Effective team communication takes work.

As a leader, it’s your job to make sure that information flows freely. Your team can only work towards a common goal if everyone is focused on the same things.

Problems with communication mean that some of the work you’re paying for is wasted.

That’s a frustrating problem for everyone involved. You’re annoyed because you thought the team was making progress, but you’re just spinning your wheels. It’s even more upsetting for the people who find out that their hours of work were basically pointless.

Team communication is closely related to productivity. In fact, 97% of employees believe that projects are impacted when the team lacks alignment.

But while professionals agree that team communication is essential, many feel their workplace is lacking.

  • 75% of companies think teamwork is very important — but only 18% give feedback about communication in performance reviews.

These statistics aren’t actually that surprising. Communication is hard. Just because you have a lot of conversations and meetings doesn’t mean you’re communicating.

Good team communication means that everyone on your team knows what they need to do next. They know where to look to find the information they need, and they know the right way to speak up to share updates or ideas.

Creating that kind of environment helps your team succeed. In this article, we’ll talk about how to do that.

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Why team communication is important

When team communication breaks down, bad things happen.

  • Some work is duplicated while other tasks are missed
  • It’s much harder to meet deadlines
  • Finished projects come in off-spec
  • Different teams work towards conflicting goals
  • Employees lose trust in leadership
  • You waste hours trying to keep work on track

These problems are annoying at best. At worst, they can cost your company thousands of dollars and put jobs at risk.

To communicate well, make sure that people share information within their team and with other parts of the company. Information silos are a common problem.

Picture this:

You’re responsible for launching a new children’s toy. It’s important that everything is ready for the holiday season, so you’re on a tight timeline.

The product team needs to get a prototype to marketing as quickly as possible so that advertising will be ready on time. It’s a tough task, but they pull together and get the first prototypes done ahead of schedule.

While ironing out the final details, the manufacturing team points out that one of the toy’s features requires specialized equipment to create. That specialized tool is already being used, so you can either change the design of the toy or order more equipment. Either way, it will cause a delay.

You’re under a lot of pressure to make the right decision because of the tight timeline. After analysis, you realize it will be faster to modify the design. The product team comes through for you again and you start manufacturing only a little late.

A couple of weeks before advertising is scheduled to launch, marketing presents their campaign. There’s a huge problem. All of the ads show the prototype — the actual toy design has changed. You can’t launch the campaign until the ads are fixed, which is going to be expensive and time consuming.

What happened here?

In this example, a lack of communication between teams caused a problem that affected everyone.

Each team was under pressure to finish their part of the project quickly. The tight timeline made it harder to communicate, and it also made the consequences more serious.

It’s often easy to spot problems caused by communication breakdowns.

It’s harder to recognize the areas where your team is communicating well because things simply work the way they’re supposed to.

Building good communication habits gives you plenty of benefits:

  • You can estimate project timelines more accurately
  • Your team hits deadlines consistently
  • Finished projects are better quality
  • Team member feedback is more frequent and valuable
  • There’s less conflict between people and teams
  • It’s easier to be creative and openly discuss ideas

These add up to a couple of distinct advantages. You get more done and your company is a better place to work.


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Different types of teams and their communication challenges

Each team faces different challenges. As your company grows and changes, you’ll find that your communication style evolves with it.

That means that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for team communication problems. This article will help you identify some of the most common. We’ll also talk about how you can troubleshoot issues that are more specific to your unique team.

For instance, growing teams have to figure out how different personality types can work together most effectively.

If you manage employees or contractors in multiple locations, your communication needs are different than teams that all work in a single office. Even if some people work in the office with you, you’re wise to adopt good remote communication strategies to keep everyone in the loop.

Office-based teams are not exempt from communication issues. The larger the team, the easier it is for voices to get lost among the crowd.

Communication issues can be caused by any of these things:

  • Issues with your company culture: if coworkers don’t feel like a team, they have a hard time communicating
  • Distrust between employees and management: when people feel like their company hides information from them, they’re less likely to be open and vocal
  • Poor organization and poor documentation: even if everyone wants to communicate, they may not have the right channels to do so effectively

It all boils down to this — communication is a skill and it takes focused effort to do it well.

In other words, your team won’t communicate by accident. You need to teach them to do it on purpose and keep investing in those skills over time. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of time recovering from problems that could have been prevented.

Here’s how to get started.

