Get talking: How to communicate with – and engage – your team

Small businesses can benefit from effective communication in so many ways. When the right hand is talking to the left, processes run smoothly and there’s less risk of anything falling through the cracks.

In addition, good communication can improve relationships between colleagues, maintain transparency in the workplace, and boost morale. It can also foster innovation, says Jeremy Scrivens, founder of The Emotional Economy.

“In order to innovate – to focus on continuous improvement – we need to collaborate,” he explains. “At the heart of a collaborative culture, you see a highly engaged workforce. This is where everyone feels they can make an equal contribution and are open to sharing their ideas.”

To encourage your team to collaborate, Scrivens believes it’s important to have a communication strategy in place. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” he admits, adding that the objective of your message will determine the approach you take. Do you want to distribute schedule changes to employees, or let them know about urgent client or supplier issues? Perhaps your goal is to provide project status updates to certain team members, or deliver feedback on recent work? "You need to understand why you’re communicating, then go away and look at the tools that are available to help you achieve that purpose,” says Scrivens.

Traditional communication: print or face-to-face

According to business communication specialist Lorri Lennon, there are three key channels for sending information: print, face-to-face and electronic. “Each of these channels serves a very different purpose," she says.

The first option, print, is critical for building comprehension, Lennon explains. “Research shows that when people are learning a new software program, for example, they rely primarily on the printed format," she says. "So anything that we need to learn or understand should be print-based.”

Print communication is also ideal when team members can't always meet in person. In such cases, information can be conveyed in shift reports or on a communal noticeboard. Similarly, a communications book can be used to record recent events – such as customer queries and complaints. They're also a good place to note upcoming absences or special requests.

A communications book can be beneficial when team members can't meet in person.

A communications book can be beneficial when team members can't meet in person.

The second channel, face-to-face, should be put to use when you need to change behaviour. “It’s a waste of time choosing any kind of online or print format if you think you're going to shift employee mindset,” says Lennon. “If you want something like customer service or productivity to improve, your message has to be conveyed face-to-face. When communicating online or via print, I can't check you've understood my intent. I've got to be able to look you in the eye and read your body language."

For this reason, face-to-face catch-ups are also effective when either an employer or employee needs to communicate sensitive information, such as personal issues or suggestions for the business.

Ashley Benson, owner of Melbourne cafe Local Folk, uses a combination of print and face-to-face strategies to keep in touch with his team. "We normally have fortnightly meetings with the kitchen and front-of-house staff," he says. "Rosters or group messages are sent out via text, because it can be hard to get everyone in a room at the same time. We’ve also got a management diary and a handover book – and if anything urgent comes up when I’m not around, I get a phone call or the manager deals with it directly."

The launch of new menu items also presents an opportunity to bring his team together, Benson continues. "We close the cafe at night and give the team a run-down of the new menu and the chance to sample the dishes," he says. "It’s a night off from regular work and we usually get 75 per cent of the team attending."

Online communication tools: emails to apps

Lennon explains that the third communication channel, online, is ideal for starting a discussion amongst your team. "If you’re working electronically, particularly online, people will only scan the information," she says. "So online communication is really just about building awareness.”

If this is your intention, emails are an obvious place to start. Otherwise, instant-messaging apps such as Slack and HipChat can be used for casual conversations and brief updates. Going one step further, online project management tools like Trello help team members stay in touch while also tracking their workload.

Even if you rely primarily on these kinds of online tools, Scrivens is an advocate for the occasional face-to-face meeting. “You’ve got to bring people together at some point,” he says, adding that teams should ideally meet in person to discuss, amongst other things, which communication strategies work for them. “I'm a great believer in asking others how they prefer to work. People own what they create and take responsibility when they feel they can shape their workplace.”

Three ways to communicate

Unsure how to connect with your team? Here are three channels to choose from, according to the purpose of your message.

1. Print: To build understanding and provide a resource for employees to refer back to.

2. Face-to-face: To encourage behavioural change and discuss sensitive information.

3. Electronic: To develop awareness and start a conversation.

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