7 Ways to Communicate at Work, and When to Use Them
Communication is essential for healthy community, including the community we call work.
In nearly every workplace survey, lack of communication is bound to top the list of complaints. Poor communication is a common go-to for just about anything that does go—wrong.
Since the digital age we live in provides more ways to communicate than any other time on the planet, how can poor communication even be a thing?
Is it the thing?
There are many other reasons why some are quick to jump on the no communication bandwagon, even when there’s not a genuine communication problem in the workplace. Here are a few of them:
- “There’s no communication” is sometimes used reflexively, without much thought about what is being said. Paradoxically, merely saying, “There’s no communication” could in itself be a miscommunication of the currently reality.
- Saying “poor communication” as a gripe could be a symptom of a completely different problem.
- There is no lack of communication per se, but people are not receiving important information the way they expect it or prefer to receive it.
If there isn’t a deeper issue within your organizational culture that’s driving false “lack of communication” complaints as one of the above examples suggest, this article will help you focus on which communication tools are best for the different situations you may encounter.
Let’s discuss 5 methods of communication, and when it’s best to use them.
Believe it or not, most companies still have desk phones!
When talking to some clients, vendors and remote co-workers—as old fashioned as it may seem—the phone (or softphone) is still your go-to gadget for certain types of conversations. Voice traffic has indeed declined, but it’s still the least likely form of office communication to create a misunderstanding, when face-to-face interaction is not possible or feasible.
Email can always be used to document or supplement a phone conversation, but it won’t provide the rich emotional context that comes from listening to the other party’s cadence and tone of voice. This lack of context contributes to the misunderstandings regularly encountered during text-based dialogues.
When to use the phone?
- When a customer initiates communication via phone. Should a client prefer to correspond via text or other type of chat, they will likely tell you. We suggest waiting for them to suggest it.
- Requests for unplanned time off, or an early departure. Some managers like to discuss these things. It’s best to err on the side of using the phone when calling out, unless you have observed otherwise.
- Whenever greater emotional context is beneficial. Some individuals are more prone to misunderstanding or “reading too much into” text, and it might be better for both parties to hear each other out. Likewise, subject matter that’s easily misunderstood may be best communicated via voice.
Whatever you do, don’t abuse this amazing voice communication tool. Nobody wants to be disrupted by a phone call every three minutes, no matter how urgent the matter seems at the time.
To avoid potential misunderstandings of certain subject matter, or with particular people, use voice communication. Use sparingly.
In most companies email is still a popular communication tool, likely because it works for both formal and casual correspondence, and is nearly as fast as its less formal counterparts (i.e. messaging and texting).
Email is the paper trail of this millennium. Anything of significant importance should be sent via email, especially if you will need proof of your timely response in the future. Email is its own documentation.
Another reason to use email for the serious stuff is that you can cc: or bcc: any cya responses to a personal email address, just in case you need to review those conversations in the future. You’ll still be able to retrieve these important discussions even if your access to company email gets revoked.
Company email also lets you keep potentially contentious conversations off of your own devices, so that you don’t risk surrendering your personal phone to a subpoena should the situation escalate down the road.
Well, hopefully you’ll never have that problem! If you do, you’ll be glad you used email.
Like every communication medium, email has its caveats too. Email is one of the least secure ways to share logins, passwords and other sensitive personal information.
Use email for important discussions, specifically those which warrant documentation.
3. Messaging Platforms
Many companies have built-in instant messaging software, or may subscribe to popular services such as Google Hangouts or Slack.
Messaging works well for getting fast answers to simple questions, quickly sharing files, website addresses, and overall collaboration—especially among team members working in remote locations.
Slack, mentioned above, is office messaging on steroids. Slack is actually an acronym that stands for Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge. (Should we call it a Slackronym?)
All kidding aside, just as its full name suggests you can easily search through previous discussions to avoid asking the same person the same question more than once. Who would’ve thought you could save time and increase productivity by Slacking?
