In a recent study, Gallup asked workers to rate the quality of communication in their workplace. One question asked participants whether they thought that communication in their workplace was “accurate, timely, and open.” What percentage of people do you think strongly agreed that their workplace communication displayed these qualities?
Technology has changed communication in today's workplace
If you guessed 7%, you’re correct. Yes, you read that right–only 7% of the workers surveyed believed their workplace communication was maximally effective (Gallup 2021).
This leaves a huge opportunity for business transformation and improvement, as good communication at work has been linked to both a positive work culture and improved business outcomes such as an increase in employee engagement, productivity, team agility, and innovation.
There is a hidden cost to businesses that ignore poor communication at work. In fact, an article from Salesforce estimates that miscommunication costs businesses $37 billion dollars (or $26K per employee) every year in the US and UK alone (Mitchell Communications Group, 2014).
Technology has changed communication in today's workplace. Many conversations, including difficult ones, now take place through screens. This has made communication more challenging in many ways.
In this digital environment, it is difficult to interpret visual cues from colleagues: Is your co-worker looking down because they’re writing notes or are they distracted or uninterested? Video chats also lack the informal side conversations that are so important in developing understanding and trust between coworkers.
However, technology also offers opportunities for effective communication. Employees can stay connected and collaborate with their colleagues in real-time, regardless of their location, and a wider range of individuals have a seat at the table, given that they don’t need to be physically present.
While we might tend to think of communication primarily in terms of how we use our voices, the unsung hero of great communication at work might actually be listening.
Active listening is the ability to fully concentrate on what the other person is saying, understand their perspective, and respond appropriately. It is an essential skill that helps build trust and rapport with colleagues and clients. Active listening requires one to be present in the moment, avoid distractions, and show empathy towards the speaker. Practicing mindfulness can help to build these skills.
Looking to generate more trust in leadership? Listening can help with this as well. In a 360-degree assessment study of 4,218 leaders, Zenger Folkman (2022) observed that leaders who were ranked as effective listeners also ranked in the 88th percentile in business skills like building relationships and generating trust. Conversely, leaders who were rated lower in listening effectiveness had correspondingly lower scores in these two categories.
Managers play a critical role in promoting effective communication in the workplace. The best leaders understand the importance of communication and take continual steps to foster an open and transparent work culture. By doing so, managers can create a culture of trust, leading to better employee engagement and retention.
But what are some concrete steps managers can take to improve their team’s communication?
In Virtual Emotional Intelligence, published by Harvard Business Review Press, experts offer some tips to build positive communication at work. Here are a few to consider:
Researchers Dana Kabat-Farr and Rémi Labelle-Deraspe note that managers sometimes skip explicit discussions of what is expected in team communication. Rather than assuming the team knows, managers can save time and consternation by establishing communication norms and ensuring group understanding and buy-in. If time permits, the team could co-create rules based on respect, such as “I will not interrupt a team member when they are speaking.”
Authors Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy suggest capturing communication norms by using the statement, “It’s OK to…” Examples might include, “It’s OK to turn your camera off. It’s OK to have a child or pet pop into the frame during internal meetings. If you have something to contribute, it’s OK to raise your virtual hand so that you’re sure to be acknowledged.” Addressing common hybrid work communication questions can help create a sense of psychological safety that can improve communication at work.
Though most of us do not intend to exclude or dismiss colleagues, we can often be unaware of the stereotypes and assumptions that lead to these behaviors. Kabat-Farr and Labelle-Deraspe write, “While most of us don’t endorse these systems of oppression, it’s very difficult to extricate ourselves from them completely, and all too often, our actions are informed by and reinforce them” (p. 122).
Inclusivity and awareness of implicit bias is not a final destination, but a constant journey that each individual must commit to in order to foster a safe and diverse workplace. Kabat-Farr and Labelle-Deraspe suggest that leaders educate themselves on the ways these biases play out at work and be willing to correct them. For example, if contributions from one team member are repeatedly being forgotten, a leader might institute a policy of tracking all contributions in meeting minutes as the meeting progresses.
With the increasing amount of communication at work mediated by technology, the small talk that naturally happens in the workplace becomes more rare. In virtual meetings, sidebar conversations are not possible, making it more challenging to get to know colleagues outside of their roles. Therefore, conversations can become completely transactional and team members might find it more difficult to build rapport and trust on a human level.
Authors Bob Frisch and Cary Greene suggest building in conversation as an agenda item. A quick and fun icebreaker question can generate positive connections for a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting. If employees are strapped for time and this feels imposing, Frisch and Greene suggest leaving some space at the end of the meeting for conversation. This way, team members can choose to stay and socialize for a few minutes or leave early and get a needed break.