Strategies for Effective Communication in the Post-Pandemic Workplace

Effective communication is among those things considered to be the Holy Grail of management of organisations, regardless of their size. It’s something that everyone wants, and many claim to have.

The evidence of its effectiveness, however, paints a different picture. Often, managers are surprised by the decisions of those above them. Employees do the opposite of what they’re expected to do because certain information was never passed onto them. And complaints, never mind suggestions, often never make it past the desks of line managers, which means that senior managers never find out how disgruntled people really are until there’s a crisis.

Why is there so much confusion about communication? It’s because it’s not what many people think it is.

 

How do you know this?

By the response of the person to whom communication was supposed to have taken place. When they do something you didn’t expect or fail to do something that you did, it means that you didn’t get your message across.

When you say to someone “I told you . . .” and receive a blank stare from the other person, it often means that they didn’t understand what you meant.

You see, what you say, and what you mean, aren’t necessarily heard in the same way. That’s why “telling” isn’t communication.

Have you ever sent an email to someone, asking them a question, only to have them ignore what you asked and answer something else? This happens because people don’t see what they don’t expect to see. They see just enough to make them think that they know what you want, assume that that’s what it is, and then write their reply.

Years ago, there was a “fun” test given to school children that was designed to see how well they could follow directions. A sentence at the top of the page said, “Read all of the instructions before you begin.”

What followed was about 50 steps - everything from drawing a star in the right hand corner of the page to a small square on the reverse with polka-dots.

Students were given two minutes to complete test.

When the timer began, some frantically began to follow draw all over their pages - front and back. A few others calmly read through the entire page, wrote something at the top, and turned it over on their desks.

Miraculously, they had somehow managed to finish before all the people who started to immediately draw the various shapes and symbols called for.

How was this possible?

The very last instruction said, “Put your name at the top of the page, and then turn the sheet over on your desk.”

 

What is communication?

You’re probably wondering what communication is.

In a nutshell, it’s a two-way exchange of ideas. It occurs when the other person understands what you meant to say, and what they should do as a result. That’s quite different from simply telling someone something.

It’s possible that you disagree within this definition, but the fact is that when you pass  along an idea, suggestion, or an order to someone, it’s your responsibility to make sure that they understand it. It’s unfair and unethical to demand that someone interprets what you say in such a way that they can figure out what you want them to do, because you can’t be bothered to express yourself intelligibly.

 

Why is so much communication ineffective?

One reason that communication is ineffective is that there’s no relationship between the persons involved. That, too, may surprise you. You may think that if people just did what they were told and dispensed with the discussion, then you wouldn’t have to go into long explanations about the whys and wherefores.

But you see, the thing is that where relationships exist, there’s greater trust. And where there’s greater trust, there’s less chance for misunderstanding.

In these post- or nearly-post pandemic times, trust will become more and more important. That’s because what’s out of sight, quite often is out of mind. As people are not in the office to see what’s going on, they’ll draw their own conclusions about what is, whether there are grounds to do so or not. And that means that you will have to do even more to assure them that the relationship you have with them hasn’t changed.

Remote workers tend to be more productive because they’re not interrupted as much, but at the same time they feel isolated. You must make sure that they don’t feel neglected.

When there are high levels of trust between people, then it also means that the subordinate isn’t constantly looking over their shoulders or trying to make sure that they can account for themselves. They know that if they’re not sure about what you want, that they can talk to you - that your virtual door is always open - and that you won’t be annoyed if they “knock.”

If you break that trust, however, then you’ll put them on their guard. Now when you tell them to do something they’ll devote a certain amount of their concentration and effort to giving you a wide berth so that they can’t be blamed if things don’t work out.

It’s a bit like those times when domestic issues prey upon your mind - a seriously ill child or relative, perhaps. You find it difficult to concentrate at work. In the same way, folks who are worried about their jobs will be unable to focus entirely on what you give them to do if they think that they can’t trust you either.

 

If effective communication is that important, then how can you make sure that you do it?

The strategies are no different than they would be if you were all working together in the same space.

 

Eliminate the barriers to effective communication

The first thing you must do is to eliminate the barriers that prevent effective communication such as the constraints of hierarchy and so-called fraternization. Especially for those who work remotely, they need to be able to contact whomever, whenever.

