Effective workplace communication doesn’t depend on a particular messaging app or meeting schedule. It doesn’t take certain training, a single strategy, or an expensive education. The secret about communication in the workplace is that it isn’t even about communication, says Alain Hunkins, author of Cracking the Leadership Code. It’s about understanding.
“That’s where a lot of people fall short,” Hunkins says. “They think they’re supposed to communicate for communications sake, when in fact, we’re in the understanding business, not the communications business.”
When understanding is the goal, the path to effective communication in the workplace becomes much clearer. You shoot for comprehension and consensus with your team. You use the tools and processes that enhance understanding, and you make adjustments to stay on track.
In this comprehensive guide to communicating at work, we’ll discuss the tools, methods, and strategies that lead to an understanding between and within teams. We’ll also cover the basics, like why it’s so essential to improve workplace communication and the types of communication we use to share information in house. (For insights about external business communication, see these guides to B2B marketing or B2C marketing; or even this guide to building a business website.)
- The importance of communication in the workplace. Why bother to invest time and resources in a workplace activity that many take for granted? Learn about the benefits of better workplace communication.
- Methods of communicating in the workplace. Email, phone calls, and even informal, lunch-room kvetching sessions: They’re the media that either improve or degrade understanding at work. In this chapter, we’ll discuss the various channels through which our conversations flow.
- Top communication challenges in the workplace. A few common barriers tend to obstruct information sharing within and between teams. We’ll cover those here.
- How to improve communication in the workplace. This is the core of our guide: We go in depth on strategies to overcome communication barriers and reach understanding as efficiently as possible.
- Essential business communication tools. Should you use Slack or Microsoft Teams? Collaboration software or project management apps? This chapter provides an overview of the leading technologies that enhance workplace communication.
Feel free to skip to Chapter 4 if you’re looking for a quick fix. Even better, share the early chapters with your team to get everyone on board with better workplace communication.
Regardless of how you use this guide, we recommend bookmarking the page; the quest for understanding at work is never really over, and you may need to explore many of the options we discuss.
The importance of communication in the workplace
Why is communication in the workplace important? Because it’s the basis of all you do. You can draw a direct line between in-house communication and the success of your business. Hunkins maps out the connection:
“All businesses are trying to achieve some kind of ideal result however you measure your business outcome,” he says. “Results come from actions, which come from the decisions you make. The only way you create great decisions is if you are basing them on an accurate understanding.”
Remember, the goal of communication is to impart understanding. You want everyone in the same contextual canoe so they can all row in the same direction.
“Shared understanding becomes the platform on which all future action depends,” Hunkins says. If you’re looking for a single argument for the importance of communication in the workplace, this is it: Everything depends on the quality of the conversation.
That said, let’s break down some of the more granular benefits of effective communication in the workplace:
- Communication improves trust between managers and teams. Harvard Business Review reports that less than half of professionals have “a great deal of trust” in their employers. That suggests generally poor communication between management and staff. When managers fail to communicate, it leads to mistrust — and sometimes, resentment. Luckily, the opposite can also be true.
- Strong communication reduces staff turnover. This lesson comes to us from the education world, where teachers are more likely to stay at schools with collaborative cultures and high standards of communication. The situation is similar at businesses, where “bad communication” is the “real culprit of high staff turnover,” according to human resources website HRZone.com.
- Better workplace communication improves performance. According to Forbes, when employees are confident that their input is valued, they’re nearly five times as likely to feel like they can do their best work. Additionally, more informed teammates are better positioned to make effective contributions, which means increased performance is one of the top benefits of communication in the workplace.
A few common communication roadblocks tend to get in the way of shared understanding among teams. We’ll talk about those challenges in Chapter 3, but first, we’ll explore the basic types of communication we use at work.
Methods of communicating in the workplace
“People are good at many things, but mind reading isn’t one of them,” Hunkins says. “We all have implicit assumptions — like what we think ‘timely’ or ‘quality’ means. What I suggest is to make your implicit assumptions explicit.”
