Communications Challenges in the Workplace
Ah, the modern workplace...a digitally transformed utopia full of engaged employees conversing and collaborating to their hearts' content!
Ok, that might not be every organization's reality, but it's certainly true that when companies communicate effectively the wheels are greased for employee satisfaction, increased innovation, and probable profitability.
Shockingly, 60% of companies don’t have a long-term strategy for their internal communications, but implementing a fit-for-purpose plan couldn't be easier.
With just a few considerations and a rounded understanding of internal comms challenges, you can achieve the ideal digital workplace and reap the benefits that it offers.
Identifying barriers to effective communication
If you've got internal communications challenges in your organization, chances are you already know!
Perfect communication happens when the message is received and understood in the way it was intended. It sounds so simple, but effective internal communication is one of the most difficult things to get right.
In a traditional office-based workplace you might encounter physical barriers (think the rise of the open plan office in the 1950s), but in today's modern workplace we're more likely to see barriers that are:
When the sender and the receiver of the message are on the same page, the information comes across clearly. However, internal comms is a delicate concept, one that can break apart very easily if we don't consider the reality of the modern workplace.
Modern workplace communications
What's so different about the modern workplace? Most of us spent early 2020 participating in the world's biggest remote working experiment, and we're all too familiar with the communications challenges that came along with that.
The modern workforce is a collective of individuals that couldn't be more diverse. Employees are all over the world, speaking different languages in different time zones. While this makes contemporary companies richer and more varied, it also offers unique challenges when it comes to communications.
Technology plays a huge role in modern workplace communication challenges, but it's only a part of the whole. To really arrive at an internal comms strategy that delivers, we need to get comfortable with how tech fits into the communication loop.
The communication loop
This concept has been around since the days of smoke signals, but it's still totally relevant today. It's easy to send your message out into the world and move onto other things, but you'd only be completing half of the loop. Big mistake!
The comms loop is divided into:
Sender: you, your management team
Message: your insightful, well-written piece of comms
Receiver: the receptive ears and eyes of your employees
Feedback: the all important reciprocal final step!
And yes, you need to think about all four parts!
To make things easier, we've crunched down some of the key issues and barriers to effective internal comms into four broad categories, so that your loop will be an endless cycle of collaboration and fulfillment!
Ready for your first modern workplace communication challenge? Then let's get started!
Challenge #1: People
The challenges of effective communication starts with people. It doesn't matter if your company is five tech wizards in a south London warehouse, or 500 digital nomads dotted around the world, people are at the crux of the matter.
We're told that the modern workplace is more connected than ever, yet Trade Press Services found that 74% of employees feel they are missing out on company information and news.
Honestly, our first rule of thumb for anything comms related is to put people first. Knowing that, we've outlined the three top barriers to IC to keep in mind when you're creating a strategy or best practices handbook: passive listening, attitudes, and management.
Is the biggest barrier to workplace communication the fact that your employees don't listen? This might be more about you than them!
While it's tempting to blame poor listening skills on ineffective internal communications, the way you communicate can have a greater impact than you realize. Best communication practices from the boardroom apply directly to the modern workplace. If your employees aren't taking your message onboard, it might be time to ask yourself:
Is this message relevant to this audience?
Have I delivered the right amount of information?
Is this easy to understand?
Is this the right channel to deliver this message?
Have I given opportunities for clarification?
Am I encouraging feedback?
Have I clearly stated my expectations?
If you answered YES to all of these questions, then you're a world-class communicator, and you should probably start your own web series. But if you're as fallible as the rest of us, then read on to learn how to overcome communication problems in your business.
Attitude to communications
Ego is a massive barrier to effective company communication, and it can rear its ugly head in just about any situation.
Unchecked egos can undermine teamwork, stymie employees' ability to feel heard or speak up, and feed the vicious cycle that creates further barriers to communication.
Employees emulate the attitude and environment that they are in, so senior employees need to set the tone of workplace communications. Using appropriate channels and prioritizing feedback (more on that later!) can open up the floor for honest, ego-free communication, and a more enjoyable employee experience for all!
Leaders and managers
According to Harvard Business Review, a whopping two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees. What gives?
Managers and leaders require specific technical, conceptual, and planning skills, but if you don't make communication a leadership function then you're missing a key component!
Communications are often top-down. By challenging leaders to facilitate strong communications channels, you'll encourage conversation, innovation, and a ready exchange of ideas throughout your organization.
Got your people onboard? Good stuff! You've addressed the first big communication barrier. Up next: the mighty message!
