No matter what role you have in an organization – a manager, a vendor, a consultant, or an advisor – each comes with its own challenges particularly in managing workplace communication issues.
These communication issues often involve conflicts in employee relations. It’s usually the nitpicking or annoyance from the older hire that shows. Or, complaints about too much communication overhead or lack of proper onboarding internally primarily caused by the lack of Wiki or other documentation in larger companies whereas 5+ people in a single role have gone through it already.
Handling Workplace Communication Overhead And Other Issues
In a small team wherein you are responsible for monitoring communication channels closely, stay alert for communication overhead and other issues. Mitigate these issues with the following workplace communication techniques and strategies.
Larger teams require additional help from different departments. Your senior members (or other managers) can help you analyze communication gaps or seemingly trivial tasks that take a lot longer than expected.
Communication overhead and other relevant issues can arise for various reasons, such as:
- Onboarding new members who need some time to catch up
- Limited documentation for initial training
- Unclear processes within the organization
- Introducing new roles in a department
- Creating a separate department with unclear responsibilities
- Promoting a member to a different department
- Increasing the responsibilities of a team
- Looping multiple new team members into a new project
While this list isn’t comprehensive, it’s easy to deduct that different problems require different solutions, especially since these issues manifest in different forms across organizations. Some popular examples include:
- Multiple meetings with several stakeholders led by the same member
- Ineffective meetings taking forever and including the wrong members
- Incomprehensible online communication (email or Messenger)
- Long, painful discussions with no particular focus
- Miscommunication while receiving mixed signals by different team members
- Endless onboarding for existing roles
- Extensive debugging or support time due to vagueness in existing processes
- Overhead in incorporating Enterprise-grade workflows in smaller organizations
- Repeating the same work over and over due to disorganized institutional knowledge
Common Obstacles Impacting Workplace Communication
1. Numerous Layers of Management
I don’t rant against big corps. Larger organizations require numerous layers of management, and communication overhead is staggering. Everything takes longer due to coordinating between dozens of departments. Business processes are designed for stability and reliability, not for speed.
It’s just the way it is.
And some R&D teams may move a lot faster, somewhat independently. But that’s certainly more of an exception than the norm.
2. Lack of Technical Background
A lack of technical background or insufficient training increases the occurrences of communication issues within the team.
For instance, developers need focus — since engineering is a complex craft that relies on building mental models of an application with its corresponding environment, use cases, and possible gotchas.
Non-technical managers tend to organize one too many meetings in order to get acquainted with a project, killing productivity even further.
The only way to combat meetings is by hacking them.
Here’s a handy breakdown on running effective meetings that I leveraged and built upon.
3. Differences in Time and Distance
Productivity may be lower in some cases when working in a remote team. Pushing hard to deploy a project or launch a new version of a product is simply more efficient at the office. Local peers get excited and work hard in order to get the work done. The communication issues, time zone, and cultural differences may slow things down – at times.
4. Working with An Agency
If I have an existing team that needs help, a freelancer could be a good asset and mingle with the team. An agency would build another layer of complexity and communication overhead which results in more communication issues.
5. Too Many Stakeholders
Service-based companies are most prone to facing this earthquake and failing to get on track without losing several high-profile projects. There are too many stakeholders with arbitrary deadlines and requirements, leading to communication issues and challenging team scale in-house across different teams.
Of course, this is just as applicable for product companies, reporting to a board of directors, investors, partners, and the public (especially in the event of bad PR).
In any case, workplace communication issues are common, especially within larger companies.
You should accept it and work on limiting it. Identify the root cause, design an action plan for mitigation, share it with your team, get everyone on board, and monitor until there is no need to escalate the problem.
Don’t worry, the next one will show up soon enough, but the same process will be sufficient to handle the coming business challenges.
Strategies To Streamline Workplace Communication During Growth
Communication overhead is often a byproduct of scaling.
Adding more employees to a team, working on a vastly larger project, managing risks and expectations, and dealing with more stakeholders can lead to more communication issues.
When I co-founded my first startup, we were a couple of people discussing requirements over email, on the phone or meeting face to face. Once we’ve introduced a designer and another developer, we had to switch to a model that required some proper planning and project management. Both hires were remote which meant more async communication online.
The team wasn’t working twice as fast either – we’ve been spending a lot of time brainstorming together, reviewing progress, and restructuring details accordingly.
The overhead was notable – and things continued to evolve with time. More bookkeeping, legal challenges, managing expectations between different people in the team and clients, dealing with sick leaves, you name it.