This chapter is an effort to do just that. We’re discussing clear communication, so a little clarification is in order. When we talk about the different types of communication in the workplace, what exactly do we mean?
At the most fundamental level, we can divide workplace communication into three basic categories: written, verbal, and nonverbal. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Written communication in the workplace
A lot of the language we share at work takes place on a page or screen. Whether it’s an instant message, an email, or a detailed report that takes weeks to put together, written language is an indispensable part of workplace collaboration.
Writing isn’t just for the marketing department. Everyone needs to be able to write clearly, concisely, and with a minimum of distracting errors in grammar, punctuation, or spelling. The strategies we discuss later in this guide apply to all memos, newsletters, text messages, official documents, and anything else that uses the written word to share information in pursuit of business goals.
Note, however, that writing entails more than the content of your message. There’s also tone, which doesn’t just apply to verbal communication in the workplace. In writing, the tone is conveyed primarily through language choice and formatting. You can even “yell” on the page with excessive capitalization and lots of exclamation points.
Tone reveals the writer’s intent without mentioning it explicitly. It’s the difference between your boss emailing you, “Where’s that report already?” and “Let’s make this report top priority.” Same information but a different emotional experience.
“It’s important to recognize that a lot comes across in your tone, whether that’s the tone of your writing or, if you’re speaking, the tone of your voice and body language,” Hunkins says. “You need to get all those parts in alignment so they’re actually supporting your message and not getting in the way of what you’re trying to do.”
Verbal communication in the workplace
Verbal (or oral) communication involves the spoken word. When you present at a meeting, hop on a Zoom call, or call a client on your cell phone, you’re engaging in a verbal exchange. Face-to-face communication tends to be verbal for obvious reasons.
In a post for Psychology Today, business writer Douglas Van Praet claims that “email is only 7 percent as effective as talking.” While that’s probably a bit of a stretch — we’ll get into the research that led to this claim in the section on nonverbal communication — the point stands: Human beings evolved to communicate in person, using speech.
And just like with written communication, the way you speak shares information just as effectively as what you say. “People are driven way more strongly by emotions than by logic,” Hunkins says. “Advertisers have known that for a long time. The tone of our voice sends messages about how we’re feeling. Your tone of voice definitely carries emotional signals.”
Effective communicators understand this, and they modulate the tone of their voice to match their messaging goals. Next time you speak up in a meeting, enter into a tense negotiation with a would-be client, or even blow off some steam at the water cooler, remember to control your tone. “Emotions are contagious,” Hunkins says. “Think about what you hope to infect people with [when you speak].”
Nonverbal communication in the workplace
We’ve been hinting at the importance of nonverbal communication throughout this chapter. And when business writers discuss nonverbal communication, you can bet a psychologist named Albert Mehrabian will come up.
Mehrabian is known for the oft-cited research that suggests 55 percent of what’s conveyed in face-to-face communication comes from body language, 38 percent comes from tone, and only 7 percent of the shared information is embedded in the actual words spoken. (These are the numbers that Van Praet cites in his piece on email’s relative ineffectiveness.) And while Mehrabian himself has pointed out that his formula is conditional, and shouldn’t be applied to every situation equally, you don’t need exact percentages to understand that nonverbal communication matters.
Take this story, for instance: Hunkins once attended the annual conference for a Fortune 100 manufacturing company. Employees had traveled to the conference from all over the world, and 1,500 of them gathered in the conference room to hear the CEO’s “State of the Union” speech.
“This CEO doesn’t even say hello,” Hunkins recalls. “There’s no sense of greeting. He puts up a slide and says, ‘This is ROI. That’s return on invested capital. Wait. Why am I telling you that? If you don’t know what that is, you don’t belong in this room.’ ”
Things only got worse from there, and the audience reacted predictably.