How to improve team communication quality

There are 2 main parts of communication:

  1. Expressing ideas in a way that other people can understand them, and
  2. Understanding the ideas that other people express to you.

When you lead a team, it’s up to you to make sure that both of those things are happening regularly. You set the standards for everyone, then make sure your people have the tools they need to meet those standards.

Look at your current policies and team structure. When you create the right environment, it’s much easier to make positive changes.

Here are 7 proven strategies we recommend to encourage better team communication.

1. Define your company culture and communication manifesto

Before you figure out your communication standards, it’s helpful to get clear about your culture. The way you communicate is strongly influenced by the kind of team you are.

Culture can be hard to define. Think of it as the beliefs and behaviors that your entire company shares. For example, if employees tend to leave early on Fridays after working late earlier in the week, that’s part of your culture.

While examining your culture, you might find that you want to make some changes. Here’s an article to help with that.

Figure out what values are most important to your team. Are any of these on your list?

  • Healthy work-life balance
  • Exceptional productivity and performance
  • Innovation and creativity
  • Self expression
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Dedication to the company’s long term goals
  • Collaboration and teamwork

Your values determine how you should communicate as a team.

A company that strongly values inclusiveness must think about how they can encourage their more introverted and careful employees to join the conversation. They might create anonymous feedback channels, keep teams smaller, and train their leaders to gently step in when one person dominates a discussion.

Companies that believe in work-life balance should place boundaries on communication outside of normal working hours.

If you place a heavy emphasis on teamwork, you should be clear about how and when teams should come together to get things done.

Figure out your cultural beliefs and you’re ready to make your communication manifesto.

What is a communication manifesto?

A communication manifesto is a written document that explains how your team communicates. It answers questions like:

  • What tool should you use to share specific types of information?
  • When is it acceptable to interrupt someone else’s work to ask questions or share information?
  • How quickly should you respond to questions?
  • When should you use public channels vs private channels to discuss work?
  • Who needs to be included or excluded from conversations?

It might seem like a lot, but clarifying these points makes your team communication way more effective. The ultimate goal is to make sure that everyone has all the information they need without being buried under chatter they don’t need.

Here’s ours as an example – feel free to borrow from it as much as you’d like! We’re a remote team and we’re proud of how well our people communicate.


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2. Identify your team communication pain points

Every business has a unique set of challenges that make it harder to communicate.

We already talked about your culture. Here are some of the other things that can make it harder to communicate.

Remote work

Whether your company is fully remote or you just have a few people working offsite, communicating with remote employees takes extra effort. You experience the same challenges if you manage people in multiple offices.

If you combine in-office and remote work, you may need to be less reliant on meetings. Here’s a common scenario for companies with a partially remote team:

The manager has an important announcement. She prefers to communicate this kind of news face-to-face, so she calls a meeting.

She emails the meeting link, but only some of her remote team members see it on time. None of the in-office employees miss it because she walks around and calls everyone to the meeting room.

As the meeting goes on, the manager addresses the people in the room and uses a whiteboard to illustrate her points. The remote team members listening in from the phone can’t hear everything and can’t see the board.

The end result is this: the people working in the office are clearly included. Remote workers have only a partial understanding at best.

The solution is to change the tools you use to communicate.

Face-to-face communication, especially from frequent in-person meetings, excludes the people who work outside of the office. Use digital tools like Slack, Hubstaff Tasks, and Zoom to connect your entire team.

Misunderstandings

Understanding is a big part of communication. Remember the two parts of communication we mentioned earlier — you’re only communicating if you understand them and they understand you.

There will always be occasional misunderstandings. But if you frequently find that you say one thing and your team hears another, there’s probably an underlying issue.

There might be a language or cultural barrier. You might need to work on the way you give instructions for tasks and projects. Nonverbal cues like your body language and tone of voice might send mixed messages.

Get to the root of misunderstandings by asking questions.

Be careful about your tone here! If you sound accusatory and give the impression that you think it’s all your employees’ fault, they’ll be defensive instead of helpful. Make sure that your focus is on what you can do to improve, not what your team did wrong.

Try phrasing your questions like this:

“I’m working on being more clear when I give instructions, and I’d like your help. When I gave you this project, what did I say that made you do it this way?”

It’s wise to check for understanding before work begins. When you give instructions, ask team members to repeat them back to you in their own words. You’ll be able to spot miscommunication and fix it right away.

Information bottlenecks

For a lot of teams, all decisions go through the boss. There’s one person who knows all the facts, and that person owns all important decisions.