Challenge #2: Message
Most companies invest a serious amount of time and effort into their external communications. We've seen firsthand just how much work our clients put into things like tone of voice and overarching narrative in their podcast series. A capable leader would never put out a press release without making sure the messaging was on point, but internal company communications often lack the same level of attention.
It's vital that your IC strategy is meticulously thought out ahead of time, and this applies to every single channel that you use. So, before you hit send on that management email, or go live on your company-wide virtual conference, you need to make sure the message you're putting out there is clear, concise, and meets your team on their terms, without being patronizing.
How? By checking that your messaging isn't susceptible to any of these internal comms pitfalls!
Poorly written communication
We hate to say it, but poorly written materials are rife in the modern workplace. Incorrect syntax, bad grammar, and out-of-context items are way too frequent in interoffice business publications, and lead straight to confusion.
According to HR Technologist, 57% of employees report not being given clear directions. Yikes!
You don't have to be a literary genius to pen a good internal comms piece, but you should always get an extra pair of eyes on your copy to assess it for clarity, message, and typos.
Lack of factual communication
There's enough fake news in this world, and your employees shouldn't need to do a deep dive, or even a cursory Google search, to fact check your internal comms.
IBM reports that 72% of employees don’t have a full understanding of the company’s strategy.
Apart from slashing employee productivity, a lack of factual communication encourages mistrust in management and can damage employee engagement and satisfaction.
Facts are facts, people!
Consistency is key
Message inconsistency is a huge barrier to effective communication. Conflicting or incomplete messaging filters through organizations in an uncontrolled way, leading to assumptions, incorrect information, and total confusion.
Don't say one thing to the PR team and leave the social media gang looking for breadcrumbs. Speak your truth, create a single source for it, and make sure that the message you're putting out is reaching everyone on the grapevine equally.
Aim for inclusivity
One of the most exciting qualities of modern organizations can also be a serious communication barrier if not handled correctly. Employees come from a diverse range of backgrounds and cultural experiences, particularly in the virtual workplace, and your internal company messaging needs to reflect this.
Don't assume everyone is automatically on the same page! Collaborating with a diverse range of employees on your communications will ensure they're suitable for your audience, whether they're company-wide, individual, or department-specific.
Ditch the jargon
This deserves a heading of its own. It's all too easy to fall into the habit of communicating as if your entire audience is equally knowledgeable. Jargon-heavy internal communications lose potency right out of the gate, particularly with a geographically dispersed remote workforce without a suitable internal comms channel to request clarity.
Ensure a plain language policy for all IC, and if you can't totally eliminate jargon from in-house messages, then it's imperative to have a succinct, factual, single source of truth that's readily available.
Message on point? Bravo! Now to send it out into the world.
Challenge #3: Channels
If you've spent valuable time crafting the perfect message, there's nothing more irritating than a failure to deliver. In the modern workplace, we rely heavily on tech to deliver our internal communications, so not having the right tools to deliver your message is a huge barrier.
To be consistent in your communication approach you'll need to decide which channels are suited to which parts of your IC strategy. Decide ahead of time and you'll enjoy numerous benefits.
Recruiter says that 33% of employees said a lack of open, honest communication has the most negative impact on employee morale. The good news is, investing in the right channels will not only encourage your workforce to explore and discover your vision, it will also aid in developing an environment that helps individuals feel a part of delivering it. Pretty sweet!
So, what are the challenges and issues particular to communications channels? Here are our top themes to explore before you take the plunge.
Mixing work and personal communications
Creating a healthy work-life balance regularly ranks as the biggest challenge in opinion polls for remote workforce employees. Being overly personal in communications runs the risk of diminishing professionalism, and can lead to a decrease in morale and an increase in gossip. Not cool!
That said, setting aside space for personal communications can boost employee engagement and morale, but it's important to choose and delineate the right channel. Good examples include:
A virtual water cooler channel in your Slack workspace
A two-minute slot for a tidbit about what you're up to in your free time in your internal podcast
A monthly round-up newsletter of your team's work from home photos
Employees in different time zones
A dispersed remote workforce can seem like an insurmountable barrier to effective communication. If you've got freelancers in France, IT support in Iowa, and an HR manager hopping between Hungary and Hawaii, you probably spend a lot of time worrying if your communications are hitting home.
Everything becomes a whole lot easier when you embrace the wonders of synchronous and asynchronous communication.
Synchronous: real-time information exchange. This way of communicating is native to our traditional concepts of the office and work. Great for time-sensitive comms, and when you need answers now!
Asynchronous: information exchange doesn't happen in real time. Asynchronous comms are plentiful in the modern workplace, and established productivity boosters.