If you have a relationship of trust, then you know that they won’t say anything that they shouldn’t; and they know that you know that and because they respect you aren’t likely to do so in any case. They could copy messages to you to keep you in the loop. Maybe you do this already. But it should be a rare thing for them to need your permission first before contacting someone who’s above you or in another part of the hierarchy.

And because of the isolation that comes with remote working, you shouldn’t try to interfere with their personal lives. The world has moved on. People are free to fraternize with whomever they wish.

 

Empower employees to make decisions and include them in the bigger decisions that you make.

The word empower means “to give power.”

Power comes in two forms.

The first is the ability to make decisions about their work, and the second is to make decisions about themselves and others. That’s what supervision is all about. Decision-making ability.

In the remote working environment especially, employees need to have both. And it’s in times like this that you find out just how knowledgeable and responsible your people are. Now that they’ve been given the chance, you’ll be amazed at how many of them rise to the challenge and produce as much or more quality work as they did when they were in the office.

Give them the latitude they need to do their work, and stop trying to micromanage them.

 

Learn to listen

Listening is a lost art. Most people are so busy trying to make themselves heard that they miss (or don’t care) what others have to say.

In some ways, this is where teleconferencing apps come into their own. If two or more people try to talk simultaneously, then no one will be heard. You have to stop talking so that others can speak. And do you know something? With the sudden demand for bandwidth, it would be just as easy to leave the meeting and call it “lost my connection” as it would be to actually lose it. And so if you’re in the habit of talking over others, then they may just stop listening to you.

Listening requires humility; that willingness to recognize that others may actually know more than you.

Listening is also not only courteous, but it’s how professionals behave.

Children talk while others are. You’ve seen a child trying to get mum’s attention while she’s on the phone or talking to a friend. Adults - professionals - wait their turn. And politicians aren’t what you’d call role models in this respect, especially when they have to share the floor with each other.

 

Keep everyone in the loop

Don’t let yourself be guilty of hiding the bad and only reporting the good. That’s something that’ll be a lot easier (and tempting) to do now. The only office grapevine will be the one where people deliberately message or phone one another. Discussing rumours in passing can’t happen any other way.

But folks know when you’re lying or when you’re hiding something. To pretend that they don’t is to insult their intelligence and will make them trust you less if they suspect it. To prevent that, you must be transparent with them.

Most people can handle a reasonable amount of change if they know at least to some extent how it will affect them. This gives them time to make adjustments so they can figure out what to do differently. But when you just spring it on them with no warning, then this not only creates fear, it also destroys trust. You create the suspicion that you had known for some time, but didn’t want to tell anyone.

One of the fallouts from the upheaval in the workplace will be that employees who were unhappy with their jobs, supervisors, or colleagues will actively look for work elsewhere. And that means that you can’t simply assume that the people you had will want to stay.

When you hide information, when you create suspicion, you give them all the reason they need to start looking for another job.

And that leads nicely into the last strategy.

 

Tackle toxic people

Toxic people take on different forms.

Some are constantly negative. Now in a remote working environment, the damage they can do is limited because they’re not in a position to create groupthink. It’s true that groups meet together in a teleconference, but the software makes it less likely that this will happen.

Take Zoom, for instance. The person that hosts the meeting can record it. Others who have screen-recording software on their computers can record it, too. Toxic people are less likely to say things that could get passed word-for-word to those who supervise them than they are in an informal chat in the office.

Bullying and harassment, on the other hand could increase. And that’s because it’s more difficult to identify the source. When you’re in the workplace, it’s easy to notice the change in someone’s countenance after an incident. When you’re online, it’s easy to hide. And as good as computer cameras are, screens are still small enough that you can miss the subtle changes in someone’s appearance that would be spotted if you were face to face.

If you’re unwilling to deal with people who bully or harass others, then in the eyes of everyone concerned, you can’t be trusted and shouldn’t be managing anyone.

Effective communication is still vital to the cultural health of every organisation, but in these uncertain times, you have to manage it differently. When you empower people to act for themselves, hold them accountable for finishing their work, listen to them, and keep people informed, then there should be little if any toxicity to deal with.

Everyone will know where they stand.

 

Want to know more about strategies for effective communication? Contact me here.

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