“Everyone’s hands are crossing like they’re trying to protect themselves,” Hunkins says. “Their body language is starting to slump — and it’s because the CEO is attacking them.”
The CEO in this story had the wrong language. He had the wrong tone. But his physical communication also aligned with his language and tone to suggest the wrong message: contempt for his workforce.
“It’s an example of how the tone of voice and his whole body language — not just what he said, but how he said it — had this terrible impact on the company at large,” Hunkins says.
Combining multiple types of communication in the workplace
The three categories of workplace communication discussed above don’t cover everything. There’s also visual communication in the workplace — for instance, all the graphs and charts and infographics that share data in a graphical format. Visual communication objects (like graphs) are usually combined with written reporting to share complex messages.
This combination of communication methods is typical. Communicators often rely on multiple channels simultaneously to convey messages in an ongoing and cyclical manner. After all, many business goals are long-term projects; communication builds on itself, email after email, meeting after meeting. Early miscommunications may cause problems weeks or months down the line.
That’s why it’s so important to identify and remove the challenges that stand in the way of clear communication — and its ultimate goal of understanding between stakeholders. In the next chapter, we’ll look at what can go wrong in the communication process.
Top communication challenges in the workplace
The goal of communication is to get as close as possible to 100-percent understanding among all involved parties, which requires more or less perfect alignment of four things:
- What the communicator means
- What the communicator says
- What the recipient hears
- How the recipient interprets the message
Communication barriers can arise at every point along the way. Many challenges arise because of the speaker’s assumptions: that we said exactly what we meant to, that everyone in the conversation shares the same definition of key terms, or that all participants have enough background knowledge to put the message in context, for example. Below, we’ll provide a few strategies to catch these assumptions before they cause problems.
How speakers and writers avoid communication challenges at work
Assumptions interfere with clear communication by concealing the gaps in understanding. Whether you’re participating in a conference call or having a one-on-one conversation, pause every now and then. Ask your audience what they’re taking away from your statements — and try again if you’re not all on the same page. When you write an email, include questions and ask for a response to check for understanding.
You can also keep communication challenges to a minimum with these tips:
1. Don’t assume that your message is clear to everyone
What’s clear to you may be confusing to your audience. If a manager tells the team, “We need more participation in the next meeting,” does that mean every employee should prepare a detailed report? Or just that too many employees were staring at their phones last time? This is where “making the implicit explicit” can help. Be clear and quantifiable, especially when discussing needs or expectations.
That advice also improves writing skills. Poor writing is a common source of confusion, frustration, miscommunication, and even decreased productivity — and examples of poorly written business communications are alarmingly easy to find in most companies. Using clear language and complete, well-connected thoughts will improve your writing.
While you can improve the clarity of your messages, both written and spoken, by simplifying language and connecting your ideas carefully, there’s no substitute for drawing listeners into the conversation. Ask them if you’re making sense, or have them paraphrase the message back to you. Don’t assume that sending a message automatically guarantees all recipients will understand that message. They might not.
“At some point, we’ve all heard someone say, ‘Well, I sent the email. They should know what to do,’ ” says Hunkins. “As if pressing send on an email magically creates understanding.” Avoid that trap by building in controls to avoid miscommunication in the workplace. (We’ll discuss some of those controls in the next chapter.)
2. Don’t assume the listener has all the background information they need
A fact doesn’t mean much in a vacuum. Information has context — surrounding circumstances or facts that shed light on its meaning. Too often, we assume that listeners know what we know and can contextualize our messages the same way we do.
“You’re the center of your information,” Hunkins says. “It is crystal clear in your own mind, but no one else has the same background, the context, the history. So this lack of context, the inability to frame things, can create misunderstanding.”
When it comes to context, err on the side of overexplaining. In a written document, you can always place the background information beneath the main message. When speaking, you have the luxury of asking questions to make sure there are no missing links in the message.