If that’s how you work, watch out for information bottlenecks.

When there’s only one person with all the information, they have to be available to everyone else at all times. Other people can’t do their job until they get a response to their question.

This usually happens by accident.

As a startup, it’s easy for your small team to come to you with questions. Most people are on the same page. Everyone knows the end goal, and if they aren’t totally sure about a decision, it’s easy enough to run it by you first.

As your team grows, you don’t have time to write down things like your company mission, your core values, or your processes and procedures. The bigger your team gets, the fewer people are just “automatically” on the same page.

You’re the only person that knows everything about the company. Soon, you realize that you’re explaining the same things over and over. Instead of getting work done, you spend most of your time answering questions so that other people can get work done.

The solution is simple: write things down. Make it easy for your team to answer their own questions.

Start by creating process documentation about whatever your team asks most frequently.

If they need more general guidance, start with your company values and mission.

If there’s one area of your business that’s rapidly expanding and you spend a lot of time training and onboarding, start there. Create process documents for all of the core job responsibilities and create an onboarding checklist.

Don’t stop there. Building your document library is a big undertaking, but it’s worth it. The time you invest now will make your team more effective and independent for the life of your business.

A lack of information

reasons teams struggle with communication - lack of information

Sometimes, you don’t have as much information as you’d like. That’s a normal part of doing business.

But that situation should be the exception, not the norm.

If your team members frequently come back to you asking for more details on projects, that’s a sign that you’re not giving them enough information at the start.

Think about it this way — a bookshelf is a pretty simple piece of furniture, right?

But when you buy a bookshelf that you need to assemble yourself, it still comes with detailed instructions. You might still be able to build the bookshelf without the instructions, but you’d make more mistakes and it would take much longer.

Managers often hand off work without enough detail because they’re in a hurry.

As a leader, though, it’s your job to think about the total amount of time that your team spends on a project. The more total time it takes, the more expensive that project becomes.

Take a few extra minutes to explain the details before handing off a task. It’s faster for you to write down that information than it is for your employee to figure it out on their own. Plus, you’ll waste less time fixing avoidable mistakes.

3. Lead by example

To get your team to communicate better, you have to become a better communicator first.

Changing the way you communicate is hard. It’s unrealistic to expect your team to put effort into this if you’re not leading by example. Be prepared to keep working on your personal communication skills for the foreseeable future.

You don’t have to be perfect. Aim for gradual improvement and take these visible steps to set the right example for your team:

Make great communication a shared team goal

Include your team in the process. Tell them that great communication is a priority and ask them to share ideas about how to solve specific problems they’ve noticed.

When you implement their ideas, it proves that you care about their input. It also demonstrates that you’re serious about solving this problem.

Take feedback gracefully

You can’t have good communication without honesty. You can’t expect honesty if you react poorly to criticism and tough feedback.

If this is a challenge for you, the first step is admitting that to your team. Be honest with them and confess that this is something you’re working on.

Owning your weaknesses in front of your team can be intimidating. Don’t worry that it will undermine your authority. Trust us — your team already knows about your weaknesses. Being honest about your shortcomings shows your team that you’re aware of them and you’re working on it.

You can learn more about building your confidence and honing your listening skills in this article: Important Soft Skills for Managers

Make meetings more effective

Have you ever come out of a meeting more confused than when you started?

Meetings should be short and effective. When you schedule a meeting, you guarantee that nobody in the meeting can use that time for productive work. The outcome should be worth that sacrifice.

A meeting is often the most efficient way to share information with a lot of people at the same time. Rather than filling up a Slack channel or responding to a long email thread, a quick call can clear things up immediately.

Occasional all-hands meetings are a great tool to keep everyone in the company connected and informed.

