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.
What is informal communication?
Informal communication at work is any type of communication that doesn’t take place using the formal methods or structures in a company. It can be spoken, written or even conveyed through gestures and body language.
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.
Effective communication is key to business success and there are times when one informal communication method is better than another. Communicating successfully is all about getting the right balance and knowing which to use in every type of situation.
What are the different types of informal communication?
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?”
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.
How can informal communication benefit a business?
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.
Can informal communication be harmful?
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. The informal communication network that exists in a workplace is often termed “the grapevine”. This is when colleagues chat or gossip about what’s going on in the company.
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. It's when this type of potentially damaging or confidential information is shared that the grapevine can become destructive and negative. It can fuel rumours and lead to misunderstandings. If someone gets wind of some gossip or important news about the business, then the word rapidly starts to spread. It could be that there are some upcoming business changes. For example, “Have you heard they’re going to be making redundancies?” isn’t such great news and you may not want that to reach everyone like you might the news about Susan’s impending marriage.
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 drawbacks of the grapevine
The grapevine isn’t something that can be controlled by the board or the senior management team. News can spread very quickly and employees will often take it at face value, believing it to be true. Staff may prefer to believe the gossip rather than the official communications from management. They may not deem the official versions to be quite the full truth, or may think they are only being told what the directors want the staff to hear.
Of course, when the rumour mill really starts to get into gear, the message itself may change as it passes from person to person. Just as in a game of Chinese whispers, the meaning of the message may become quite distorted. More than just speculation and gossip, the message being passed on can actually turn into outright untruths and false rumours, fuelling anxiety and creating tension or conflict.
How to shut down false rumours
You can counter the grapevine communications and the rumour mill with frequent and open communication. The grapevine helps employees by giving them the information they crave. If you’re the one supplying it in the first place, then the grapevine will cease to deliver what staff want from it.
Does informal communication have any benefits?
Of course, informal communication is not always bad. When it’s not centred on false rumours, there can be some positive effects to come out of informal chats and interactions between colleagues.
Informal communication encourages an interchange of ideas, feelings and opinions that can generate a team spirit and a sense of inclusion for staff. It can also drive innovation in business.
Social interactions, such as a quick catch up in the kitchen or a comment in passing, can be good for building rapport with staff and getting to know them. Even conversing with staff about business issues, in a professional manner, can be used for informal communication.
Conversing with employees in this manner goes largely undocumented. It is useful for giving encouragement, or praise for a job well done. It is the most effective form of communication when it comes to being very clearly understood.
Informal communication in disciplinary situations can also be of great use. 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 conversation may also prompt employees to feed back about something that they may otherwise have kept to themselves. Issues that wouldn’t have otherwise come to light can then be dealt with.
Although it’s difficult to discern the absolute veracity of what comes from the grapevine, much of it stems from an initial grain of truth. If the rumour is bad news, then the grapevine can actually be of some help in giving staff a heads up about it and therefore some time to adjust before an announcement is officially made.
While the grapevine is not always a bad thing, it’s important to be sure that you are not contributing to the rumours yourself by saying things in the wrong way. The way you communicate is critical and has a profound effect on how your employees feel and react.
How can a business balance informal and formal communications effectively?
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.
Author: Laura Sands
Laura is a writer who enjoys getting into the detail of subjects and sharing that knowledge with snappy, interesting content. When not typing away, she enjoys walks in the woods and curling up with a good book and mug of something hot.