In the Workplace

Is that all there is?

Just as we see here in the photo to the left, there is a computer on every desk in many workplaces. Employees at all levels of the business send and receive messages throughout the day. Then there is a Communications Department for larger projects. So is that all there is to communication? Questions like this gave rise to this article because communication is actually a very broad and fluid topic. Although this discussion will not attempt to cover all aspects, it will focus on redefining a broader concept of communication and reviewing where communication comes to life in the workplace.

Without a doubt, the addition of technology in the workplace has brought positive advances to the communication process, and the general operation of business. But along with those advantages have come a few disadvantages which may go unrecognized. One of those disadvantages is creating the assumption that because there are computer connections inside a company, and throughout the world, that all of those "connects" are completed communication. Certainly some have been, but others remain just connections.


What is the total communication process?

In the workplace, communication should flow into and out of every department. In many cases the effectiveness of a department depends on the effectiveness of their communication. So what should we be looking at in addition to the sending and receiving of messages?

Communication is composed of stages, which fit together in a continuous loop. Technology has directed our attention on how the message is sent rather than focusing on completing the stages in the loop. Two important stages are:

1. Re-examining the message before it is sent to reaffirm that it says what is intended. This is easier to do with e-mail because the words can be reviewed before clicking the send button. This stage is much harder to complete when the communication is face to face and consequently we find ourselves using the phrase..."What I meant to say was..."

2. Checking to see whether the receiver has interpreted the meaning of the message as it was intended. Computer systems sometimes offer feedback to the sender automatically, but that usually confirms receipt of the message and does not have anything to do with the meaning. Most senders expect that when a message has been received it has been understood as intended. The busy manager points out that it was all he could do to find the time to send the message...but checking on how the message was interpreted by the receiver is impossible.

This dilemma is often at the centre of subsequent confusion and reduced productivity. Sometimes it takes weeks to discover that the cause of problems lay with a misinterpreted message. If the "verification of the meaning" in a message could become a shared responsibility between the sender and receiver, there would be a great reduction in problems caused by misunderstood messages.

Whether in writing or in person, the sender does have a responsibility to be as concise and clear as possible. This is where "listening" as a form of communication is also important. In circumstances where people know each other, the sender may have had the opportunity to hear the receiver make comments about the topic. That information should help the sender construct a message in a language style that fits the receiver. Completing the communication loop requires human effort and cannot be left to technology.


Communication and workplace culture

Communication is not only an important part of each department, it is affected and shaped by the culture of a workplace and therefore demonstrates and transmits the characteristics of a workplace culture. When a workplace culture is built on the command and control model of operation, communication in that workplace will probably follow a similar pattern. When the culture is open and promotes staff respect for one another and employee involvement, the communication in that workplace will be more open with continuing participation at the sending and receiving ends.

These comments could imply that a complete change in the culture of a workplace will be needed before any change in communication can come about. In some situations that may be the case, but it's worth a try to work backwards and see if developing the kind of communication which is effective and complete, will have a positive effect on changing the culture.


Where does communication come to life in the workplace?

In the beginning stage of starting a business or organization, there is a need for communication. The founders need to communicate as they develop a business plan and look for financial support. Contact with those sources of financial support relies heavily on effective communication in writing and face to face relationships.

As the business develops, the daily operations will depend on all types of communication as leaders and employees deal with planning, organizing, marketing, evaluating and problem solving. Any kind of organizational change depends heavily on communication.

Providing financial reports has recently moved into prominence as a communication tool. However that prominence developed because of the disastrous events which occurred when those financial reports were not correct. The big scandals of large corporations in North America have demonstrated what the results can be when communication... Sending and receiving... is tainted with criminal intent. These examples show how powerful communication can be especially when the message was not true.

Follow the new employee... this person was dealing with communication before being hired. There was a job application and perhaps several job interviews. How much the company found out about the employee and the extent to which the employee learned what he/she needed to know about the company and the specific job depended on communication skills on both sides. How many early dismissals of employees can be traced to some misunderstanding caused by poor communication during the employment process?

Important first days on the job would include general staff orientation in addition to time spent on special skills required for that particular job... experiences which rely heavily on extensive communication both by the company and the employee. Introduction to colleagues is sometimes left to chance, but when purposely planned offers an excellent chance for a team leader to identify what skills the new employee brings to the job. At this same time the jobs of major colleagues and how their responsibilities connect with the new employee would be part of communication. When employees are grouped into teams, communication among members of the same team would be an ongoing process.

