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.
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.
How the grapevine works
The grapevine is an unofficial channel of communication. Although it doesn’t have a formal structure, it is still very effective at conveying information. Communications move in all different directions according to which employees know each other well, whether they interact with each other socially or as part of their jobs. It isn’t restricted to following the typical hierarchical flows of information, such as up and down the chain of command.
Due to the interconnected network structure of the grapevine, information flows quickly between individuals and can rapidly spread across an organisation.
When news or information travels through the grapevine, it is more than just the typical daily dialogues between employees. Sometimes the information is simple and harmless. For example, “Did you hear that Susan in Accounts is getting married?” is news that can be cheerfully spread across a company.
But it’s when more 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.
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.