How to Improve Communication at Work
“Couldn’t this meeting have been an email?”
If you’ve ever had that thought, you’re not alone. Now that you’re a manager, you’re determined not to waste your team members’ time with the unhelpful and repetitive communication that your previous supervisors forced you to sit through.
But how do you communicate well with your team? After all, you can’t eschew all meetings, right?
Effective workplace communication is always on good managers’ minds, as it’s the key to a healthy and productive company culture.
You need to be an expert in fostering open, respectful, and professional communication in all aspects of the office, from one-on-one interactions, to team communication, to office-wide information-sharing.
Let’s take a look at some components of effective communication skills, as well as 13 helpful tips for improving your office communication.
What is Effective Communication?
In an office setting, communication is the key to a healthy and productive environment. Effective communication in the workplace is clear, concise, and direct.
Potent communicators also foster the skill of truly listening. They find out what their conversation partners really think or need from the discussion; they don’t just come into the talk with a list of objectives.
Effective communication leads to trust within a team, and trust leads to better performance and results.
According to a Watson Wyatt study , companies that foster effective communication report 50% lower turnover than the industry average. Additionally, Gallup reported that better internal communication led to stronger employee engagement.
While excellent communication is the key to a successful work environment, miscommunication is one of the surest and quickest ways to self-destruct. It’s much too easy to say something that gets interpreted in a way you didn’t mean.
Often, a culture of communication (or lack thereof) comes from the top. Managers can easily fall into the trap of “mushroom management,” which is a term for treating your employees like mushrooms.
Mushrooms are cultivated in the dark, just like employees who only get the tools to do their work without any relevant information about what they’re working towards.
Managers should avoid mushroom management by providing relevant information, communicating regularly with employees, and encouraging their employees to communicate in constructive ways.
Let’s move into 13 helpful tips to develop a system of effective communication with your team.
1. Set Up Weekly or Monthly One-on-Ones
Your employees — especially if they’re shy — might feel too intimidated to approach you with their problems or concerns. They may not want to interrupt you or demand time to talk.
The solution? Make regular communication a part of your team’s framework.
Set up a time, be it weekly or monthly, to check in with your team on a regular basis. These meetings are known as one-on-one (sometimes spelled “1:1” or “1-on-1”).
Ben Horowitz describes a 1:1 meeting as a “free-form meeting for all the pressing issues, brilliant ideas, and chronic frustrations that do not fit neatly into status reports, email and other less personal and intimate mechanisms.”
Business leader Kim Scott suggests that employees, rather than managers, should be the principal drivers of their one-on-ones.
This meeting will let your employee:
- Have a chance to air any problems or things making them unhappy at work
- Share their wins
- Stay informed and understand the bigger picture in the workplace
- Address topics — like personal career development — that often get overlooked
Another benefit of one-on-one meetings is that you’ll get a better sense of what’s going on in your office. All too often, managers can become disconnected from their office’s inner workings, and it’s hard to be an effective manager if you’re not tuned in to the day-to-day.
2. When Giving an Assignment, Explain the Why Behind It
Without a firm understanding of the bigger purpose behind their daily task lists, employees can quickly experience apathy and burnout. Millennials (who now make up a good chunk of the workforce) need a sense of purpose in their jobs to feel satisfied.
While you might think your employee should intuitively understand why a specific task is essential, it can’t hurt to outline the bigger picture. After all, they may not have as broad a perspective on your company’s goals as you do.
Try to describe the impact their work will have on the team, the customer, or even the world.
Ensure your employees’ work doesn’t just feel like a long to-do list with no end in sight.
Batch related tasks into bundles and point to the bigger picture at every opportunity, and always try to tie everything back to your organization’s central mission or value.
Be careful of sounding condescending, though.
For example, when giving the assignment to reorganize a file room, try adding something like, “this project will be a great way to help everyone save time looking for client documents. Do you have any questions about the new filing system or any suggestions to make it better?”
This phrasing loops your employee in the bigger picture while giving them a chance to ask questions and play a vital role in the planning.
Communication should be proactive rather than reactive. Thus, share vital information early, and don’t forget to include the why behind any significant company-wide changes.
3. Listen and Give Your Full Attention
People who talk a lot are not necessarily good communicators. They might be terrible at communication because they don’t pause to let anyone else speak.
To be a more impactful manager, keep in mind that there’s a difference between hearing and listening — and your goal should be to truly listen to your employees when they’re talking to you.
It’s natural to let your mind wander while listening with half an ear to your conversation partner. Overcoming your natural tendencies and becoming an active listener can be hard work.