You'll need appropriate tech and channels to deliver both types of communications, but dividing your IC into these two categories is the first step to success.
Failure to disperse communications
Sending your important message out into your company microcosm can suffer a serious failure to launch. Without a hierarchy or network of interlinking channels, the information presented won't be dispersed. Simply put, there'll be a breakdown in communication!
Choosing the right tech and the right channels will keep all of your employees in the loop and avoid wasted time, duplication of work, or general disruptions to your workflow.
Right tech, right channels
In the past, internal communication strategies often identified technology as a hindrance to effective communication. While it's true that email and the intranet are faceless communication channels, many modern workplaces were built around these kinds of technologies.
If you want to remove perceived barriers to communication related to tech and the dispersed workforce, you need to consider:
The parties involved in the communication
When to use synchronous and asynchronous communication
Choosing software and channels for IC very much depends on the parties involved, and they all need to be considered separately to avoid common pitfalls and barriers. These include:
Communications between employees
Upper management to organization
For effective company comms, you need to pick your channels wisely. Whittle down your choices by asking yourself a few questions:
Is this message general or specific?
Does this information need to be referenceable?
Do I need a reply straight away?
Is this message confidential or sensitive?
Could this meeting be an email?
Is this one-way or two-way communication?
In asking these questions, you might discover that building an internal company podcast is the right move for your business—providing the perfect platform to align your general comms with your tech-savvy, remote team.
Message heard? Nice one, you're almost there! The fourth and final challenge to effective communication awaits.
Challenge #4: Feedback
So, you've delivered a carefully crafted message to the right people in the right channel. Kudos to you! But we're not done just yet!
As we outlined earlier, communication has four main steps:
Encoding: writing your message
Transmission: sending said message down the right channel
Decoding: the recipient's reading of it
Feedback: the response!
Even one-way communication elicits a response, so forgetting this all important final step is the last barrier to overcome for top-class communication.
Here are the key concepts around feedback to set you up for success!
Communication is a two-way street
Internal communications tend to be sender-centric, so it takes an active effort on the part of senior employees and management to encourage two-way communication.
Organizations that don't encourage junior-level employees to share ideas or voice concerns risk serious communication breakdowns. Give all employees the chance to be heard, and a channel to do so in, and you'll reap the benefits of increased productivity, cohesion and collaboration, and the progress of your company as a unit.
Lack of follow through
A lot of the time, it's not enough to simply let employees know they can respond to communications. Following up plays a vital role in the process. When expectations are unclear, it can hinder progress and result in unfinished work, which can leave employees feeling dissatisfied.
Once information is dispersed throughout your organization, the relevant parties may need to take specific actions. You can close that pesky feedback loop by:
Scheduling a follow-up meeting
Distributing and delegating tasks
Giving your employees access to further sources of information
Setting up channels for further communications
Not listening to employees during periods of change
This barrier is all about you! In periods of project development or intense change, upper management can become laser-focused on the goals and KPIs and forget to listen to their people!
What this is really about is making time to listen to employees and learn from them, and being clear about how you'll act on their feedback and ideas.
Rather than dismissing needs or fears, make a point of fueling partnerships and encouraging collaboration. Doing so will allow you to make the most of a whole, beautifully round communication loop.
Keep yourself in the loop
By now, you'll be feeling fully engaged and motivated, ready to break down those classic workplace communication barriers!
Internal comms can be one of the first things to break down during periods of change or high pressure. If you find your message isn't landing right, you can simply refer back to the best practices for each of our four communication challenge areas:
People: make communication skills a leadership function, take ego out of the equation, and make passive listening a thing of the past.
Message: aim for factual, consistent, jargon-free, and well-written copy that is inclusive to your diverse modern workforce.
Channels: choose your channels wisely depending on the nature of the message, temporal constraints, and how you need it to be dispersed.
Feedback: close the communication loop by instigating feedback, following up on actions, and fuelling partnerships and collaboration.
If you want to really level up your IC, then it may be time to implement an internal communication plan that keeps everyone engaged and in the loop. We'll be diving deeper into this topic over our next few blogs.
Want to talk about internal comms and private podcasts? In the name of feedback, our virtual door is always open!
Identifying internal communications barriers is just the beginning
We're nerding out about all things IC because of how important it is to us as a company, and how integral it is to our podcast production service offering.
Make sure you check out our other articles on the digital workplace, and the state of remote work. Be sure to follow us on LinkedIn to stay updated on our latest articles from the world of podcasting, internal communications, and beyond!