Like every healthy relationship, your team lives and dies by its ability to communicate. Open and effective team communication keeps projects moving, co-workers happy, and ideas flowing. But there’s a dark side to team communication not too many people talk about.
Over the past decade, time spent on communication tools like Slack, Zoom, and Teams has skyrocketed by 50% or more. And while more communication sounds like a good idea, it quickly eats into what little time we have to focus on the critical work we were hired to do.
When it comes to effective team communication, we’re in a bit of a Goldilocks situation. Too much communication is just as bad as too little.
So how can we find the sweet spot? It all comes down to the right communication strategies and culture.
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Bad team communication burns out your best employees, kills company culture, and slows everyone down
The awkward truth is that a lot of our daily communication is pretty meaningless.
In fact, one study found that 20–35% of the value in collaborations comes from just 3–5% of the participants. A few people are pulling the majority of the weight.
As a group of workplace researchers writes in Harvard Business Review:
“As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance.”
This sounds good on the surface. However, unfortunately, the demand for these key collaborators often turns them into communication bottlenecks. Projects can’t move forward without hearing from them. People want to “check-in” with them to make sure they’re doing the right thing.
But more than just drowning your best workers in emails, chat requests, and meetings, these poor team communication practices cause a snowball effect of unproductive behaviors with the rest of your team:
- Instead of looking for solutions, we waste a ton of time checking communication tools. On average, most people check their inboxes and chat apps every 6 minutes with nearly 30% of people saying their email inbox is always open and they’re constantly checking it.
- Instead of being open about our expectations, we don’t talk about them. Two-thirds of people expect a response to an email within an hour, yet 75% have never spoken to a colleague about these expectations.
- Instead of leaving work at work, communication bleeds into our out-of-work time. Almost 80% of people say they check and respond to work emails before or after work hours.
On the other hand, when your team communicates properly, they find ways to spread the workload, share information, and be more productive. But how do you make this work in practice?
5 communication strategies to help find your team communication sweet spot
In a meta-analysis of 150 studies on team communication, researchers discovered that “Communication quality had a significantly stronger relationship with team performance than communication frequency.”
The problem, however, is that no one is really ever taught how to communicate properly at work. In one study, only 18% of people said they received communication evaluations during performance reviews.
Your team won’t just magically learn how to communicate properly. Instead, you need to set guidelines, rules, and standards about when and how you keep in touch. Here’s how:
1. Default to open communication
A proper team communication strategy starts with expectations and transparency.
Does your team know when to ask questions and how to ask?
Do they feel safe and open to communicate openly and honestly?
You might think you have a culture of open communication, but your team most likely thinks otherwise. Years of bad experiences asking questions or unclear communication policies cause many people to shy away from being open. And when you as a manager or leader don’t default to open, your team is likely to do the same.
An open communication policy doesn’t mean just telling people to share their thoughts. It means actively doing it yourself and setting clear rules and guidelines about how to share.
For example, you might make it a policy to default to shared channels in Slack instead of asking questions in a direct message.
However, open communication isn’t just about how you share information but also what gets shared. To filter out the noise, your team needs to know what communication is most beneficial to everyone.
At its core, effective team communication needs to be:
- Relevant. Is this important and to the point?
- Complete. Is anything missing? Can I do what I need to do with what’s been said?
- Clear. Will everyone understand what’s being said?
2. Streamline (and optimize) your communication tools
The goal of an open communication policy isn’t just more chatter. It’s about access. You want all relevant information to be accessible to everyone to help cut down on repetition and frustration. However, this can get messy if you don’t handle it properly.
With the bulk of your team communication happening online, it’s important that everyone knows how to use their communication tools in the best way possible.
First, minimize the number of communication tools you use. Too many companies spread collaboration across multiple tools. Instead, do an audit of your communication tools to understand what’s being used and where you might be able to consolidate.
Next, you should make sure everyone is setting up their communication tools in the best way possible to protect their focus.
Default settings on most communication tools are terrible. They’re designed to make you use them more. But with a few tweaks, you can turn them from non-stop notification machines into more manageable tools.
To get you started, here are a few of our guides for popular communication and collaboration tools:
- 21 Gmail settings to master your inbox
- How to set up Slack for focus
- The ultimate Google Calendar Guide: 24 settings to transform your calendar from chaotic to calming
3. Use “bursty” communication to keep your team innovative and focused
What tools you use (and how they’re set up) isn’t the only factor in helping optimize team communication. As part of your communication strategy, you also need to give people guidelines about how to use them.
Proper team communication is all about quantity over quality. You want people to get what they need and then return to their focused work. But how do you promote quality communication?
A recent study published in the Academy of Management Discoveries found that constant communication—especially over tools like Slack and instant messengers—actually decreases both our productivity and creativity.
Instead, researchers discovered that a “bursty” style of communication—rapid periods of collaboration followed by long periods of silence—is best:
“During a rapid-fire burst of communication, team members can get input necessary for their work and develop ideas. Conversely, during longer periods of silence, everyone is presumably hard at work acting upon the ideas that were exchanged in the communication burst.”
It’s up to you to promote this style of communication.
Look for people who feel the need to be always on and help coach them to balance their communication time. Change expectations around when people should be online and available and let them know it’s OK to go dark when you need to focus.
4. Be more aware of your teammate’s focus throughout the day
Of course, not all team communication can happen in scheduled bursts. There will always be moments where you need a quick answer or just want to drop a message in for someone to get to later.
However, even these tiny messages can be incredibly disrupting to someone’s focus. As RescueTime CEO Robby Macdonell writes in Fast Company:
“That innocent ‘Hey, do you have a minute’ is one of the most dangerous things that can happen. It’s never just a minute. There’s always effort to get back into something.”
You need to be aware of your teammate’s focus before interrupting them.
But this is easier said than done, especially when you’re working on a remote team. In an office setting, you might be able to glance over and see someone is doing heads-down work, but what about on a tool like Slack?
This is the problem we tried to solve with the new RescueTime for Slack integration.
Once you connect your Slack account, RescueTime will automatically update your status to show your team what you’re focused on. You can also set custom statuses for different activities and even automatically trigger Do-Not-Disturb mode to protect your focus.
5. Learn to listen (and follow up)
Finally, tools and guidelines can help promote quality communication, but your team will learn most from how you act. Effective team communication means learning to listen, ask questions, and follow up in an effective and respectful way.
First, keep a regular schedule so your team knows it’s ok to balance communication time with heads down focus.
Next, build a culture of trust by rewarding open communication and being transparent and honest in your own communication.
Lastly, give people your full attention when they’re talking to you. As John Milinovich, former product manager at Pinterest writes:
“Sometimes the most effective thing you can do is just give someone your full attention and make it clear to them that this is their time no matter what else I might have going on or how busy I might be.”
Team communication will make or break your organization
As First Round Review writes:
“No matter what, the fate of every company depends on the team’s ability to communicate clearly and constructively.”
Proper team communication is as much about what gets said as how it’s shared. By following these communication strategies, you’ll not only ensure that everyone on your team is in the loop but save hours of time repeating yourself.