Practice these habits to improve your active listening skills:
- Don’t jump in with solutions until they finish explaining their problem.
- Don’t help slow speakers by finishing their sentences for them.
- Try not to formulate your response while they’re still talking; be in the moment.
- Ask questions for clarification when necessary.
- Never multitask while an employee is speaking to you.
- Make eye contact with your conversation partner.
- Keep your body position open and engaged. Don’t cross your arms or legs, and keep your body oriented towards the person speaking.
4. Learn Each Other’s Strengths and Weaknesses to Personalize Your Communication
Learning what motivates your employees, how they respond to internal and external pressure, and what methods work best for getting work done are useful tools for more effective management and communication.
Many companies find it useful to have a procedure for learning about employees’ strengths and weaknesses, like administering personality type tests (Myers Briggs, Enneagram, and Strengths Finder are extremely popular in workplaces).
It’s also important to understand your employees’ preferred style of communication.
Do they love face-to-face discussion, email, or instant messaging when working on a project?
Though you can learn a lot from observation, don’t be afraid to ask your employees questions to determine their preferred communication style.
Some of these questions might include:
- To you, what is the most important thing about feedback in the workplace?
- What’s the best way I can give you feedback?
- What are the most difficult things about communication for you?
Also, find out how your employees prefer to have conversations. Do they need a private space, or do they prefer to walk and talk? Do they need specific examples or illustrations of what you’re talking about? Are they motivated by emotional appeals?
Finally, make sure you’re saving sensitive communication for the appropriate channels.
It’s a good rule of thumb not to discuss someone’s personal life or sensitive topics (like a family emergency) in front of the whole team.
5. Be Open for Reciprocal Feedback
You’ll be a much more effective and plugged-in leader if you can handle the hard truths.
Learning how to give — and receive — employee feedback is an essential part of successful management. Showing your employees that you can take feedback in stride will help them trust and respect you, and feel more comfortable sharing their authentic opinions.
One way to encourage feedback is to set up a system for anonymous suggestions. Giving your team ways to provide anonymous feedback allows you the chance to discover issues beneath the surface.
You can initiate an online forum where employees can voice their concerns and feedback in an anonymous environment.
If you’re in a smaller organization, try a tool like SurveyMonkey to gather feedback from employees regularly. Or, you can always go old-school with a suggestion box.
6. Make Communication a Two-Way Street
One-way communication has become the norm in workplaces; managers send out emails with instructions, updates, or new assignments, and employees are conditioned to take the information mutely.
However, your job as a manager isn’t merely to hand down decrees and pass out assignments.
Try to discourage this top-down approach, and instead, encourage employees to speak their minds and create a genuine dialogue. You’ll have a healthier and more functional workplace if they do.
Make a habit of requesting feedback, dedicating time in meetings for employees to voice their thoughts, and allowing room in your plans for things to change.
You might have specific objectives for your team, but those might need to evolve, depending on your employees’ input and ideas. Allowing your direct reports the space to contribute to shaping your goals will keep them engaged and motivated.
7. Create a Communication-Friendly Culture
For your team to communicate well, you need to create a sense of “psychological safety” in your workplace.
According to a two-year Google study, psychological safety (or the state of feeling free to be open without fear of negative consequences to your career or status) is one of the core components of a capable team.
Creating a communication-friendly culture starts from the top, so try to lead by example. Set a relaxed tone in employee meetings, and help people feel safe to ask “dumb” questions.
Get to know your employees and establish a rapport. Show interest in their lives outside of the office and what makes them who they are. Empathize with their problems, and follow through on how you promise to help them.
Your employees should see that you care about them. Once this happens, they’ll start to trust you and feel welcome to share their thoughts with you.
Similarly, don’t discourage social mingling between your employees. Working long hours can be draining and stressful, and it’s natural to take a break and blow off steam by chatting about non-work things.
It’s easy as a manager to see hanging out by the water cooler as wasting time, but on the contrary: your team is building stronger bonds and resetting their energy levels. Not all communication is about work, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve an essential purpose.
8. Have an “Open Door” Policy
American Psychological Association says that almost one-quarter of employees don’t trust their employer.
The way to prevent that in your office?
Show your employees you’re willing and able to build a camaraderie with them. Create an atmosphere where all employees feel like they can voice concerns, give feedback, ask questions, or make suggestions.
Making them comfortable sharing their thoughts with you helps build trust.
Also, keeping a finger on the pulse of the office helps you quash rumors and gossip. Employees can turn directly to you for answers to their questions, rather than speculating amongst themselves.
This open-door policy can be symbolic, but it helps to make it literal as well.