3. Don’t assume anyone can handle yet another message
Most of us are in a constant state of information overload. A coworker may receive your message and even understand it, only to forget about it because of the deluge of data in the modern workplace.
“We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge,” wrote John Naisbitt in his 1982 bestseller Megatrends. Make your message stick out from the crowd by connecting it to the team’s broader goals. Tell your reader how your message impacts their day-to-day work life. Explain why what you have to say is important. And send reminders. Sometimes you need to nudge a topic back to the top of the reader’s mind.
How readers and listeners overcome workplace communication challenges
Message recipients also need to put in some work to improve understanding. Effective listeners avoid interruptions, ask questions when the speaker pauses, and stick to the speaker’s choice of subjects. They don’t practice passive listening.
Similarly, skilled email readers make sure they understand each paragraph before proceeding to the next and come back with questions about anything unclear.
Employees on all sides of the communication table must help to create a safe psychological space for all participants. People who feel like they’ll be challenged often keep their ideas to themselves, to the detriment of the business.
With the rise of intercultural communication in the global workplace, a great diversity of experiences and opinions is available to today’s businesses. But for a company to benefit from this richness of perspective, its employees and partners have to feel safe enough to participate.
If managers don’t know whether employees feel comfortable participating in workplace discussions, they should ask. Anonymous employee feedback forms from Jotform make it easy to check in with staff, uncovering any lingering communication issues in the workplace.
You may have noticed a theme to this chapter: Questions knock down the barriers to workplace communication. The best cure for poor communication is more communication. It takes both speakers and listeners to translate communication efforts into true understanding.
But what are some concrete steps we can take to remove communication challenges in the workplace? Keep reading to find out.
How to improve communication in the workplace
The following are a few guidelines for improving communication in the workplace, specifically among teams. For the greatest benefit, incorporate these into a larger, organized list of communication standards. Such ground rules will help align expectations about communication at work, setting the stage for shared understanding on just about any subject. Each standard should address a particular internal communication goal, written or spoken, online or off.
Document your standards and make them available to everyone on the team — especially new hires. An introduction to communication standards should be an integral part of the onboarding process. Review these guidelines periodically, and don’t be afraid to replace the ones that aren’t working as you’d hoped.
Workplace communication guidelines
1. All communication should have a clear, explicit goal
Before you reach for the keyboard, take a moment to establish the goal of that email you’re about to send. “Are you trying to inform?” Hunkins asks. “Are you trying to persuade? Are you trying to educate, to inspire, to entertain? Be really clear on what your goal is.”
Once you’ve identified your goal, share it with your audience. This openness places your message in a broader context and helps make your expectations more explicit. The result? Better communication and better understanding.
2. Keep messages as simple as possible
“Create a very clear, concise central message,” Hunkins says. “If you could take your message and distill it into less than eight words, what would it be?” Once you’ve identified your central message, don’t embellish it unnecessarily. Keep it simple.
“One of the key things about great communication is simplicity,” Hunkins says.
3. Clearly define terms
Simplicity doesn’t mean you leave out key information. When in doubt, include definitions of key terms within your message — especially when you’re using everyday words that may have very different connotations for different speakers.
For instance, if you ask a colleague to update you “frequently,” state what “frequent” means to you. “If you’re expecting me to check in with you ‘frequently,’ does that mean every hour?” Hunkins says. “Once a day? Once a week? Be really clear and spell things out for other people.”
4. Make participants feel safe contributing to the conversation
“What are you doing to create a space that is safe, where people feel they can speak up and be themselves without any repercussions?” Hunkins asks. Miscommunication runs rampant when employees feel too psychologically threatened to speak up.
Every participant in the conversation has a responsibility to create an environment that’s conducive to open communication. That requires active listening, respect for other perspectives, and avoidance of judgmental language.
5. Check for understanding
The best way to gauge whether your colleagues understand your message is to ask. Plan to check for understanding whenever possible, especially at team meetings, which are infamous for burning time without imparting insight.
