Communication at work: Pointers for managers and leaders

How can you build a better company culture? Start with better communication. Here are four techniques to try with your team

Vom Slack-Team7. Januar 2019Illustration von Kelsey Wroten

Every management team asks the same questions: How can we maintain the most effective, productive, and positive work environment? How do we keep our employees happy? But not everyone comes to the same conclusion. Some managers say that you need to drive hard for results, while others might take a softer approach that’s based on team-building, collaboration, and allowing staff some leeway. So which leaders have it right?

According to the Harvard Business Review, the best approach is a mix. Out of 60,000 leaders studied, only 13% possessed the skills necessary to be both results-driven and community-oriented—and when all the leaders were ranked, this select cohort all placed within the 91st percentile.

How leaders communicate in the workplace is vital to a company’s success, but it’s also complicated. As legendary theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the message,” and that certainly holds true for management. It’s not just what you say that matters but how and when you convey it. With so many digital platforms available, there are more mediums than ever before, raising the question: What communication strategies are most effective for maintaining employee engagement and building a positive, more communal, workplace culture?

Keep your channels open

Duane Bray, the global head of talent at design and consulting firm IDEO, notes that many of the best ideas are incubated from the bottom up, so it’s important for managers to listen. “When people play together, they form stronger bonds and are more willing to take risks and imagine new possibilities,” he writes. “At IDEO, we achieve this by creating maker spaces that offer people the right environment, materials, and tools to bring their ideas to life.”

The medium: Employees can benefit from an effective, company-wide collaboration platform. Not only does this help to break down silos between departments, but it also helps overcome perceived barriers between senior leadership and the wider team.

Make workplace communications clear and accessible

When you support a culture of collaboration, you allow your team more agency and autonomy. Just look at Netflix. In 2009, the company created its famed workplace culture deck, in which encouraging independent decision-making is listed as the top value. “I pride myself on making as few decisions as possible in a quarter,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said in a 2018 TED talk. “What we’re trying to do is build a sense of responsibility in people and empower them to do things.”

The medium: Netflix’s culture deck is accessible on the company’s website and has accumulated millions of views. As a manager, you can convey your organization’s mission and values by publishing them in a highly visible place so that employees know what you stand for and what’s expected of them.

Stay in touch with remote teammates

A Gallup study shows that 31%—almost a third—of the workforce was telecommuting 80% to 100% of the time in 2016, and those numbers will continue to grow. This is a good thing, according to Matt Mullenweg, the founder and CEO of web development company Automattic Inc., who considers offices to be “very exclusionary environments.” Barbie Brewer, GitLab’s chief culture officer, agrees: “Employees don’t have to choose between staying close to their families and pursuing a career they love.”

But there also seems to be a caveat to that. Both Automattic and GitLab host annual gatherings so their otherwise scattered teams can touch base in real life—nothing can replace those authentic, face-to-face interactions. So if you manage a remote workforce, make time to come together once a year. And if that’s not feasible, at least facilitate regular informal meetings online.

The medium: When dealing with a distributed workforce, it’s management’s job to ensure that everyone knows what they should be working on and to check in frequently. Modern collaboration tools are designed with this in mind, including customizable profiles where employees can list their time zones and office hours and shared spaces where they can track their projects.

Be open to learning and constructive criticism

Most employees want to see more employee engagement in their companies. Managers can practice stronger leadership and better communication by making themselves more available to the people they work with, both in terms of defining decision-making processes and soliciting feedback.

At the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater, co-CEO Ray Dalio has deployed an online tool that lets his whole team provide and receive feedback in real time—on a public platform. “Everyone gets to express their thinking … regardless of their position in the company,” he said in his TED talk on the subject.

What makes this so great is that it encourages coworkers to be honest with each other in a world where even managers have trouble giving negative feedback. In one study of about 7,600 respondents, 44% of managers revealed that they found it stressful to give feedback, and a follow-up questionnaire with about 7,800 respondents showed that 21% avoided it altogether.

The medium: There are plenty of online collaboration and feedback tools, like anonymous surveys with built-in analytics, that can help you check in on how your employees are feeling. There are also platforms to help leaders evaluate teams performance; or, like Bridgewater, companies can adopt a policy of full transparency with apps that allow employees to ask questions and praise or (constructively) criticize colleagues.

The bottom line is that strong communication is the most effective way for managers to create an engaged company culture—and it can be one of the easiest. There’s no shortage of workplace apps that make office communication more immediate and accessible than ever.

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