The other day, someone said to me that they can be reached only by phone, not by Slack. I asked, “What about email?” The response: “That’s just okay. Phone is best.”
For me, calling someone on the phone unexpectedly is invasive. Doing it makes me uncomfortable, having it done to me makes me uncomfortable. But this person thinks it’s a way of doing business.
There are generational and demographic differences in our preferred communication. Some of us are more comfortable with technology than many of the people we work with. Many workers have adapted to asynchronous communication, while others demand real-time. All of these differences pose challenges and risks to a business and its employees when not addressed.
What happens when one person sees a communications channel as normal and convenient (and preferred), while another sees it as invasive and disrespectful? How do we get on the same page so we can avoid miscommunication?
When miscommunication occurs, it is more than a tiny blemish on your business’s reputation. It will cost your business in a multitude of ways. The cost of miscommunication can be financial, but it also often comes with an emotional charge, a loss in productivity, and stress. Employees become less engaged with too many messages and a lack of clarity. Morale can decline, and employee retention rates might dip because of the toll of poor communication. Business relationships with clients and partners can take a hit, too, when the lack of clarity cloaked in negativity reaches them—and it will.
The Cost of Poor Communications study looked at 400 large companies with 100,000 employees and found that the average loss associated with poor communication in the workplace was $62.4 million per year in each business. And it’s not just large businesses—small businesses with fewer than 100 workers lose an average of $420,000 a year, according to author and communication expert Debra Hamilton.
What does that look like on a personal level? The Digital Crisis Communications Crisis Study surveyed almost 2,000 office workers. They found that over 70% of participants experienced some form of unclear communication from their colleagues. This confusion leads to employees wasting an average of four hours per week due to poor digital communications, which adds up to an average annual amount of $188 billion wasted across the American economy.
The bottom line? Poor communication is expensive. There are several approaches that businesses can take to curb the consequences and avoid the costs.
Establish Rules for Each Communication Channel
You may have worked in an office before where everyone knew the unwritten rules of communication. When clients are present, everyone is on their best behavior. If someone is wearing big headphones, don’t bother them. (I’ve been known to wear them without listening to anything to ward off intruders.)
With work becoming more hybrid and our communication becoming more digital, these unwritten rules are losing relevance, and essential information is lost.
These days, work communication is divided between phone calls, video conferences, Slack (or other messaging platforms), email, and text messages. Did your co-worker share a link to the presentation via email, Slack, or text? Is that text message from your supervisor sharing an opinion, or is it a request for action? It can be confusing, time-consuming, and lead to errors of all kinds.
To reduce miscommunication costs, businesses should create norms around the best, most effective use of every communication channel. Map out protocols such as when to use specific channels, for what purpose, the expected response times, and what the expectations are. While some expectations might seem obvious, it’s helpful even to include rules like “mute yourself when you’re not speaking in a video meeting.”
For a great example of communication rules and operating expectations, check out this example from Harvard Business Review.
When Are We Working?
With workplaces becoming more flexible, remote options galore, and team members scattered across time zones, it’s crucial to nail down when work hours happen. Not getting a timely answer is a form of miscommunication. That is why it’s essential to establish guidelines for when “work time” is and when it’s not. Those working from home might have experienced a situation where it feels like they are always working. That isn’t healthy either. Many of us are already feeling the effects of this after the past year. There’s also a cost to burnout, which is why clear expectations are so important.
It’s advised to make clear and reasonable work hours that are widely available and transparent. Everyone should figure out when it’s appropriate to contact others and when it’s not. Employees also need to notify others when their schedule strays from the norm or when they are out of the office.
Don’t Forget the Context
Sometimes less is more, and sometimes less is… confusing. In digital communication, there can be a rush to “get to the point.” But by cutting the context, you could cause others to miss the point entirely. With digital communication, context is everything. Be clear, intentional, and include the required details for the recipient.
Assumptions are the enemy. Context illuminates what is important. It removes the chance of dangerous assumptions and puts meaning into the message. It deepens the understanding of the message so that straightforward communication happens, expectations are clear, and actions are taken.
As a marketer, I start a message by thinking about my audience. To set the context, put yourself in the other person’s shoes—what do they need to know to understand the message? Is there background information that is important to convey?
Next, level the power dynamic. Without any context, people feel left in the dark, which creates a power imbalance and can make people defensive. Be open about how you know the information, and share as many details as appropriate.
Lastly, welcome any questions. It’s advised to proactively check in and make sure that all questions are answered.
Get Tools that Support Compliance
Digital communication is evolving so fast that it’s challenging to keep up with the pace.
“The world moves at the speed of data, and it’s moving faster, not slower,” said Evan Caron on an episode of the Fairwords Talks podcast. IT is lagging, accounting is lagging, compliance is lagging, pretty much everyone is lagging.
Fairwords was built for the future of work. It helps people communicate no matter how or where they are communicating without being burdensome. Fairwords makes software that sits on your work desktop and prompts you to keep it professional, and prevents you and your business from accidentally blurring the lines and causing miscommunication. It’s designed to help you keep up with your company’s communications rules and standards while taking the burden off of you having to remember every little change.
Digital communication has become so broad and complicated that well-meaning mistakes are getting people into hot water. Fairwords unblurs the lines and keeps employees and companies safe and on the straight and narrow, refining your communication and making it more efficient.
Avoid Miscommunication for the Win
Miscommunication is an expensive blunder that you can avoid. With transparency, clear rules, and the right tools, not only can you protect your bottom line, but you can also prevent employee stress and client frustrations and boost morale and efficiency. Get the next article in our series on the risks of workplace communications. Subscribe below!
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