Feedback and evaluation of ongoing work is a process that tests the ultimate skills of communication by everyone involved. The option to provide two-way feedback is particularly important when staff are new, and they need the opportunity to ask questions and find answers on a daily and weekly basis. All staff, no matter their length of tenure should have frequent opportunities (in some worksites every three months) to clarify the goals of their work and give and receive feedback about how they perform their jobs. That feedback can celebrate achievements, discuss and find solutions to problems, and communicate those ideas which will improve relationships between the workers and their supervisors.

The annual performance appraisal of employees has traditionally been carried out primarily with their supervisors. As teams developed, members of the teams were sometimes asked to provide input about the employee whose work was being evaluated. With those companies intent on expanding their employee involvement, some have put into practice a 360 degree performance appraisal which sounds like a very inclusive approach. However, sometimes those additional people do not understand the goals and circumstances which have been part of the employee’s experience. If they have frequent, but superficial contacts with the employee the value of their input would be more limited, but in other circumstances this procedure could be valuable.

As mentioned above, when continuing feedback is practiced every few weeks or months, the annual event could be a summary of the year's contacts. To delay the recognition of skilled work performances or to delay recommendations for changes in ways of work until an annual event only postpones improving productivity, insuring the best health and safety standards, and developing a basic sense of trust and respect among all the people involved.

Recognition and awards... the most underused form of communication is just saying "thank you". Even though a task is part of an employee's job description and therefore its completion is expected of that person, these circumstances shouldn't prevent saying, "thank you". When the results for any task are completed, saying "thank you" is communication that not only provides recognition, but can also motivate an employee to complete other work. In addition to this being important two-way communication between manager and employee, it can also be an important means of communication from one employee to another.

For special achievements on the job, recognition can move into the category of awards. An award may be a gift, an offer of time off to compensate for extra time required to complete the job, or sharing the details of the accomplishment with other employees at a staff meeting or by verbal or written communication.

Awards cover a broad scope of options and for some companies the tangible awards for specified achievements are described in a company catalogue. Other companies send employees as a group to a recreation spot for several days. Those awards are possible when a financial level has been achieved as a result of group effort on the part of all employees. Sometimes this extra effort is recognized by a monthly bonus in each paycheck which continues to be a vital kind of workplace communication which says, thank you.

Communication with customers or clients has been recognized in recent years for it's importance to the successful operation of an enterprise. The functioning of a business or organization has been built on one set of ideas about what the customer needs, but those assumptions need to be put up for frequent review which is an excellent time to practice the communication skill of listening.

Organizational change including downsizing requires continuous and inclusive communication. For some leaders/managers in companies or non-business organizations that statement is obvious. For other leaders/managers, they are hesitant about the "inclusive" aspect at the beginning of organizational change. They feel that communication with employees is something you initiate, not at the beginning of the process, but when the changes are ready to be made.

In all kinds of organizational change the leadership group will find it is an easier route to success when the plans for change are shared and the employees have their opportunity for input from the beginning even though there may be uncertainties. This step becomes difficult for executives because they know the employees will have questions and they're not sure they have the answers. Or if they do have the answers, why do employees need all that information?  But do employees expect answers to all the questions?  In spite of the personal trauma expressed by employees in downsizing, the fact that they were allowed to ask questions and were able to make the leadership aware of their situation can become the real purpose of that stage in the communication process.

In the case of downsizing, there are examples of corporate leadership groups who have been able to notify employees 4-6 months before their jobs came to an end. 

This gives the managers, EAP staff or outside counselors time to work with employees re how job loss affects their lives and families and how they can prepare for the task of finding another job.

Those companies and organizations not downsizing, but just making changes within the existing structure also face a communication challenge. For those organizations who include the employees in the process of designing the changes, the ongoing communication becomes the grease which keeps the discussion going with agreements, differences and final conclusions. When the new design for an organization has been created, but employees have not been included in those first steps… there is the challenge of how to transmit an understanding and a willingness to implement the new ideas. Although this approach may seem to be more direct and less time-consuming, employees will not be able to replace the old way of working and just adopt the new ideas without a lot of comments and questions which slows down the implementation process for the first few weeks or months.

Effective communication will help achieve the improvements which were the goal of all the changes. By effective communication we mean not just the words used, but the design and manner in which the change ideas are implemented.

As mentioned at the beginning, these comments have not attempted to cover all aspects of Communication. Whether about the topics covered or omitted, we'd like to hear from you.


Please e-mail your story to

homewhat we dobest practicescontact uslinks
return to top of page
home | about us | best practices | contact us | life on the web | links