Back to basics – making the right communication choices

Back to basics – making the right communication choices

Hands up who had training on communications at work before starting their first job? As part of an induction? Before being nominated for a leadership programme?

The truth is – not many.

All employees have to make choices and decisions on how they communicate. This is vital to supporting employee and organisational performance – but is often overlooked, with the focus instead on leadership ability, personality at work, performance management and developing teams. These are all important – but the ability to communicate effectively should be at the top of the list.

Communications at work can be critical: a sales pitch that impacts profitability, a project kick-off meeting which sets the bar for employee performance or a company report that affects shareholder satisfaction levels. In lieu of communications training, all too often we through our mistakes. How much better to have a safe and controlled environment in which to experiment.

In a recent study by TotalJobs, older employees were found to have a much stronger preference for talking face to face, with some 71% of 55-64-year-olds preferring this method of communication compared to 57% of 16-24-year-olds. Conversely, younger respondents showed a greater liking for emails, with 34% of 16-24-year-olds saying they would rather communicate this way compared to just 21% of 55-64-year-olds.

These preferences have a significant impact on employee, team and organisational performance. Decisions on communication will often be made based on the employee’s preference, rather than the ideal communication for a particular circumstance. Much is made in training and development of having to adapt to the generational preferences – however employees often require training and support to make informed choices.

Employees can be over-reliant on their preferred communication, when it may not always be appropriate or effective. The ability to get ‘buy-in’ from others often comes down to simple skills such as how to leave a great voicemail rather than an email, using different media in team meetings to engage or using body language and tonality to motivate and inspire.

A Uni@Work programme starts with communications. We explore many different scenarios to practise making communication decisions and explore the challenges of different communication media. For instance, how do you communicate or lead on a teleconference? How do you engage attendees in the room? Adapt your materials? Deal with late-comers? Set the right amount of time?

We also look at how an organisation’s culture can subtly influence our decisions and lead to over-use of a particular communication medium. The CIPD recently reported that employees checking email outside work hours have been linked to higher levels of stress and pressure. The Future Works Centre suggested that organisations should have policies in place to stop employees letting work spill over into home life. This is something that should be discussed at induction between line managers and direct reports.

It is not uncommon for employees to support the use of emails over other media because, compared to communicating face-to-face, they feel it avoids culpability and alleviates feelings of nervousness. This can be common if the workplace is a ‘command and control’ or ‘blame’ culture or allows toxic behaviours with little feedback or performance management in place. This ‘email security blanket’ is not limited to junior or inexperienced employees – it is found at all levels.

Poor communications are often linked to customer dissatisfaction, poor project performance and employee disengagement. The CBI surveyed 500 employers in 2015 and found that 69% were concerned about not being able to find highly skilled staff compared with 55% last year. This highlights the need for higher education and learning and development for existing employees as well as new hires.

That journey must start by learning how to make appropriate, effective communication choices.


BBC News On Widening Skills Gap (2015)

CIPD (2016): Access to emails outside work hours is ‘toxic’ source of stress for employees

Total Jobs Survey (2016)