Now that we know their benefits, keep in mind that messaging platforms are intended to be communication and collaboration tools for workplaces. Don’t expect anything you type to be kept secret, as employers can and do monitor these channels.
Use company messaging platforms for quick communication and collaboration. Keep it about work stuff, as you should have very little expectation of privacy.
This was once a workplace taboo. As workplaces and technology continued to evolve, many companies changed their [ring] tone concerning mobile devices.
Since our phones have become an extension of ourselves rather than a device we carry, the idea of asking someone to surrender it for eight hours now seems unreasonable.
Most employers came to realize that it’s really in the company’s best interest to allow mobile devices, as the disruptive calls from kids and spouses that once rattled the company’s main line were being replaced with less disruptive texts and responded to with greater efficiency.
Whether to text or not to text is best determined by observing your company’s culture and responding in kind (when in Rome…). Of course, if your manager has initiated a text conversation in the past, you can safely assume they are open to at least some texting.
Be especially careful with the following, until you know for certain that it’s acceptable:
- “Using text to “call” out sick.
- Notifying your boss of a big project delay.
- Anything that requires more than a quick response in return.
If you’re a manager or owner of a company, don’t terminate an employee via text. It’s not only unprofessional, but it will clearly display your own lack of fortitude on your soon-to-be former employee’s screen. Do you really want to be responsible for your organization’s 1-star Glass Door review that’s about to happen?
If your company has a messaging platform like Slack mentioned above, it’s probably best to communicate with co-workers about work-related things over the official system rather than texting. You’ll be able to easily assign yourself tasks, and information you might need to reference in the future is all kept in a central place.
There are some conversations that are more suitable for text than others, whether it’s on a messaging platform, or your phone.
In the workplace, textual conversation is best limited to the following:
- Giving a colleague a quick “heads up” (e.g. running late for a meeting).
- Factual exchanges of information; emotionally neutral dialogue.
- Questions and answers.
- Giphy’s and memes (as long as they’re funny).
Reserve text-based communication for non-emotionally charged conversations, and when the exchange of information can be done efficiently. Use company messaging platforms for work-related discussions when available.
5. Body Language
Body language is cultural, familial, and individual.
Some gestures are nearly universal, and may seem instinctive—but trying to interpret the body language of a co-worker without having already communicated with them in other ways will lead to all sorts of misinterpretations.
It’s better to save body language including facial expressions as a way to send and receive communication with co-workers whom you already know. A person’s body language is much easier to understand after establishing plenty of face-to-face and verbal communication with them, and you’ve already learned how they react to a multitude of stimuli.
The usefulness of body language, or non-verbal communication has been all too frequently overhyped. Contemporary research, including Psychology Today magazine has debunked many common body language myths that many people still believe to be true. Talk about misunderstandings!
Don’t depend on body language as a reliable means of communication unless you know the other person.
Despite the fact that its use is presently on the decline, humans will fail to thrive in the workplace (or anyplace) should face-to-face communication become obsolete.
According to a UCLA study that researched the effects that use of digital devices has on emotional develpoment, such as the ability to accurately interpret emotions:
The more time that young people spent away from their smart devices, and spent time with others in person, the better skilled they were at reading facial expressions and perceiving emotions.
That being said, these four things almost always go better—and are more rewarding—when done face to face:
- Salary negotiations
- Performance appraisals
Of course some geographical working arrangements preclude the possibility of enjoying face to face conversation in the same room. Although not a perfect substitute, Facetime, Skype, and other forms of video conferencing can serve as the next best thing.
Purpose to use face to face interaction more frequently in the workplace, especially when apologizing or giving compliments.
7. Sticky Notes
No post about workplace communication would be complete without a giving a shoutout to sticky notes. Use these as a quick acknowledgment of appreciation, or to remind yourself or a colleague about an important task.
Place them on the phone, monitor, keyboard, or anywhere they will be seen by the intended recipient.
Use sticky notes sparingly. A single sticky note stands out and is appreciated, but 30 sticky notes are just a sticky mess.