Ask ten people what they think contributes to a successful working environment and you can bet your bottom dollar the majority will agree on one factor – communication. We recognise and value communication for its contribution to a better workplace through the efficiencies it brings, performances it enhances, trust it builds and morale it nurtures.
Communication is good, and as a result most organisations seek to promote it in one form or another at the heart of their affairs. However, as we all know, sometimes things are not as we would like them to be; communication can be inconsistent, non-existent or simply poor. The consequences are on the whole negative and can lead to an organisation with problems.
HR functions at this point are often engaged by stakeholders to help solve issues and put into place solutions to improve communication. This can take many forms from training solutions to structuring change management processes. In order to address the issues, it’s important HR practitioners approach communication wholistically; to view communication from both a macro and micro level.
Although there are many facets to communication, a simple approach is to look at the four key areas of the organisation, the culture, the people and the platforms.
One could argue that effective communication is first and foremost driven by the organisation. Whether that organisation is an NGO, government body, a private company or a PLC will very much taint how it communicates. Government bodies are notorious for their bureaucracy, hierarchy and protocol which frame vertical channels of communication. Private enterprise on the other hand is seen as having more horizontal structure allowing speed and flexibility. How an organisation is set up, its history, its geography, its size, its structure and its policies will determine how communication manifests. Consider, for example, the needs of a multinational with a matrix management system in comparison with a single-site manufacturer in the UK. How communication is framed and applied ultimately comes down to what the organisational body needs in order to express its identity and/or function on a day to day basis.
Someone once described culture as “the way we do things around here”. How an organisation does things is essentially a manifestation of their culture. This is influenced by many things including the organisation, the national culture, the sector it operates in and its mission or goal. Whether an organisation places value on face to face meetings, whether it allows subordinates to channel feedback to superiors or whether it encourages whistle blowing all come down to its culture. The culture of an organisation isn’t always healthy and, although challenging, it is not impossible to change when change is deemed necessary. Understanding the culture, keeping the positive and removing the negative, can become one of the most powerful means of implementing a new approach to communication
It is the people within an organisation that ultimately impact communication at every level. They are the ones putting into place policies and processes as well as the ones working within these frameworks. The one fact you are always going to have with people is that we all differ. Cultures, personality types, manners, communication styles, access to education, career expectations and a ream of other factors demand a constant flexibility from people when communicating with one another. This negotiation can be made easy or difficult by the organisation and the culture behind it. At its essence the people, organisation and culture are interrelated. Giving people the proper frameworks, support, guidance and skills helps an organisation achieve the culture of communication it aspires to.
The traditional model of colleagues being in the same building, speaking the same language and meeting face to face for meetings are gone. Today the platforms of communication are wonderful and varied. People are expected to work through emails, phone calls, virtual meetings. Platforms not only apply to means of communication but to the context as well; management meetings, annual appraisals and employee surveys are also to be considered as such. Sometimes these platforms are not conducive to good communication. It could be that the actual platform is not fit for purpose, that the people don’t know how to use it properly or that it conflicts with the organisational culture. For example, video conferences may not be found to be effective within an organisation because the supporting technology isn’t good enough, the users may not understand how to adapt their communication styles to it or that the people don’t engage with it as their company is more about relationships and face time. It is important that platforms are audited to ensure their suitability, adoptability and adaptability.
How communication impacts an organisation will always involve many factors. As a means of dismantling the engines of communication within the workplace, these four areas provide a strong framework for initial enquiries before focusing on specific issues identified.