Learning effective team communication can feel overwhelming.

After all, there are numerous books out there claiming to offer best practices. Entire university degrees are available on the topic.

With so much information out there, is it realistic for any team to learn how to communicate in the most effective way possible?

Like many things in the world of business, you don’t need to know everything there is about communication. You just need to know enough to take effective action.

To simplify the principles of effective team communication, we’ve distilled them down to ‘The 3 Ws’. These are three simple questions you can use to focus your team’s approach to communication, ensuring maximum productivity and minimum confusion.

Although particular communication methods may come and go, these three questions will always be valid.

Want to communicate more effectively and efficiently as a team? Start by answering the 3 Ws.

 

When Will We Communicate?

One of the first things to agree upon is the frequency of communication within a team.

Don’t assume that this will sort itself out. Different team members might have different expectations about communication frequency. If there is a mismatch between team member expectations, frustration can ensue. Some team members will feel overwhelmed by the frequency of communication, while others may feel ignored.

To ensure that everyone has a shared set of expectations about communication, get the following agreed upon at the very start of a project:

  • Hours. Which hours are team members expected to respond during? When is it acceptable to stop checking the team communication app? This question is especially important for remote teams operating in different time zones.
  • Days. Is the team expected to communicate on weekends? If so, is this a general rule, or an exception that should only occur in extraordinary circumstances? Everyone needs to agree on this. If some team members expect to communicate at weekends, and others don’t, productivity and morale can take a serious hit.
  • Situations. Too much communication can be annoying and can cause employees to mentally detach and stop paying attention to team communication. To avoid this, agree on situations that are appropriate to communicate about. Try and find a level of communication everyone is comfortable with to ensure that the whole team feels their needs are listened to.

While it’s essential to establish the above concepts at the start of a project, it doesn’t mean that they should be set in stone, and inflexible or unchangeable for the rest of the project.

Instead, use the guidelines you come up with as a basis, but reflect on how things are going as the project progresses. Real life rarely conforms to our predictions and expectations and it’s inevitable that certain things won’t work as intended, and changes will need to be made.

Check in regularly and proactively with the whole team to ensure everyone is happy with how things are going. The following questions can be useful when you are looking to assess how well your communication plan is working:

  • What’s working well about our current communication? By asking this question, you gain real feedback on the things that team members are enjoying. Asking this first also helps to frame the discussion in a positive and constructive context. It can be easy to focus on what isn’t working, so be sure to focus people’s minds on the good as well as the bad.
  • What would you change about our current communication? Sometimes, team members might have issues or problems relating to communication, but feel too shy or unsure to speak up about them. By taking the initiative and asking the question, you give people permission and space to seek areas of improvement.
  • Can you give a specific situation where you felt pleased or frustrated with our communication process? It can be difficult to envision exactly what team members are talking about without concrete examples to work with. Instead of seeking general feedback, try and get specific instances that illustrate the points being made.

Setting ground rules about the frequency of contact from the offset effectively combats the twin problems of too much and too little communication. Striking the balance is essential to getting the most from your team. Seeking proactive areas of improvement as a project progresses allows for your communication to be fine-tuned and improvement based upon real-world circumstances.

 

Where Will We Communicate?

These days, there is an overwhelming variety of methods through which teams can communicate. From old fashioned email, through to the latest in encrypted messaging apps, the options are endless.

However, too much choice can be a bad thing. Teams need clear direction on which communication methods should be used, and for what purpose.

If you don't set clear guidance in this area, you run the risk of part of the team communicating through one method and another part through a different method. This can lead to crossed wires, missed information, and general confusion and inefficiency.

So, what are some ideas to help you choose the most suitable methods of communication for your team’s needs? After all, there’s no one size fits all solution. Different situations have different requirements. Consider the following:

  • Suitability. Different communication tools have different uses. For example, for quick, short internal communication, there is no need to have a video call. Instant messaging for business is a better fit. However, for in-depth personal meetings, such as mentoring sessions, instant messaging would be too informal and impersonal. A phone call, video call, or face to face meeting would be a better fit. Think about the different types of communication your team will carry out and choose a best-fit solution for each.
  • Ease. Learning a new communications app isn’t without its costs. There is the potential cost of the app itself, as well as the time and energy needed for the team to learn it. It’s therefore good to keep things as simple as they need to be. Time saved by choosing an easy to learn app is time that can be devoted to important work. Don’t overcomplicate your communications.
  • Buy In. It’s been shown that change is more effectively managed when people buy into it. If you’re switching communication methods, try and consult your team as much as possible beforehand. If people feel they have had input, and have been listened to, they are likely to show less resistance when adopting a new communications tool.