For every type of meeting, make sure you meet all of these criteria:

  • Set a time limit. Keep it short. Meetings will expand to fill up all the time you allow for them, so it’s best to schedule 15 to 30 minutes for most topics.
  • Start with an agenda. List everything you need to decide or share during the meeting. Send that agenda to participants ahead of time. If it’s not on the agenda, it doesn’t get discussed at the meeting.Meetings should have a defined purpose. You can make a decision, share an update, or complete a task. It’s rarely productive to have a meeting to brainstorm or share thoughts. People can contribute ideas before you meet. The actual meeting should move a project forward.
  • Include everyone who needs to be there. Don’t invite the people who don’t need to be there.If you’re in an office and your remote team members need to attend, find a way to include them. They can come to the office that day or you can connect with a video call. Make sure that your virtual attendees are just as included as the people in the room. If you know you have a hard time with this, consider hosting the entire meeting by video call with participants dialing in from their desks.
  • Stay focused. Meetings should be moderated. When side discussions come up, gently say “Let’s discuss that separately. Our goal right now is to decide what to do about this.”If you have an agenda and a time limit, this is easier to do. Those tangential discussions might be important, so write them down and follow up with the appropriate team members after the meeting is over. Next time you cut off a side discussion at a meeting, your team will remember that you followed through last time and they’ll be more cooperative.

At Hubstaff, we automate our daily stand-ups so that everyone stays informed without interrupting work. It works great for our fully remote team.

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4. Invest in team communication technologies

Face-to-face communication is important, but it has a few problems:

  • Human memory is imperfect. The more details you communicate verbally, the more likely that some of them will be forgotten.
  • The only people who know what was discussed are those who were there.
  • There’s no record, so you can’t reference what was discussed later.

You can’t rely entirely on in-person meetings and conversations to keep your team informed. That’s why communication tools are so important.

Startups are especially selective in the tools they use because there’s no budget for extras. Tools alone don’t solve problems. Getting a new piece of software isn’t going to magically make everyone on your team a great communicator.

However, your team can’t communicate well if they don’t have the right tools.

Here’s what you need to cover the basics.

Team chat software

Chat software like Slack is important because:

  • It creates a record of what was discussed
  • It’s easy to share files
  • You can easily include people who aren’t in the office so that they can collaborate from a distance or catch up later
  • Conversations are organized by topic or team so that you always include the right people
  • People can control whether or not they are open to interruptions by turning notifications off or on
  • Everyone can communicate regardless of their physical location

Team chat software is your first logical step towards fixing the basic problems of face-to-face communication.

Set rules about how the team chat should be used. Since programs like Slack are so easy to use, they can quickly add to the confusion instead of helping communication.

Use channels wisely.

It’s a great idea to set up channels for non-work topics like hobbies, family, or special interests.

Work channels should be focused on work conversation only. It’s okay to delete messages that will only clutter up the channel. When you go back later to catch up on a project, you should be able to review the conversation without too much digging.

Use your chat software to protect your team’s deep work time.

Instead of walking up to someone’s desk and distracting them from work, teach your team to send a short message. The recipient can finish their current thought before checking and responding.

When interruptions aren’t welcome, post a status to let others know. Give your team permission to turn off notifications sometimes to focus on important work.

Project management software

Project management software helps your team answer all of these questions without needing to come to you:

  • What do I need to work on next?
  • How long is this going to take?
  • Where can I find the background information I need?
  • What do I need to finish this week so that other people can do their jobs?
  • Where does this task fall in my priority list?
  • Do I have time to take on a new project?

For you, there’s even more valuable information. You can use your project management tool to determine:

  • How long will each project take to finish?
  • Where are there bottlenecks or problems that you need to solve?
  • Which projects are at risk of being late?
  • Which projects are at risk of coming in over budget?
  • Which team members need more help?
  • How can you balance the workload in your team to get the most done in the shortest time?

When priorities change, you just need to update the tasks to reflect that and everyone is automatically notified. You don’t have to worry that someone won’t get the message.

To use project management software effectively, your team should work from their task list each day. That way, they see any updates and can change their plan accordingly.

The task history should be your source of truth. To make that happen, everyone must be disciplined about updating tasks with new information.

If you have a meeting, add the takeaways to the task afterwards.

If you have a Slack conversation, update the task with any findings or unresolved questions.

Task comments are the best place to collaborate. Use comments to ask important questions that aren’t time sensitive. Tag team members when you need their input to proceed. By working directly on the task, you have a thorough history attached to the project and it’s easy for the next person to pick up where you left off.

Good project management software also helps you store documents and share files.

Other handy communication tools

You may need tools that solve specific challenges for your team.

For teams that need to share spreadsheets and documents, Google Drive is a good option. Docs and Sheets do a good job at allowing multiple people to edit a document at the same time.

If you have a lot of files to organize and share, cloud storage through Dropbox, Box, or even Google Drive might be a smart choice. Consider your security requirements and the types of files you want to save when you look at options.

Video conferencing software like Zoom is worth the investment if you have any team members working off site. The meeting features are more robust than the video calling capabilities in Slack.