“If our meeting is an hour long, let’s stop 10 minutes before,” Hunkins suggests. “Let’s just clarify and ask everyone what they’re committing to. Let’s say it out loud and confirm who’s doing what, because the alternative is the meeting after the meeting — those hallway meetings where people ask, ‘What did we just say? What are we doing?’ ”
Looking for other ways to improve team meetings? Try trading a conference room for the great outdoors.
Between meetings, provide employees with feedback channels where they can safely (even anonymously) fill in their understanding gaps. Employee feedback forms from Jotform are a great way to keep lines of communication open between managers and staff, and post-meeting forms make it easy to verify everyone understands what’s going on.
Using activities to improve communication skills in the workplace
Implementing standards is just as important as writing them down. Best practices like those listed above can improve collaboration significantly — but only if everyone on the team sticks to them. So how do you build a new communication culture among existing staff?
Try scheduling periodic communication activities in the workplace. For instance, Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a framework for communication that involves discussions of visual artworks among diverse teams (like department members, project collaborators, etc.). Under the guidance of a facilitator, everyone studies a piece of art and has a guided discussion about it.
Alexandra West is the founder of Art at Work, an agency that provides guided team sessions in VTS. Discussing art in a structured way helps build that sense of safety during communication, and it’s ideal for drawing out shy members of the team, West says.
“Our quieter colleagues may have fabulous ideas you’re never hearing because they’re just reluctant to share them in a group setting,” West says. “VTS sessions open up all those communication avenues and help people engage with differing opinions without devolving into an argument.”
Structured VTS sessions improve communication skills — tolerance for ambiguity, civil debate, openness — that are crucial for successful business collaborations. But this is just one example. Check out our ideas for communication team-building activities in the workplace, especially for remote teams.
Meanwhile, let’s examine some of the business communication tools that can help put everything you’ve learned in this guide to work.
Essential business communication tools
We’ve already covered a lot of ground in this guide, but one question remains: What business communication tools should you use to share your carefully crafted messages? Here are a few of the leading communication software tools available today, organized by category and complete with examples.
Ideal for when you need to collect lots of information from a wide variety of stakeholders.
Many businesses already use online forms for external communication, collecting leads, payments, and registrations of all sorts. But these tools are also great for communication within teams.
As we’ve mentioned, managers can collect employee feedback forms to better understand worker perspectives. Post-meeting questionnaires can be a powerful check for understanding. Online forms are a quick, simple way to automatically gather input from everyone on a big team.
Jotform’s drag-and-drop editor allows you to create a powerful, professional online form in minutes. An ever-growing suite of business integrations plugs form responses into the software that keeps your business running smoothly. As we discuss other business communication tools below, we’ll link to relevant Jotform integrations to help centralize all your digital channels.
Document collaboration tools
Great for getting the whole team’s input on important documents.
No one employee writes the whole contract, proposal, annual report, or marketing plan. Teams need a way to edit, annotate, and discuss mission-critical documents remotely. Luckily, a rich marketplace of online collaboration tools allows multiple team members to simultaneously access and edit a document, removing a layer of confusion from the discussion. The following are examples of these communication tools:
- Google Drive. Collaborative Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides were built for the cloud, and Drive provides share-ready storage and organization for the whole team. Integrate Jotform with Google Drive to instantly send form submissions and/or file uploads to the appropriate folder.
- Dropbox. Dropbox Business provides centralized, cloud-based storage for remote collaboration. You can leave in-line comments and tag members within Dropbox file folders. And you can integrate Jotform and Dropbox.
- Box. Box also provides shared cloud-based storage and file organization with built-in communication tools. Box’s note-taking feature, Box Notes, centralizes discussions within a single thread. You can integrate Jotform with Box.
Project management software
Necessary for organizing projects and the people who complete them.
