Your team likely has at least a dozen or more communication channels they monitor regularly. And if you’re like most companies I encounter, you haven't created any guidelines for which tool to use in which situation. As a result, communications default to personal preference or even worse, sending many communications via multiple channels for the same issue. It’s also likely that both internal and external communications happen 24/7/365.
In many companies, team members receive messages on a variety of platforms and feel a responsibility to respond to these messages as soon as possible. So they frantically monitor all channels constantly in an effort not to miss anything.
Without an intentional, systematic approach to team communications, the volume of communication in your organization is much higher than it needs to be, but the efficiency of communication is much lower than it could be. And time your team members spend monitoring their inboxes is time they aren’t devoting to completing tasks that move important projects forward. Lack of any communication guidelines practically invites your team to be distracted from focusing on their most important work.
Features of Efficient Team Communication Guidelines
One of the most effective ways leaders can increase company productivity is by developing communication guidelines designed for our digital age, which includes both in-office and remote work.
Although every company’s communication guidelines will need to be designed to meet their particular needs, I’ve found that the most effective communication guidelines do the following:
1. Differentiate between synchronous and synchronous platforms
Efficient team communication guidelines recognize the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication platforms.
Synchronous communication platforms are designed to be used in real-time between two or more people: one person asks a question and the other is expected to respond immediately. Examples of synchronous tools are video conferencing and phone calls.
Asynchronous communications platforms are designed for users to access and respond to when they see fit. No one expects a real-time, immediate response when posing a question on an asynchronous platform. Team communication tools such as Slack or Twist are asynchronous, and so are voicemails.
However, problems can arise if workers mistake an asynchronous tool for a synchronous one. An effective team communication policy clearly delineates which platforms should be treated as synchronous and which should be treated as asynchronous, so that workers aren’t distracted by constantly monitoring asynchronous tools.
2. Treat email as an asynchronous platform.
Perhaps the biggest threat to business productivity these days is email. This platform is widely viewed as synchronous, but it isn’t meant to be and shouldn’t be treated as such.
I’ll often go into a company and find two computer monitors on each desk, regardless of the person’s role. Workers are using the second monitor to keep an eye on incoming email so they can immediately respond. However, while some roles might require the “extra real estate” to do their most important tasks, in most cases, a second monitor prevents users from focusing on their important work.
An effective communication policy will clearly state that email is meant to be an asynchronous communication tool, and it will provide expected email response times depending on the person’s role in the company. For example, while a team leader might reasonably be expected to reply to an email within one business day, a customer service agent might have 3-4 hours. And expectations should be conveyed accordingly.
3. Clearly define emergencies and how to communicate them.
An effective communication policy will lay out synchronous communication channels for communicating about an urgent matter. When employees know that no truly urgent messages will be arriving via email, they are freed up from keeping an eye on the second monitor.
Instead, your company communication policy might state that emergencies will be communicated via text message or phone call.
The corollary to this, though, is that not everything is urgent or an emergency. Your policy also needs to clearly define what should be considered such. For the sake of your own ability to focus and your team’s productivity, you’ll want to drill down on this and narrow the definition to what truly can’t be handled at a later time.
Doing this can prevent resentments and intrusions into personal time, because people are clear on when they should and shouldn’t be contacting colleagues after hours.
4. Lean into asynchronous communication.
With more workers reporting to the office only occasionally or working entirely from home, it makes sense for companies to lean into asynchronous communications. By doing so, you’ll allow your team members to access information at the time that suits them best—the time when they are able to devote their full attention to work.
As long as your guidelines clearly label team communication tools and email as asynchronous, then your team members should be relieved of the pressure to keep a constant watch on incoming messages from these platforms. Instead, they can focus better on their most important work and check their communication channels only a few times a day.
5. Restrict after-hours communications.
An important guideline for your communication policy is to differentiate between work hours and after hours, and then restrict employees from communicating after hours as much as possible.
Studies show that when employees think they “might” get a work message after hours, they are constantly anxious, regardless of whether that message actually comes through. Worse, the negative consequences of this anxiety spill over onto their significant other and family.
So what’s the solution? Set your communication guidelines so that only truly urgent messages are relayed after hours, and then enforce these guidelines from the top. Messages sent after hours should be questioned, rather than accepted as the norm.
Communication Guidelines: Key to a Positive Work Culture
My experience working with thousands of leaders during the past two decades has taught me that effective communication guidelines are key to creating a positive work culture, one in which employees have the ability to focus at work and then unplug and refresh after hours.
For much more on how to build a work culture that respects employees and optimizes their productivity, read my book Everyone Wants to Work Here: Attract the Best Talent, Energize Your Team, and Be the Leader in Your Market. Better yet, order copies for your whole team and implement the strategies together.
- Maura Nevel Thomas, author of Everyone Wants to Work Here