The workplace is increasingly connected, with 24/7 email, instant messaging and phone calls pulling employees into work matters both during and after work hours. But that doesn’t necessarily mean employees are better connected to each other. Often, all that information can become white noise.
The study “Communication Barriers in the Modern Workplace,” conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by Lucidchart, has taken stock of communication in the workplace today, and the results suggest leaders have some work to do.
The State of (Mis)Communication
EIU’s study of 403 executives, managers and staff at U.S. companies found that, across the board, employees believe miscommunication is contributing to their stress, failure to complete projects and loss of sales. “This is not just an unpleasantry. This is really affecting the performance of the company,” said Nathan Rawlins, chief marketing officer at Lucid Software, makers of Lucidchart.
Rawlins emphasized, “Employers just don’t even understand that this is a challenge. We talk about things like diversity and as part of that conversation don’t talk about the fact there are diverse ways of communicating.”
Miscommunication takes on many forms. According to the study, different communication styles, unclear responsibilities and time pressures are the three most frequently cited causes of poor communication. Focusing on communication styles, employees’ struggles to connect often result in unclear expectations that are amplified under pressure.
The data shows that miscommunication is more severe across generational divides. “Nearly a third of millennials and Gen Xers said that they have used instant messaging every day in the past year to communicate with colleagues or clients,” Rawlins said. Only 12 percent of baby boomers reported a similar trend. This leaves part of the workforce with one less way to connect with one another, reducing the likelihood of effective message delivery.
Hierarchy impacts communication as well. Leaders have a hard time making direct contact with their front-line employees, for example. Those serving as bridges between higher-ups and nonsupervisory employees, the middle managers, tend to face the most communication trouble, having to navigate different goals and desires from above and below. “They tend to get caught in the middle of conflicting communication preferences,” Rawlins said.
The report found that in addition to its effect on productivity, miscommunication also has a heavy emotional impact on employees. Loss of morale, stress and frustration abound when employees can’t connect. That’s a burden employees may carry home with them, affecting their home life and future work performance.
Employees reported that too many unproductive meetings, tight deadlines and waiting for others to pass along information in order to continue working were the top three most stressful situations.
“These inconsistencies in the pattern of how managers who lead are communicating is leading to challenges,” said Philipp Schramm, chief financial officer and vice president of human resources and communications at Webasto Roof Systems Americas. “People are worried, rumors start and that’s a major problem.”
Surprisingly, the study found a discrepancy between the tools employees know are effective and the ones they continue to use. For example, only 22 percent of employees reported they have meetings every day despite their reported effectiveness. Also, 60 percent of employees said they use email every day, but only 40 percent said it’s very effective at sharing information.
Many reported that technology is actually hurting communication as it has drastically cut down on direct communication, allowing employees to default to tools like email rather than phone calls and meetings. As a result, employees no longer have access to nonverbal cues like tone of voice, gestures and visuals to help them understand messages.
Sixty-five percent of employees reported that face-to-face meetings were very effective for sharing information, making them the most effective method the study examined. That number didn’t change across generations. That means employees may feel they’re missing out on important information, even if fewer meetings and phone calls reduce wasted time and interruptions to their workflow.
However, tools utilizing technology like video conferencing, slide presentations and even conference calls can re-establish some of the elements of visual and face-to-face communication that employees are looking for. For international businesses, digital conferencing has already become an essential element of the workday, and it may become increasingly important to connect with remote workers.
“These are all forms of communication,” Schramm said. “To say that one form of communication is best I think would be the wrong approach to it. It depends on the situation.”
How Can Training Help?
While it may not be possible to completely change one’s communication style, the No. 1 cause of miscommunication found by the EIU, it is possible to become more aware of others’ communication styles through training. However, employees may be missing out on the right kind of training.
Schramm stated that some organizations don’t see communication as a topic where training is essential. “They say, ‘Why do you spend time on communication? We all learn how to communicate. We all learn how to speak.’ ” He emphasized that existing communication training programs tend to focus more on presentation than on communication. This makes them ineffective.
“In the end, it’s not about presenting yourself in an organization; it’s about how we interact with each other,” Schramm said.
One study found that even short communication training sessions for doctors improved patient satisfaction, as well as reduced burnout for participants. Communication training helped doctors better connect to those they serve, and the same can apply to other organizations.
Sixty-two percent of respondents to the EIU study said they believed firmwide training to improve communication would have a significant impact. Additionally, 57 percent of responders reported they enjoyed working with people who have different communication styles. They just need the training to understand how to better communicate among them.
“I think that’s absolutely critical, that we help people understand that not everyone communicates the same way they do,” Rawlins said.
Communication training is more than just increasing written communication skills. It should include training on verbal communication and basic training on the use of new communication tools. As the generational divide between millennials and boomers emphasizes, for example, training on the uses of instant messaging could expand use of the technology and increase efficacy.
More important, communication training should include opportunities to practice in realistic situations. “We think that this is a great opportunity for workshops and practice sessions where people can try different ways of communicating than they’re probably most familiar with,” Rawlins said.
Schramm echoed this point. “Put more emphasis actually on the doing. Don’t put too much emphasis on learning the theory behind,” he said.
Schramm’s team at Webasto has already overhauled the company’s communication training program with great success. “With putting a lot of effort on fairness and proper communication within the organization we have improved in just 15 months from the worst company McKinsey has seen to the second best category,” Schramm said. And that overhaul has had an impact on the personal lives of employees who reported they are communicating better outside the office, as well.
Overcoming communication problems needs to be a team effort. Schramm stated that it is the job of leaders to guide teams toward the right tools. “I think that’s the kind of understanding a leader has to get: what tool, what way of communication to use for what situation without losing your authenticity,” he said.
With the help of training, perhaps all employees can gain that level of understanding. Rawlins said, “One of the key skills is recognition of the type of communication patterns that are most common with the people you are working with.” Across the board, individuals should strive to better understand the communication methods that work best for their teams. Learning leaders can facilitate this process by ensuring all team members have the vocabulary to do so.
The workplace is only going to continue to change. That means additional stress on employees and a greater variety of tools available to employers. But by improving how they communicate now, teams at all levels can be ready to navigate what’s to come.
“As we understand this data, as we take a step back and think about communication, we can actually affect the bottom line,” Rawlins said. “We can help people be more effective, help them to be less stressed at work, focus on the things that matter most and ultimately improve the way that the business operates.”
Mariel Tishma is an editorial intern at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.