THE BLOG

Stop Guessing About the Best Way to Talk to Your Team

02/18/2015 05:45 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

On average, employees check their email 36 times an hour or nearly 300 times a day. The typical information worker loses more than two hours of productivity a day to interruptions and distractions.

Corporations realize email is a huge time suck, but alternatives like instant messaging (IM) can be even more disruptive. And then there's the time you waste figuring out which tool to use. As a consultant, I have to decode a firm's culture quickly. Should I send an email, ping someone with an IM, post on a collaboration site, or actually initiate a real-time conversation?

While most large organizations have communication guidelines, I have never joined a project or department team that had existing guidance on how members should communicate with each other. This leads to frustration and anxiety. For example, on a recent engagement, most of my team responded promptly to my emails. But one person never, ever, acknowledged them. I ended up sending her instant messages asking her to please check her inbox.

What if, instead of guessing about the best way to communicate with our closest colleagues, we talked about it like any other business challenge? I realize many of us work with dozens of people across a large organization, but we probably spend most of our time communicating with ten people or less. If you could improve the way you send and receive information with just those people, it would greatly increase productivity and reduce frustration.

Here are three steps you can take to improve day-to-day communication with your team.

1. Find out how your boss prefers to communicate.
Your boss's preferences will dominate how your team communicates, so start here. Instead of guessing about what your boss wants, just ask. If you're a new hire, bring this up as part of your onboarding process. If you're part of an established team, suggest addressing the topic of improving communications (and enhancing productivity) in a group meeting. Or, if you manage a team, you can lead this effort.

The discussion will vary depending on the tools available to your organization and whether your team is in one location or virtual, but questions like these should provide insight:
• Does our team follow any type of communication guidelines?
• In general, when would you want me to send you an email versus an instant message?
• When do you want to be copied on an email?
• How quickly do you expect me to respond to your emails?
• Do you expect me to check emails after regular work hours? Until what time?
• If I want to meet with you or call you, should I check with you first?
• When do we schedule face-to-face meetings versus virtual ones?
• What types of communications do you find frustrating or inefficient?
• In general, how do you think your team can improve its communications?

I realize it might be tough to ask some of these questions, but imagine how refreshing it would be to have expectations stated clearly. Perhaps your boss expects you to check email until midnight every day, but if she's not willing to admit it, then you don't have to do it!

You might also learn that your boss is less demanding than you imagined. For example, an employee once told me that she checked her email several times every night. I told her to cut it out because I didn't expect her to work in the evening (unless we had previously discussed meeting an urgent deadline). She was just stressing herself out for no good reason.

It's great to talk to your boss about communication preferences, but they should also be written down and shared with the team. Ideally, your boss's preferences should be part of a larger discussion on communication issues (step 2).

Here's an example of what someone's preferences might look like:

Karen's communication preferences:
• In general, I prefer you email rather than instant message me, unless you have an urgent or quick question. Do not copy me on emails unless I've requested you do so for a particular project or task.
• I prefer to turn off automatic email notification and check my inbox every couple of hours. So if you need something immediately, please use IM, call me, or come by my desk (unless I have a "Do Not Disturb" status on my IM.)
• I do not automatically check email in the evening or weekends unless I'm working on an urgent project. So if you need me during off hours, please call my cell.
• I like to meet face-to-face whenever possible and take walks if possible.

2. Find out how your team members prefer to communicate.
Ideally, your entire team can have a candid discussion on communication preferences. Be sure to bring up recurring problems. For example, perhaps folks use email instead of a collaboration site for routine project updates. I guarantee you will find plenty of examples of problems and misunderstandings.

Afterwards, ask each team member to write up a snapshot of communication preferences similar to the one above. Now, it doesn't mean that everyone will be treated exactly as they want. If a subordinate prefers email and the boss prefers instant messaging, well, the boss always wins. The goal here is bring something mysterious out into the open and provide the input needed for the next step.

3. Write general communication guidelines for your team.
Now your team can create some general guidelines. If your organization already has communication policies, of course, you should adhere to them. (I have found many companies have good communication guidelines, but unless your boss follows them and expects others to, your team probably ignores them.)

Creating these guidelines should be a group project with the goal of obtaining as much consensus as possible. You will want to make it clear that the team's "rules of the road" supersede individual preferences. For example, if Dan prefers instant messaging, he still needs to respond to emails, unless your group decides to eliminate them altogether. Of course, your team could come up with its guidelines without listing individual preferences. But I find it helpful to know what people like first.

Your team's guidelines should be simple, such as:
• General project updates should be posted in a collaboration site rather than emailed.
• Team members should use "Do Not Disturb", "On Deadline," or similar status updates to indicate when they do not want to be interrupted. Other team members should make every effort to respect these requests.
• Team members are expected to respond to emails from other team members by close of day (or early the next day for emails sent late in the day).
• Avoid routinely sending emails that just say "thanks" - it's understood.

Don't get too carried away with the guidelines. You can also include more general advice, such as these email rules from Google's Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg.

Unfortunately, a lot of bosses are not great communicators, which might make it challenging to raise this issue. Focus on the productivity benefits. If you think your discussion will get too heated or political, ask if you can bring in a facilitator.

The important thing is for you and your team to stop making assumptions. Post your team's communication guidelines and individual preferences. Tweak them regularly. Reducing the barriers to effective communication will ease frustration and make your team more productive.