Why Reviewing Workflows Is A Must
Interviewing a marketing director the other day, I heard the following quote during the meeting:
Every time your organization grows to another multiplier of 3, some of your processes break.
In other words, every third additional hire to your team will likely cause inefficiency or communication problems.
It’s similar to Jeff Bezos’ rule of meetings – never schedule a meeting where two pizzas can’t feed the entire group of attendees. Software engineering applies similar rules – Brooks’ law states, “adding human resources to a late software project makes it later”.
This is why reviewing the existing workflow should happen on a regular basis – especially when a team grows.
When we were a team of 6, almost all communication happened in 2 Skype group chats. We used Asana for long-term planning or bug tracking, but that was it.
Crossing the 10-person like requires one manager overseeing most operations. At 15, we hired our first office assistant. Before reaching 20, we refined some of our technical processes and the way we interact internally and document meeting logs. We had already switched to HipChat at that point.
We reached 40+ people a few months back and many of our previous processes were outdated and useless. There’s more communication overhead. Onboarding new people has to be structured in a better way since a project lead has to introduce 4–7 people to a project and those may work in different time zones and shifts.
What Factors Ensure Efficient Communication
Some companies aim for a flat hierarchy. That’s feasible until a certain point and only when you hire extremely professional experts with outstanding communication and self-management skills. Working with juniors, interns, assistants always requires some management overhead.
There is no ideal setup for a startup. It depends on the team, the management style, the duration of the sprints, how many activities the team juggles with simultaneously, and how many departments are involved in the process.
Document issues and review them regularly. As soon as you’ve set up a pattern, you can start automating it, in order to lay the foundations of a process that is easy to follow.
Study how your counterparts in the industry build and structure their teams. Doing so will help you with making even better hiring decisions. Here are three questions whose answers are definitely useful when aiming to handle with communication overhead while scaling your business:
- Is additional management a must?
- Do you need a full-time HR person (or perhaps a legal expert)?
- How big should each team be?
Acting upon these decisions will require some trial-and-error but it’s a part of the learning cycle of every leadership.
Adopting Technologies For Alternative Communication Approaches
Technical innovations have contributed greatly to introducing new communication models at the workplace.
Back in the day, your entire corporation was in the same building. No remote workforce except for specific contractors (like journalists or salespeople operating remotely). Everyone clocking in and out in the same space.
Phones have been around for a while now but mostly as a tool for connecting with other organizations, rarely internally.
Communication Innovations Through The Internet
The Internet adoption has started some 25–30 years ago. Initially, the prohibitive costs of computers prevented general employees from interacting with them on a daily basis. The trend has shifted to personal computers in the early 90s and Internet connectivity slowly began to pick up.
Messengers like ICQ, AOL, MSN gained popularity in some circles. Text-based communication prevailed for a while (starting from bulletin boards or IRC servers too).
The early 2000s introduced portable computers as consumer devices at scale. Smartphones and mobile Internet offered by telecoms were made accessible for business users able to afford that. Every year millions of users were gaining access to the new technology, bringing costs down (at scale).
With cheaper (and more powerful) technology and faster Internet, teleconferences became a thing. This was introduced by online audio calls and limited video calls after. Nowadays, Zoom or Gotomeeting is accessible everywhere for the general user even on a smartphone out of town.
This whole process sparked new communication workflows, led to the adoption of remote working habits, allowed for more effective communication across time zones, gave birth to powerful ERPs, CRMs, project management platforms, united people from different departments and even organizations living far apart and now able to bridge the communication gap on the go.
Messaging services like Skype and lately Slack or Messenger led to an “always on” trend, with push notifications and permanent Internet access available everywhere at an affordable cost.
This whole process kept morphing over the years, which is why workplace communication now is predominantly online with meetings mostly organized within departments operating on the same floor, a lot more happening online, in a somewhat distributed, support-based on-call fashion.
The Bottom Line
Management should always keep an eye on communication channels and review performance and productivity reports across the organization. Communication is almost always the root problem, led by ineffective processes.
But getting to the bottom of it would clearly indicate the specific action that contributed to the noise, and allow for rectifying and re-applying the new best practice for the sake of efficiency.
It’s rarely a single, isolated process, and it never ends with a single intervention. Communication clean up is an iterative venture just like gardening or maintaining an automobile.
Check out this list of 31 other business challenges I have gathered to guide you as your company grows.