The art and science of communication
It's not just about what you say
Have you ever started your day, zombie-like, coffee in one hand, and the burden of all your tasks in the other? Sitting in one place, call after call? Couple that with the pandemic, your office and bed being in the same room, and you’ve got yourself a formula for complete dissociation!
Whether it's the tech fatigue of working from home (WFH), job insecurity, or simply not knowing how to talk to people anymore, the pandemic has drastically lowered employee engagement. Only 15% of employees worldwide, and 35% in the US, fall in the ‘engaged’ category, and that was before the pandemic.¹ What’s worse is that more than 55% of Americans are likely to look for new employment in the next year.² This is bad news for many businesses who have to grapple with increased turnover and administrative complexities of WFH, all during a global health crisis.
We don't talk anymore...
Communication in the workplace has never been more important. There’s heightened emphasis on the need for in-person connections, reading facial expressions, and catching serendipitous water cooler moments.
Workplace engagement is a function of communication, defined as the “involvement and enthusiasm of employees in the workplace”. A study by the Economist in 2018 suggests that the repercussions of poor communication are severe. It reports 18% of respondents say miscommunication amongst teams has led to the loss of a sale, nearly one-third of which were valued between $100 thousand to $1 million.
A comprehensive breakdown of reasons for poor miscommunication puts ‘different communication’ styles on top. 42% of respondents in a study on communication barriers in the workplace complain that managers must tailor their approach to be more effective leaders.³ This is not surprising, considering 70% of variance in engagement links back to the manager. Generational gaps play into this difference.⁴ Younger colleagues (31% millennials and 30% Generation X) prefer instant messages over emails, the latter being the preferred mode of communication for baby-boomers. The younger cohort describes itself as having a more ‘functional’ communication style that focuses on processes. Its older counterpart focuses more on personal connection. So, one can see where the wires get crossed.
An ever changing world requires constant acclimatisation. Rethinking the way managers can communicate is important for sustainable business. Employees are more engaged when they feel connected to their managers, colleagues, and company values. Science backs this up. Cognitive theory emphasises the role of self-efficacy as a function of feelings of connection in the workplace. An employee’s perception of their immediate social context, and their relationship with their manager and colleagues is a direct predictor of engagement 3 years later.⁵
So, how do we rethink communication for this brave new world?
1. Adjust your communication style
Humans have evolved the same (almost) everywhere, but our brains are wired differently. This wiring causes people to perform tasks differently, and communicate in their own unique way.⁶ Therefore, it’s imperative that coworkers have tools to gauge their colleagues’ comfort and morale, and adjust accordingly. Tests like Myers-Briggs, and personality profile directories are some examples. Here at SHAPE, we ask everyone to share their preferences (likes, dislikes, hobbies etc.) and upload them on the company wiki. Knowing a little about each other goes a long way, especially over video calls.
2. Be clear
So much gets lost in translation over email, text message, and lagging video calls. An environment where clarity is created, and expectations are defined, allows employees to react positively (or negatively) in a phenomenon known as the Pygmalion Effect.⁷
As managers, you can uncover individual preferences by asking questions like “Which methods of communication work best for you when working within the team?”.
3. Ask for input
Ever considered, if a person asks for your opinion, chances are they like you? To set schedules and ensure policy effectiveness in WFH or hybrid working, managers should remember to ask questions. Questions such as “What benefits have you seen from the hybrid policy?” or “What difficulties have you encountered?” go a long way.
4. Foster trust
Two types of trust can be fostered between people who rarely share office space: swift trust and emotional trust.⁸ The former involves willingness of team members to depend on one another based on mutual knowledge of each other. Over time, it proves very effective when colleagues begin to rely on one another for specific things.
Emotional trust is the belief that people around us care for us outside of work. This kind of trust is built over time. In a pre-pandemic world, it was easier to say a few nice words over a project discussion. Now, managers need to rethink how to boost morale. Sharing empathetic words in an email, encouragement, and engaging in gentle self-disclosure on video calls may help nurture emotional trust.
5. Create a community
Remote work has led to multi-cultural, multi-national, diverse teams. However, this brings its own issues, like mis-communication. Sharing common ground helps our brains sync up.⁹ Those vital few minutes of small talk at the beginning of meetings can help coworkers bond and create valuable trust. It’s more exciting to work towards a common goal when there’s much in common already.
It's make or break
The solutions are in front of us. What we do with this knowledge can make the difference between disengaged or fully immersed employees. Take your pick.
The SHAPE score shows businesses the Value of Benefit (VOB), expressed in equivalent hours of additional work they can gain from increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, turnover and claims. This score, along with the rest of the SHAPE Report, can be used to determine where companies are lagging, and the actions that can be taken to establish a more enthusiastic and engaged workforce.
¹Gallup, Inc. “How to Improve Employee Engagement in the Workplace.” Gallup.com. Gallup, January 18, 2022. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/285674/improve-employee-engagement-workplace.aspx.
²Foster, Sarah. “Survey: 55% Expecting to Search for a New Job over the next 12 Months.” Bankrate, 2021. https://www.bankrate.com/personal-finance/job-seekers-survey-august-2021/.
³“A Report from the Economist Intelligence Unit ...” Accessed February 2, 2022. https://impact.economist.com/perspectives/sites/default/files/EIU_Lucidchart-Communication%20barriers%20in%20the%20modern%20workplace.pdf.
⁴Adkins, Amy, and Jim Harter. “Employees Want a Lot More from Their Managers.” Gallup.com. Gallup, November 20, 2021. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236570/employees-lot-managers.aspx].
⁵Consiglio, Chiara. “What Makes Employees Engaged with Their Work? The Role of Self-Efficacy and Employee’s Perceptions of Social Context over Time.” Accessed February 2, 2022. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301535173WhatmakesemployeesengagedwiththeirworkTheroleofself-efficacyandemployee'sperceptionsofsocialcontextover_time.
⁶“Brain Wiring Affects How People Perform Specific Tasks.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, October 5, 2017. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/10/171005102618.htm.
⁷“The Pygmalion Effect.” Duquesne University. Accessed February 2, 2022. https://www.duq.edu/about/centers-and-institutes/center-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-and-learning-at-duquesne/pygmalion.
⁸“12 Questions about Hybrid Work, Answered.” Harvard Business Review, October 28, 2021. https://hbr.org/2021/09/12-questions-about-hybrid-work-answered.*
⁹Stephens, Greg J, Lauren J Silbert, and Uri Hasson. “Speaker-Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2010. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20660768/.*