Project management tools wear lots of hats, just like their users. This software may include features for managing overall plans, schedules, day-to-day tasks, teams, budgets, and, yes, communication between stakeholders. Below are some popular project management software tools with in-app communication features:
- Asana. By providing a central hub for every element of a project, Asana helps team members understand how their roles interact with the broader effort. Communication tools include the ability to share plans, meeting agendas, and notes, plus comment on dashboards and centralize status updates. Integrate Jotform with Asana to automatically add tasks, projects, and comments in Asana through your forms.
- Airtable. This is less of a project management app and more of a customizable database, but Airtable’s powerful project management template makes it easy to get started. Communication occurs in the app via shared databases, team member tagging, and robust comment options. Integrate Jotform with your Airtable account.
- monday.com. This project management app provides a centralized workspace for teams. That workspace can look however you want — like a calendar, a kanban board, a task list, a combination of all three, or one of many other options. The shared views enable instant, data-rich communication between team members. Integrate Jotform with monday.com to automatically update items, add new items, or add new updates to monday.com through form submissions.
- Jotform Tables. Like Airtable, this is a customizable database, but unlike Airtable, Jotform Tables focuses on data collection. This tool assists project management by providing an all-in-one workspace with flexible collaborator access and the ability to email stakeholders directly from a given table. Assign tasks, track efforts over time, and visualize project data in meeting-ready reports that keep stakeholders aligned. Plus, there’s no need for an integration as Jotform Tables is part of Jotform’s suite of productivity tools.
A must for remote teams.
Remote work is a fact of contemporary office life. As we’ve discussed, nonverbal communication carries a lot of information. Videoconferencing apps allow us to retain the visual signals in our conversations as we have remote meetings and discussions. Here are a few examples of videoconferencing tools for business:
- Zoom. This leading videoconferencing platform is packed with features that improve workplace communication, including breakout rooms, optional passwords, and in-call chats. You can integrate Zoom with Jotform.
- Google Meet. If you already use Google’s G Suite at work, Google Meet makes it easy to integrate quick video calls into your workflow. You can even start a meeting from your Google Calendar.
- GoToMeeting. This was one of the first popular videoconferencing products on the enterprise market, and it remains ideal for business communication. In-meeting collaboration tools include a digital whiteboard, simple screen sharing, and chat.
Check out some more videoconferencing providers.
Instant messaging platforms
The solution for quick, everyday communication, one on one or in groups.
Workplace messaging platforms provide shared public threads and one-on-one text channels that allow everyone to contribute whenever they can, in the moment or asynchronously. The result is more communication, which leads to greater understanding. Here are some top messaging platforms for communicating in the workplace:
- Slack. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of Slack. This cloud-based messaging app has saturated the market. Its free version includes advanced features like voice and video calls. Even better, Slack integrates smoothly with Jotform.
- Google Chat. Users of Google’s corporate G Suite office software get free access to Chat, making it a great choice for Google customers. Chat works on its own or as an adjunct to Gmail, and includes features like dedicated virtual rooms and group or direct messaging.
- Microsoft Teams. Offices that run on Microsoft 365 may prefer Microsoft Teams. This messaging app mirrors the threaded messaging organization of others on this list. Voice and video calls are also available.
In addition, you may want to consider other workplace messaging app alternatives to Slack.
These business communication tools will help streamline your in-house discussions, but it’s important to keep your eye on the prize: Understanding is always the goal of workplace communication.
“When you have a solid foundation of understanding, you make good decisions,” Hunkins says. “You get great action, which gets great results. If it’s a lousy foundation of misunderstanding, you’re not really sure what’s going on — and you’re going to make bad decisions and get lousy results.”
In other words, effective workplace communication is the key to a successful business.
I am a communication professor at a 4 year private university, FranU, and teach a Intro to Professional Communication course focusing on effective communication in the workplace. I was hoping I might be able to use your "Communication in the Workplace" PPT in the beginning of next semester to introduce my students to the topic. Would this be acceptable?
Dr. Leigh A. Johnston