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From the diary of a seasoned HR Practitioner: Workplace Communication

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“We often treat communication as if it were a discrete act, a matter of performance or lack thereof. Yet meaning cannot be separated from context. A crucial, but often overlooked, function of leadership is creating a culture in which effective communication can flourish.” - Greg Satell, a Forbes and HBR contributor

"My letters outline the learnings from the past seven days and summarize my meetings with customers, industry stalwarts and ecosystem partners. I have written more than 150 letters so far." - D. Shivakumar, CEO, PepsiCo India

"I've found that the highest engagement brought about by my letters has been from our youngest employees, who're always the quickest to respond." - Rostow Ravanan, CEO, Mindtree

In the last two decades in Indian companies, management, development and retention of human resources have assumed greater significance. This has happened especially, in the light of rapidly changing workforce profile (education, lifestyle, growth aspirations, mobility, less stability, tech-savviness, etc.), concurrent pressure on optimizing cost, need for enhancing revenues in shorter periods and the need for harnessing the human potential.

Workplace communication, one of the dimensions of HRM, has now turned even more critical. In the business context, communication has a very delicate role because there is a pressing need to relay the required information at the right time to the concerned employees through the right channels and in a suitable form which helps achieve the individual as well as company goals.

However, workplace communication as a business apparatus has not received adequate attention of HR practitioners and the top management. On one hand, customers and investors get loads of information and on the other hand, employees do not receive sufficient information about their own companies’ progress and plans.

What is the operational meaning of the term ‘workplace communication’?

Paul Nystrom defined workplace communication as, "The medium through which managers lead and direct the activities of others, harness human creativity, coordinate with specialists and control activities of those who work under them, and understand the needs and wants of those who function within the organization, and those who use the organization's services and goods.”

This definition highlights the role of managers and leaders in communicating effectively towards the pursuit of business goals. However, its focus on the role of the company and the employees (other than managers) is not sufficient. Therefore, let’s expand the relevance and consider effective communication in workplace as a business process that helps the company in achieving its goals by:

  • Linking different levels of hierarchy and functions
  • Informing employees, on a continuous basis, about the company’s values and goals to enlist their commitment
  • Helping employees in prioritizing their actions
  • Aiding in generating and sustaining mutual trust

Benefits of great workplace communication

Excellent communication in the workplace serves the following purposes:

  • Conveying relevant information to employees in a consistent manner
  • Fostering formal and informal relationships among employees and influences their attitudes towards the company and its business
  • Forming a legitimate basis for effective individual and collective decision-making
  • Establishing implicit and explicit rules for sharing information and data
  • Making sure that employees engage rationally and emotionally with their jobs and the company

What happens when top management doesn’t communicate adequately to employees?

These could be few of the consequences of inadequate communication:

  • Poor awareness about the company’s values, goals, plans, progress and challenges, especially at the middle and bottom levels of the hierarchy
  • Inadequate appreciation by employees of their responsibilities and its linkage with the overall business goals
  • Inadequate display of ‘ownership’ behaviors by employees
  • Wastage of resources, including time, knowledge and skills

What happens when employees cannot converse with their seniors adequately and comfortably?

When employees cannot converse with their seniors adequately and comfortably:

  • Company fails to recognize warnings of danger (case in point is failure of a former mobile manufacturer, where senior management turned too complacent and paid little attention to market feedback coming through front-end employees)
  • Company fails to uncover and tap creative abilities of employees
  • Employees become demotivated and, at times, turn hostile
  • Customers receive inadequate attention

What happens when employees find it difficult to communicate with peers within and across functions?

If communication is difficult with peers, then there is:

  • Greater likelihood of divisions (political or other ways) across teams
  • Inadequate trust and coordination among employees, which makes the decision-making process slow and less effective
  • Formation of silos at the cost of business effectiveness

The following points will make communication in the workplace more effective:

  • Identifying information needs of employees, teams and the company
  • Designing and driving the communication process (technology, content, etc.) synergistically
  • Making sure that employees receive information, which impacts their work, on time
  • Practicing openness, trust and collaboration
  • Focusing specifically on strengthening communication between employees and reporting managers

Components of an inclusive approach to workplace communication:

  • A well-defined internal communication process that aims at ensuring reliable and required information to employees and teams at the right time through proper channels
  • Information and data classified in three broad clusters based on the immediacy of use:
    • to be communicated in a very short span of time
    • to be shared after a reasonable length of time
    • to be relayed at a convenient time
  • Audit of internal communication processes at regular intervals
  • Deployment of right technology (email, social media, digital displays, web meetings, mobile, etc.) for communication depending on business requirements and affordability

Best practices for senior management to create a culture that supports effective workplace communication:

  • Managing by ‘Walking and Talking Around’
  • Holding monthly team briefing events across functions and teams
  • Encouraging employees to speak up and appreciating such behaviors (This is extremely important, as India is still a patriarchal society that places importance on respecting seniority and authority.)
  • Using suitable technologies to share company-related information with employees on a periodic basis
  • Installing mechanism for capturing and acknowledging employee feedback

Conclusion

Many studies including those by Gallup and Mckinsey Global Institute have shown that effective communication in the workplace positively influences employee engagement, creativity and productivity. Effective workplace communication is a product of sound strategy and its proper execution. Being so inherent and ingrained, understanding communication in workplace and its influence on people, processes and parameters of the company requires special efforts.

In a nutshell, in a competitive business context, enough attention to the effectiveness of workplace communication would certainly benefit the employee and the company.

This blog is written by Ketan T. Bhatt. He is a management graduate (IRMA-92), and over 20 years, has gained inclusive experience and expertise in HR and OD domains. Since February 2014, KT is an independent HR professional.
He can be reached at: ketan.bhatt@rediffmail.com

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