5 min read | 15 January, 2021 By Laura Sands
Chatting by the watercooler or WhatsApping your team? Then you’re using informal communication. As a natural, unstructured way of catching up with the people you work with, informal communication has a firm place within any business, but can too much damage your organisation? In this post we cover the ways informal communication can help – and hinder – the way you run your business.
Informal communication is any type of communication that doesn’t take place using the formal methods or structures in a company. Unlike a one-to-one or intercompany meeting, informal communication covers the chats, notes and asides we share with one another outside of these formal settings.
There are countless forms of informal communication and as technology progresses these are increasing further. While your employees will be using these communication channels to share business critical updates and information, there’s a good chance that they’re also being used for more mundane information such as “whose turn is it to make the tea?” and gossip such as “did you hear that Jo is getting married?”.
Here are some of the most common types of informal communication:
Conversations – whether in a corridor or on your way to the bus-stop after work, informal conversations are a big part of most workplaces.
Phone calls – a quick phone call can clarify more than an email could ever do and makes work within a remote team much easier. Unless your phone call is a scheduled conference call or one where you’re covering a pre-agreed agenda, then it’s another type of informal communication.
Instant messaging – from WhatsApp to Google Chats, there are endless instant messaging apps. This informal communication method is especially popular with younger employees.
Project boards – Slack, Monday, Basecamp – these collaborative project boards thrive on informal communication.
Without informal communication, our working lives would feel stiff and unfriendly. It’s the informal catch-ups and interactions that glue your business together. They help new employees onboard more quickly, help distribute information more easily and spread the norms and behaviours that are part and parcel of your way of working.
Here are some of the ways informal communication can make running a business easier:
Informal communication can mean better quality feedback
Stiff feedback sessions and formal feedback forms can leave employees uncharacteristically quiet. By catching up with your team informally, you can get a better sense of the big issues and learn what your employees really think. Informal conversation can prompt employees to feedback about something that they may otherwise have kept to themselves. Issues that wouldn’t have otherwise come to light can then be dealt with.
Informal communication can support your performance management process.
The formal nature of performance management can feel daunting, which is where an informal approach can help. If an employee is not meeting the required standards, or is frequently late, an informal chat can often solve the problem. Simply having a quiet word with someone can help to press home a point that doesn’t need to be made formally or be put on the record.
Informal communication builds relationships
It’s very difficult to build strong relationships when the only dealings you have are formal. That’s why social interactions, such as a quick catch up in the kitchen or a comment in passing, can help build rapport within your business.
Informal communications can be integrated into more formal situations. A friendly chat is a great way of breaking the ice at the start of a formal meeting. We all have individual preferences when it comes to communication style. Some people will actually perform better if given the opportunity to take part in more informal communication initially.
Informal communication can enhance your reward & recognition programme
As much as a formal thank you is necessary, it’s the informal praise and encouragement that keeps your team going day to day. From a quick thank you for all your hard work at the end of a tough day to a Kudos mention, using informal communication to recognise your staff’s efforts will give everyone a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Informal communication can increase innovation
Informal communication can create a collaborative environment that’s more innovative and creative. It encourages an interchange of ideas, feelings and opinions that can generate a team spirit and a sense of inclusion for staff.
For all that informal communication is friendly and relaxed, you can’t rely on it for everything. Every business needs structure if it is to thrive. Here’s why you mustn’t rely too much on informal communication:
It’s difficult to record informal communication
Informal communication is often undocumented. This means you can’t rely on it in the same way as formal communication. For example, if you ask another member of staff to do something for you, yet on following up with them you discover that they haven’t done it, there is no proof that the conversation took place. Taking a more formal approach such as email, may have seen a different result.
Informal communication can cause misunderstandings
Due to its spontaneous nature, informal communication can be taken the wrong way. Whether someone is rushing, distracted or caught at the wrong time, the message may not be articulated as clearly as would be the case in a more formal situation. This is especially the case with instant messaging and updates on project boards.
Informal communication can limit productivity
Due to its spontaneous nature, informal communication can be distracting. From stopping someone for a quick chat to sending instant messages that need an instant response, informal communication can limit your team’s productivity if not managed properly
Informal communication can lack accuracy
Informal communication can be subject to Chinese whispers. Before you know it exaggerated versions of the truth or incorrect information are being shared. Staff may prefer to believe the gossip rather than the official communications. They may not believe the official version is the full truth or may think they are only being told what you want them to hear.
Informal communication can damage inclusivity
Although informal communications can help share information freely, if left unchecked it can leave people out. Employees who work part time hours or remotely may get left out of updates and feel that they’re somehow second-class employees as a result. Likewise, employees who are new to the business or who simply don’t have the same social networks as other employees may find themselves less informed.
The best way to balance your business’s informal and formal communications is by being more intentional about how you share information. Start by agreeing a policy for what must be shared formally – for instance business updates, meeting invitations, performance review ratings and so on. Then ensure managers are clear about how to use informal communication for the best results – such as with informal feedback, praise and redirection. Ensuring there’s a protocol for backing this up with formal communication – such as in a one-to-one – will ensure important information doesn’t get lost.