Understanding the impact of both formal and informal communication in the workplace is very important for every HR practitioner, manager and business owner. After all, the way everyone communicates internally plays a vital role in workforce happiness and directly correlates with everything from how engaged your team is, to how well they perform in their roles.
As such, it pays to have a handle on how you interact with employees on the daily, whether it’s verbal or written. Great places to work are known for clear communication, so start by getting to grips with the various channels you can employ to keep your crew in the loop.
The Difference Between Formal and Informal Communication
In the workplace, most modes of communication tend to be formal, especially in meetings and written missives such as email trails, etc. It normally comes from the top down and is spearheaded by people in leadership positions. There are often also certain procedures and codes of conduct that underpin the way in which it takes place.
Informal communication refers to the bits in between. It creates and maintains relationships between co-workers and often takes place outside of the constraints of official communication channels. These are the quick chats that really bind a team together and smooth the way for comfortable collaboration.
In clear and cordial workplaces, there is a place for both formal interactions and informal conversations. Both kinds are equally important in the workplace and have a telling impact on morale.
However, there are certain things to bear in mind regarding the limitations of each mode of articulation, that is to say:
- Formal or official communication normally has a quite rigid, time-honoured structure that follows certain patterns, while informal communication can flow more freely and sets its own course.
- During formal interactions, you can rest assured that the information you share is confidential. With informal communication, this is not the case, and things can get lost in translation.
- Official comms can take up a lot of time, while a quick chat is much less time-consuming.
Understanding Types of Formal and Informal Communication
This can occur in different directions, namely vertical, lateral, or diagonal.
- Vertical formal communication occurs between different levels of an organisation, e.g. juniors to seniors, managers to employees. Courtesy is of utmost importance in these instances and should be expected of all parties involved, from the grassroots level up.
- Lateral formal communication takes place between co-workers who are on the same level of a business. This will normally take place quite organically.
- Diagonal formal communication takes place between different departments and different levels. E.g. a junior graphic designer being briefed by a manager to create a campaign element for a client. Interactions like these can be invaluable when it comes to breaking down silos within an organisation.
This type of interaction doesn't follow patterns quite this strictly, but can still be broken down into different categories, including:
- Single-strand communication, which is what we call an everyday type of conversation - A chat with B, or B and C, and B might happen to pass the information on to D, or D and E, etc. It’s the ideal way to foster strong bonds between colleagues and build team cohesion from within.
- Cluster chains refer to messages that spread exponentially, especially with the use of technology, e.g. a challenge or a meme that people are tagged in or share with their own networks once they receive it. It's like the modern-day version of a chain letter. Because it spreads so readily, this mode can be used to create excitement and generate enthusiasm for new projects, or to welcome a new recruit, for example.
- Gossip chains are multifocal conversations and dialogues that often develop subsets of information (not always accurate) as it is passed on from one person to the next. This type of informal communication is quite hard to monitor and can be rather disruptive in a work environment if the content thereof is negative in any way.
Both formal and informal communication play a very important role in the workplace. By choosing the right mode for each application, you can leverage the benefits of different types of articulation to smooth the way for a more connected workforce and optimal levels of employee engagement and productivity.
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