It’s important to avoid the mistake of thinking the right tool or technology will fix deeper problems with team communication. The means of communication you choose will make things easier but won’t act as a substitute for a positive and supportive organizational culture.

Also, it’s vital to avoid seeking a perfect solution, when an adequate solution is good enough. There’s almost always going to be a different tool with flashier features or a legion of fans raving about it. However, there’s real costs associated with switching communication methods.

Reasons to avoid switching communication methods too frequently, in search of the perfect solution, include the following:

  • Finance. By switching back and forth between different communication apps and tools, you end up wasting money. This can take the form of app subscriptions that aren’t used to their full potential, one-off purchase costs that can’t be refunded, and the purchase of training methods for a now defunct piece of software.
  • Time. Time is a vital resource for organizations to manage. Whenever you switch a communications app, time is wasted in various ways. It takes time to learn the new app, time to perform installation and other technical aspects of switching, and time to debate and confirm the switch between methods.
  • Knowledge. As members of your organization use a particular means of communication, they increase their levels of knowledge and experience. People gain a level of familiarity and competence with any given communications tool over time. Every time you choose to pull the plug and pick a new tool to learn, all of the accumulated organizational knowledge is lost.

Choosing the right communications apps for your team can lead to better levels of morale, higher rates of output, and the preservation of organizational knowledge. With so much at stake, it's important to choose wisely and ensure that everyone knows which tool they should use in any given situation.

 

Who Should We Communicate With?

There’s nothing worse than being part of a team, but not knowing exactly what role everyone else plays, what decision making power they have, and when you should communicate with them.

Confusion about who to speak to should a certain situation arise is one of the quickest ways to generate confusion and inefficiency. If people don’t clearly understand the proper lines of communication, they risk staying silent when something is wrong, or communicating it to the wrong person, resulting in a lack of action being taken.

This problem is worsened by the modern day prevalence of fairly fluid remote teams who may never be in the same place physically. Given these challenges, how can you help ensure your team knows who to speak to in a particular situation?

  • Organizational Charts. It can be helpful to have a visual chart showing who does what within your team. This doesn't have to be complex and daunting. It can simply show who is responsible for what, when they should be contacted, and the right time and means to reach them by. This should be accessible somewhere such as the company intranet.
  • Culture. One of the worst things for a team’s effectiveness is when people stay silent. Create a culture where people feel empowered to speak up and reach out. If people receive positive feedback when they reach out, it encourages them to do so again, creating a communicative culture over time.
  • Training. Your team should be properly trained in all aspects of their work, including the communication tools they will use. Make reaching out to people in the right way a core part of team training. This will ensure that its second nature for your team when the need arises.

As well as establishing the right way to communicate, it’s also important to establish some things to avoid. Don’t make the mistake of assuming people will automatically know what not to do. Different people have different expectations, and this is especially true when a team consists of people from different cultures and backgrounds.

Some key considerations in this area include:

  • Language. Some teams are comfortable with informal language such as swearing and slang, while others are not. Be clear about what’s prohibited to avoid any mishaps further down the line.
  • Topics. Is non-work chat allowed, or not? Are there any sensitive areas of discussion, such as politics or religion, that you want people to avoid? Be very straightforward about this so that people don’t feel left in the dark as to what is and isn’t acceptable.

Failing to empower people to speak to the right person can cripple a team's productivity. People do their best work when they feel free to exchange ideas and seek solutions to problems. Make it easy for them to do exactly that.

 

Communication Doesn’t Need to Be Complicated

Hopefully, you see that effective team communication doesn't have to be complicated. In fact, making things more complex than they need to be is a recipe for failure.

Keep things simple. Establish clear and concise answers to the 3 Ws. Listen to your team. Incorporate feedback on organizational communication to improve things over time.

Ultimately, tools and apps are a great means of enhancing team communication, but only if they are used in the right way. Uniting your team behind answers to these questions will ensure that apps turbocharge, rather than harm, your team's communication and productivity.