Remember that tools only work if they’re used correctly. Make sure to train your team appropriately whenever you introduce a new tool.

5. Impose common work hours

Flexible work schedules are good for productivity. At Hubstaff, we’re big fans of asynchronous communication. It gives everyone plenty of time to focus on productive work.

Real-time collaboration is still important. We make sure this happens by hiring in specific time zones and organizing shifts with at least a few hours of overlap.

We use those overlapping hours to schedule meetings and connect with our coworkers. Outside of those hours, team members can still send messages, but we don’t expect an immediate response.

This helps us set smart boundaries on our time and attention. During the asynchronous part of the day, we prioritize tasks that take a lot of personal focus. We work on group projects during the overlap while others are available to collaborate.

Even if your team all works the same shift at the same office, you can use a similar strategy. Set aside specific time for group work and individual tasks with different communication rules for each.

During group work time, team members should answer messages within about an hour. Meetings and collaboration happen during those hours.

Deep work time is for individual work that requires more focus. It’s okay to turn off notifications during these hours and respond to any messages the following day. Deep work time is a meeting-free zone so it’s possible to get into flow state.

In an office setting, it takes extra discipline to keep those focused hours free from interruptions. Keep an eye on it. It’s worth the effort.

6. Promote friendship and bonding in your team

Team bonding helps remove some communication barriers. It’s easier for people to be open and honest when they like and trust their teammates.

Plus, they learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They can collaborate more effectively because they know who to ask for help.

To promote friendship within your team, make room for people to connect on topics outside of work. Give people the freedom to chat by creating spaces where that’s encouraged.

As a fully remote team, a lot of our team bonding happens in Slack. We have channels to share music, discuss movies, talk about video games, show off our hobbies, and post recipes from around the world.

Encourage people to hang out at happy hour after work each week. Set aside time for a team lunch a couple of times each month. If you find out that a lot of people on your team enjoy yoga, set up a group yoga class.

If your culture has discouraged this kind of bonding before, you’ll need to work extra hard to set the right example.

Start small. Set aside a little bit of time during work hours — 30 minutes during lunch is great — and host an activity that your team is likely to enjoy.

That might be a virtual game of pictionary or a couple hands of poker. Games are a good mental break, and team members can either play or watch.

You have to participate, too. The more often your employees see you “goofing off,” the more likely they are to join other activities they find interesting. If you never participate, you send the subtle message that you don’t approve.

7. Introduce reflective listening

Reflective listening is a simple communication strategy that has a big impact on understanding. Here’s how to use it:

  1. Listen carefully
  2. Think about the meaning of what the speaker said to you
  3. Repeat back what was said in your own words. Ask if you understand correctly
  4. Clarify as needed with the same process

In practice, it looks like this. Let’s pretend you’re Bob. Your boss, Anne, has a new assignment for you.

Anne: Hi, Bob. I’d like you to handle the details of the holiday party this year. Are you up to it?

Bob: Sure, Anne. Does that mean you want me to schedule it, find a location, and hire a caterer?

Anne: No, we already have a date and a location. We’d like to have a potluck instead of a caterer. I need you to send out the invitations and come up with some fun activities.

Bob: Okay. It sounds like we’ve already got a basic plan, and you just need me to get it on our team calendar, collect RSVPs, and come up with some fun stuff to do while we’re there. Is that right?

Anne: Yes, exactly.

Bob: Great. Where can I find details about the time and location so I can add it to the calendar?

Anne wanted you to “handle the details” for the company party, which is a very vague statement. Because you repeated it back to her in your own words, you clarified exactly what you need to do next.

Teach your employees to use this technique, too. Their feedback helps you learn to communicate more clearly.

While they’re learning, you’ll probably need to remind them frequently. Whenever you give them new instructions, ask them to repeat it back to you in their own words. This will become a habit over time whether you ask or not.

Next steps

Ready to start working on team communication?  Here’s what to do next.

  1. Create your communication manifesto. Tell your team why you’re doing this and get their help.
  2. Start documenting your processes right away. You’re already creating a communication manifesto, so this is the perfect time to start building your documentation library.
  3. Choose a specific communication problem to tackle next. There are a lot of reasons that your time might be struggling to communicate, and you can’t fix everything at once. Pick one specific issue and start there.

Use our Hubstaff Communication Manifesto as a guide to help you create your own standards.


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