Published: 17 Jan 2018
Updated: 13 Aug 2021
Category: Digital , Business Communication , Workplace

Effective Workplace Communication In The Digital Age


Communication tools have made leaps and bounds in the last 20 years. We have moved from phone calls and faxes to emails and text. With those changes came a new language and new rules for professional communication etiquette. Experts advised leaving humor out of emails to avoid misinterpretation, and arguments ensued over the use of salutations and signatures in replies and forwards, not to mention the battle over personal quotes in signature blocks.

Flash forward to today. Now many productivity tools include instant messaging in their team spaces and have taken that challenge a step further with the introduction of emoticons in their systems. While many of us use smiley faces, sad faces and "LOL" in our everyday informal communications with friends and family, should they be used in professional correspondence?

Many times the communication tools get blamed, not the user, for inappropriate use. Instead, managers should focus on the results of increased and immediate communication, and not the means of getting there.

The pros and cons of digital communication tools
There are many positives to using Slack, Teamwork Chat and the wide variety of similar communication tools. The open exchange between co-workers allows them to transmit and receive information as quickly as possible, amping productivity and cross-team communication. For a project that includes multiple teams or people working remotely, these apps help reconnect employees, provide progress updates and facilitate collaboration. The apps also provide a designated platform for workplace communication without the distractions of Facebook Messenger or Google chat, allowing for greater office efficiency.

Guiding that open exchange can be a challenge and small business owners and managers need to embrace the technology and go with the flow but simultaneously, set parameters. The appropriateness of different media makes a difference. You may 'talk' one way in an email and express the same sentiment in a chat message, only differently because of the more informal nature. This includes the use of emoticons.

Emoticons provide that context, making one-dimensional messages more robust and showing inflection. It gives what the person is saying a visual communication feel, adding an extra layer to tell if the words typed are meant as a joke, serious or sarcastic, for instance.

Instant communication has other benefits as well. It breaks down hierarchal boundaries. Instead of an email to a boss, then another one to their boss, one to the big boss and back down again, now a question can be asked in real time. Because people don't have the attention span they used to, shorter messages at greater frequency elicit better and more immediate responses, keeping a project moving forward instead of waiting on a question and answer that is traveling up the ladder and back down.

There can also be a downside to the use of emoticons, inside or outside of your organisation. According to a new study from Amsterdam University, including smiley faces in your email correspondence leads readers to view you as less competent. If that is a concern, for professional exchanges, leave out the emojis, LOLs and memes.

Remember that your online work platform is first and foremost a professional sphere designed to facilitate efficient and effective dialogue, spamming your co-workers with GIFs is a sure way to cause problems and irritate your teammates. Keep your messages short and sweet.

External tools risk exposing private, confidential, trademarked, financial, or other sensitive information to the public or competitors. Open the channel to the in-house groups that are collaborating together, and be sure to close the conversation to all not involved in the project.

Another negative is the use of the platforms for personal business. It shouldn't be used to send messages to co-workers about non-business topics such as weekend plans or personal problems.

Advice for managers and employees
Within an organisation, however, the use of common emojis, memes and GIFs can promote familiarity and foster that teamwork feeling. The key is to provide and enforce the guidelines for appropriate types of communication over the workplace communication tool and channel. Instruct employees to refrain from sending personal or sensitive messages; be clear that, as with any online messaging system, messages are not private.

Also, to prevent your team from distraction by notifications, create a management override or policy requiring them to adjust their settings so that they only receive alerts pertaining to them and their workgroup. This cuts down wasted time and increases productivity.

Finally, emphasise that a messaging platform is not a substitute for in-person meetings, phone calls or video conferences, all of which are more personable and effective communication. While online apps are convenient, they should never take the place of real-time interpersonal interactions.

It is OK to instant-message to see if someone is available to talk, but discussions of substance should still take place in person. No electronic smiley face or "LOL" can take the place of a true smile or a team laughing, discussing and working together.


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