Whether you have a small group housed in one central office or numerous employees scattered across the country, how can you communicate effectively with your team? To answer this question we asked two business owners in vastly different fields to break down their communication strategies.
They gave us a look at what makes a good leader, how to keep a meeting on task, and the best ways to engage employees one-on-one. Whether it’s to catch someone up to speed on a project or just delegate responsibilities, these communication skills are invaluable in the workplace.
Chris Costello oversees 15 people at his company, CBG Benefits, a full-service employee benefits brokerage firm. His team helps small businesses navigate the world of healthcare policies and wellness programs. While all of the employees work under one roof in an office near Boston, many CBG employees also travel to visit various clients.
Reid Warner is the co-founder of SnapKnot, an online service that connects couples with the right wedding photographer. Of the four employees that work for this virtual company, two are on the East Coast and two are on the West Coast.
Costello and Warner each have a unique business makeup and purpose, but there are a lot of similarities in the way they communicate with their teams.
Find a leader
Communication starts with a team leader. You need someone who can take charge, stay organized and speak to a crowd. You’ll also want to find someone who your employees respect. In smaller companies, it’s usually the owner. In larger companies, there may be several people in various departments who possess the qualities of team leaders. Employees will model their communication skills after those in charge, so make sure your team leaders take this role seriously.
Determine the information flow
You want everyone on your team to be informed of what projects and goals your departments have, but if every employee attends every meeting, you won’t get much accomplished. Have your team leader sit down and figure out which employees need to be present. It’s a good idea to review these expectations frequently, since as new projects emerge, the expertise of other coworkers may become necessary.
Prepare for the meeting
There are times when impromptu meetings are necessary, but for the most part, team leaders should create an agenda or an outline for every meeting. Remember, you want to maximize your time at work. To do so, Costello uses two apps to keep his meeting notes organized:
- Evernote. This app allows you to create notes and save website links.
- Wunderlist. This app allows you to create to-do lists.
He references these apps when creating an outline for upcoming meetings. It’s also helpful to store your information on the cloud so you can access it from a number of different devices. One of the worst wastes of time is holding your employees in a room while IT personnel struggle to get your presentation up on the screen.
Host a meeting
Once you’ve decided who should attend, set a time for the meeting. At CBG Benefits, the meetings are held in-house. However, on any given day some team members are on the road meeting with clients. To accommodate those who can’t make the meeting in person, Costello uses a presentation tool.
By using BrainShark, Costello can record the meeting and add PowerPoint slides to create a full presentation. Employees can watch it online at their leisure. Plus, Costello can track statistics like who watched the presentation and for how long.
For Warner, his team is all over the U.S., so he uses conferencing tools to make meetings happen. Warner uses Skype, a video meeting service, to update everyone on current projects. With Skype, he can also instant message individuals or a group and share screens to increase productivity. GoToMeeting is another popular conference tool.
Keep meetings on point
The more people you have in a meeting, the more likely it is to get derailed. Your team leader should use the meeting agenda to keep everyone on point. If someone starts to stray, suggest discussing that particular topic one-on-one after the meeting, or offer to schedule another meeting to focus on that topic You want to make good use of your time, so don’t be afraid to politely rein in any conversation that strays too far from the agenda.
Promote efficient communication
To keep a team in sync, you need to create a culture that facilitates constructive communication. Creating this environment might seem insignificant, but employee morale plays a major role in how your business functions. When employees are engaged and happy, they’ll communicate more and take a more active interest in the company’s overall goals. Here are a few ways to create a communication-rich environment:
Maintain an open door policy
As part of this culture, your team leaders should have an open door policy. Employees should be able to reach out to their peers and managers with ease. When people feel as though they can express their opinions and ideas freely, they’re more likely to contribute, Warner says.
Remember meeting etiquette
During a meeting, ideas should never be shot down, opinions shouldn’t be outright dismissed and concerns shouldn’t be shrugged off. You want everyone to feel as though they can contribute. Remember, as a team lead, you always have the power to table a discussion for a later, more appropriate time.
Effective communication hinges on a give and take relationship. When someone else is speaking, you have to actively listen to that person to be able contribute to the conversation intelligently. To improve your listening skills, try jotting down a few notes while someone is speaking.
In an effort to keep the lines of communication open at CBG Benefits, Costello sends out surveys. He asks his employees to provide feedback about his management team. Costello says employees are more likely to honestly fill out a quick survey than they are to voice a concern in person.
Sharpen your email skills
Meetings aren’t the only way to communicate with your team; email is a communication lifeline for many businesses. However, there are a few common problems that can muddle your communication. Give your team a few email tips:
Avoid email purgatory
If your colleagues let emails collect like dust bunnies under a cubicle, you’ve got a problem. Emails can get stuck in a virtual purgatory, just waiting to move on. It’s vital to respond to emails quickly, but when the email requires some serious attention, you might not have time to answer immediately. However, you should send an “I got it” email, letting the person on the other end know that you’re aware of their email and will tend to it ASAP. Remember, if you don’t have the time to email, a quick phone call can also be an easy alternative.
Be clear and concise
Whether you’re sending emails or responding to them, make sure the purpose of the email is clear. Use bulleted lists to keep thoughts organized, include a specific deadline and reference any materials that are attached to the email.
Use tools to share information
Whether you’re sharing documents that need revisions or photos that need uploading to a website, pick one or two tools that your entire team can use to accommodate these efforts. For instance, Warner uses Google Docs with his team, which allows everyone to access folders of information. Etherpad is another similar tool.
Pick up the phone
Somewhere along the way, emails took over the business world. While emails are a vital piece to the communication puzzle, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone or walk to your coworker’s cubicle if you want to get something taken care of quickly. It can also be helpful to use email and phone calls in tandem, carrying out the bulk of the conversation over the phone and firing off a quick summary email after the fact. It’s always good to have a written record.
Without a little downtime, regular communication can lose its bite. Consider a company barbeque or organize a happy hour after work. If your team members can build relationships, they’re more likely to collaborate. Plus, little gatherings like this can be stress relievers, which can also improve communication.
Use technology to your advantage
Costello and Warner mentioned a few tools that they use like Google Docs and Brainshark, but there is a wide variety of tools available that can improve communication within your company. Here are a few others to consider:
- BookFresh. A calendar app that makes scheduling appointments easy.
- Office Chat. An app that allows you to instant message coworkers and hold virtual meetings.
- Basecamp. A tool that allows you to share documents and manage projects.
- GlobaFone. A site that facilitates international calls.
- Yammer. An online alternative to water cooler talk. It’s like an internal social media site.
- 15Five. A system where employees can write and submit reports and stay in contact with those who review them.
Everyone knows that clear communication is vital to the success of a company, but it is something you consciously have to work at. In a deadline-crazed world, solid communication skills sometimes fall off of the priority list. However, with the tips above you should be able to refine your team’s communication skills and keep everyone happy and in the loop.
Do you have another tip to improve communication? Share it in the comment section below.