Don’t physically shut yourself off from the rest of the office — at least not all the time. If you’re not careful, of course, you could spend all day at the mercy of whichever employee walks in your office door.
It’s not wrong to set boundaries, but make sure your employee understands that you still want them to feel welcome.
Try saying, “I have to do X right now, but why don’t we set a time to talk about this later this afternoon?” If you postpone, set a precise time in the future, so they know you aren’t just pushing it off intending to delay it indefinitely.
9. Keep Workflows and Processes Transparent
Ensure your teams understand exactly what you expect of them, and they have access to all the relevant information to do their jobs well.
They need to understand everyone’s responsibilities on an assignment and when projects are due (or the expected turnaround time of various tasks in their department).
Along with workflows, everyone should understand the channels the project needs to go through and who has final approval.
With big projects, communication between moving parts of the team will likely lapse at some point. Take those lapses as opportunities for growth, and develop procedures or communication tools to avoid that same lapse in similar future projects.
10. Make Internal Documents and Knowledge Available
A significant contributor to long-term office cohesion and transparency is the availability of relevant documents and processes.
Have a system set up to share vital documents like training information, process manuals, your employee handbook, and other essential files. If possible, set up a knowledge base stored on your company intranet where employees can access information.
The most beneficial knowledge bases are searchable so that employees can find the right documents quickly and easily.
Making knowledge available supports information sharing throughout your team and can fill the communication gaps that might occur.
11. Use Modern Tools to Improve Communication
Many workplaces rely on email and instant messaging for all communication, but those tools aren’t the best for every need.
Employees often turn to external consumer tools to store their ideas, task management, and even communication streams — and this can lead to security issues and communication silos where valuable information is lost.
Don’t be afraid to branch out, including into video chats where appropriate. Don’t underestimate the power of seeing your conversation partner’s facial expressions. Most of the communication is nonverbal, after all.
There are (too) many communication tools out there these days, so use what works for your team.
Decide which software you’ll use for public streams (which allow employees to “work out loud”), chat for one-on-one communication, document sharing and resource library, news, task management, and team collaboration.
However, not all new software is a good thing.
With the advent of more communication channels like Slack, employees can be interrupted more often (disrupting their productivity) and pressured to respond to instant messages… well, instantly.
Establish an office etiquette about what kinds of messages to send, how to send them, and how fast employees should respond. Encourage “focused work sprints” where employees can unplug from the various messaging systems you use.
12. Share News Via Internal Newsletter
People can get busy and quickly lose touch at work, so it’s helpful to communicate company news and vital information with a regular newsletter. Keeping your employees informed on the goings-on in your company and industry can help them feel valued.
Many companies find weekly newsletters to be the right frequency, but feel free to experiment with how often you can realistically produce a helpful newsletter.
Keep in mind that if you flood your employees’ inboxes too often, you’ll be counteracting the helpfulness of a newsletter.
If your company has an intranet, it might be better to post the newsletter than send an email blast.
When developing a newsletter, keep these tips in mind:
- Be concise! No chit-chat, no fluff. Focus on quality, useful information.
- Always be honest. Don’t shy away from delivering bad news when necessary.
- Keep it scannable (use headings, bullet points, and bold keywords).
- Limit the newsletter to information that’s relevant to all employees.
13. Do Fun Stuff To Boost Morale
Engaging in fun activities as a team improves communication at work, according to the team bonding specialists at Teambonding.
The social environment outside of the workplace encourages relaxation, connection, and networking with coworkers.
Are you looking for some ideas for morale-boosting activities for your team?
- Take your team hiking
- Go for drinks (also applicable to virtual teams)
- Schedule a bowling or mini-golf day
- Attend an industry conference as a team
- Take your team out for lunch
- Attend a weekly fitness class together
- Host an interdepartmental sports tournament
While making your plans, keep in mind that any company event that incorporates friendly competition will foster team spirit, collaboration, and better communication.
Allowing your staff to build closer bonds with each other will strengthen their affection for the team and workplace, and help them work together better.
Communication: Key to a Healthy and Happy Office
While it’s easy to let communication lag during busy times at work, try to resist that natural entropy. Communication is key to a productive, healthy workplace — and it can help avoid most major workplace problems.
It’s the manager’s job to set the tone for open communication from the top. Practice healthy communication habits and foster a communication-friendly culture, starting with an open-door policy.
Don’t forget to extend that communication to your company’s structural components, including the tools you use and the internal documents you make available to everyone in the office.
A good manager can communicate well and foster healthy dialogue among employees. After all, not everything needs to be a meeting.
Knowing when and how to communicate effectively is perhaps the most fundamental skill a manager can develop.