviews.

But in the context of effective workplace communication, they can quickly become a distraction – and an indulgence for personalities who enjoy the limelight.

Expert Tip.

You can keep your meetings on track by helping other team members strip away the story from their communication.

7 Communication Types To Master In The Workplace.

The main types of communication that occur in a typical Australian workplace are:

Formal statements, speeches & eventsThese are best used to convey important company updates (e.g., funding rounds and promotions) or to create a sense of seriousness or ceremony.
Informal interactionsCasual conversations can build rapport and trust, so it’s vital to create opportunities for employees to communicate informally through team-building activities, team lunches, and social events.
Oral communicationClear verbal communication and an engaging speaking style are essential for tasks like presenting to customers, delivering training, pitching a business proposal, team meetings, or holding performance reviews.
Non-verbal communicationConstituting a large part of your executive presence, your body language, facial expressions and posture all contribute to communicating with impact.
Written communicationA preferred method for many because it enables precision and detail, written communications encompass emails, text messages, comments in collaboration software, PowerPoints, meeting notes, training materials, marketing content and social posts.
Visualisations and dataIncreasingly, communicating well means sharing insights via visuals that can include graphics, memes, illustrations, graphs, charts, tables, videos and animations.
ListeningActively listening, asking relevant and thoughtful follow-up questions and demonstrating your understanding of what’s been said are powerful communications tools. 

Final Words On Effective Workplace Communication.

If you’re in a leadership position, cultivate good communication skills by adopting a more curious and caring approach in your interactions with others.

Resist the urge to jump to conclusions and snap at people.

By shifting your mindset, you’ll find it easier to recognise, prevent and repair problems.

For instance, rather than reacting impatiently when a direct report rambles or provides too much detail in a project update, you might:

  • Recognise they’re uncertain about your faith in their ability, or feel nervous presenting orally.
  • Identify you haven’t been clear enough about what constitutes an ‘issue’ worth mentioning.

With empathy, you can communicate your views more clearly, foster a more positive work environment, and become more effective at offering constructive feedback.

Jody

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