For more effective workplace communication, just add context

illustration of team members problem solving with contextual communication

The average Slack user sends 70 messages per day. The average office worker sends and receives over 120 emails per day. Too often, being an effective communicator comes at the cost of significant time and productivity.

But what if you could find a way to cut down the volume, get answers faster, and keep that pesky knock brush at bay?

The answer is more context, and less content. The best machine learning tools have already worked this out. In an essay titled, “Context is Everything,” Andrew Dobson, Technical Director at Wolff Olins, writes of an experience with AI messaging.

“I was delighted on a recent trip to Slovenia, when my Android phone’s interface automatically placed a translation window on my home screen with the Slovene for ‘good morning’ pre-populated. It did this on the basis of my location, knowing that English was my native language and the time of day where I was, without my asking.”

Even simple context can make communication more personal, more relevant, and more actionable. But unfortunately, too much of workplace communication exists without context. A message ping arrives out of the blue, and it takes time to work out what the person needs and what next steps to take. Hence, endless threads and back-and-forth.

The more context that is created around conversations at work, the easier it is to get things done.

The more context that is created around conversations at work, the easier it is to get things done. Click To Tweet

Context brings clarity, reduces uncertainty

How do we create productive, contextual and effective communication? By reducing uncertainty.

Organizations, especially in the early or growth stages, are in a constant state of flux. Karl Weick’s Organizational Information Theory is based around this idea. According to Weick, the “dynamic, information-rich environments” of workplaces lead to high levels of messaging equivocality, or uncertainty.

Weick suggests that organizations can mitigate uncertainty through the following steps:

  1. Enactment – identify a situation and possible ways to respond
  2. Selection – evaluate available information and determine the best path for obtaining the remaining information
  3. Retention – decide what information is useful and how it will be retained for future use

To apply this framework to business communication, think of it this way:

  1. Identify and classify – a problem or situation has arisen that requires you to reach out to someone. Articulate the problem in writing, and classify it on a scale of urgency.
  2. Choose a channel – you’ve determined that you do in fact need to talk to someone. How do you go about doing that? What channel has the most context?
  3. Archive, repeat – based on the effectiveness of the communication (were you able to solve the problem?), you turn that method into process.

Effective workplace communication inevitably lowers the volume of messaging and siphons unnecessary chatter to happy hour. When you’re always thinking about reducing uncertainty, you’ll communicate more clearly and effectively.

Of course, we can only apply this framework to what we can control, and that’s mostly outbound communication. But if your whole team adopts the method, communication will improve productivity for all. Let’s look at the steps in action.

Identify and classify

First, you need to identify the problem, how urgent it is, and what kind of communication it needs.

Start by looking at the problem where it exists. Here’s an example. A copywriter at a SaaS company is writing a landing page for a business product, and is collaborating with a designer on the project. The teammates discussed the design initially, but now the copywriter has written about 50% of the page, and revisiting the initial plan, sees an error she wants to correct.

The page is due Friday, and it’s now Monday. What should the copywriter do?

First, consider urgency. A simple stoplight will do the trick:
evaluating urgency with stoplight assessment

This scenario is urgent due to timing, though it’s not a crisis. The copywriter needs to reach out to the designer right away in order for both to make immediate changes and reach the deadline.

  • Other examples of red scenarios might be a crisis with a client who’s unhappy with recent work, or a request from the company founder for a file that will be used in a presentation later that day.
  • A yellow scenario might be related to a task you’ve built time for later in the week. Since it doesn’t need immediate attention, you can snooze it for later.
  • Green scenarios are just that — evergreen and untimely, but still important. An example of a green message might be a discussion around revamping an internal production process. This can always be pushed down the list of priorities.

Now the problem is classified. But what will the message say? Just like the copywriter, the designer is also working on other projects and has limited resources. The copywriter needs to articulate the problem succinctly and clearly so they can solve it as soon as possible.

Most work messages are written communications, so it helps to start by writing things down. The copywriter’s first note-to-self might look like this:

On the page (due this upcoming Friday), highlighted features include Guided Onboarding, Add Unlimited Team Members, and Integrates with All Your Favorite Apps, but we’ve consulted with the Growth Team, and test subjects don’t know what “onboarding” is, so we’ve changed it to “Hands-on Customer Support.” The copy is now reflective of general helpfulness rather than getting started. We need design that reflects this, too.

This is rather long and wordy. When the copywriter has the task list for the landing page in front of her, most of the stuff she’s written is already explained visually. The context is already present, so she doesn’t have to explain so much.

An edited version might look like this:

Business Landing Page changes
Replacing “Guided Onboarding” with “Hands-on Customer support”
Need to replace current icons
due Friday!

Now that the notes are clear and actionable to the copywriter, she needs to make sure that the message can give the designer everything he needs as well. She needs to make sure she doesn’t lose the context in her communication to him. Sharpening the message is the first step to reducing uncertainty, but the channel matters just as much.

Choose a channel

Communication channels can aid in reducing uncertainty, adding clarity, and providing further context to a message. Selecting the most efficient communication method ensures better time management, making it easier to have short, quippy conversations that lead to action.

In the digital age, we have almost too many ways to get in touch with co-workers, which can lead to choosing the wrong channel. In the worst cases, this results in timely messages getting lost, people getting interrupted, long chat threads, or inadequate or incorrect information exchanged.

Here, we’ve mapped out some common communication channels on a matrix. The x-axis represents how much knowledge you can convey in a certain channel, and the y represents how instantly the recipient will receive the message and be able to take action.

communication methods plotted on graph with immediate x axis and informative y axis
made with Gliffy

A brief summary of each point on the graph and the proper context for each:

  • Chat apps – instantaneous & short-form; provides the context of a social relationship – good for status updates, work emergencies, and casual check-ins
  • Email – more formal and structured; provides the context of a history of communications – good for external communications and for conversations you want to keep a record of
  • Cloud documents – one arena where work gets done; good for commenting on work itself, if the problems are granular
  • Databases – another arena where work gets done; stores rich and varied groupings of information; – good for nonverbal, action-based communications
  • Face-to-face meetings – the format with the most context because it’s easier to convey an idea in person, with body language, facial expressions, eye contact, and the work in front of you; good for finding mutual understanding and learning new information, if you have time to schedule and execute
  • Project management software – organizes tasks visually and verbally; provides the context of how projects and teams are organized and the processes by which they get things done; good for conversations around process, strategy, and individual tasks

By checking your message against this list, you can see where you might be able to make your point most effectively.

Let’s revisit the business landing page, the copywriter, and the designer. The message refers to a change in a single task within a larger project. It helps to have both the copywriter’s and the designer’s to-do list in sight. Therefore, project management software provides the best context. Here’s what the tasklist looks like in Redbooth:
redbooth tasklist shows effective workplace communication around a task assigned to multiple people
In this view, the designer can easily see the change that has been made and any notes about it. It’s not necessary to include recaps of what’s been done or explanations of how the change of plan fits into the overall project. Since that information is organized visually, the messaging can be short and sweet.

You can also mix and match communication channels. If email is too slow for notifications, you can integrate Redbooth and Slack so that people will be notified instantly of changes, and can click through to see the details.
slack integration into redbooth creates effective workplace communication with immediate notifications on task updates

With so much context around the changes, in this case, the messaging is only for confirmation and approval. The loop is closed, the deadline is set, and everyone has the information they need.

Archive, repeat

Once you’ve found a method that works for certain types of message, the next natural step is to turn that communication into a process that’s repeatable and scalable.

An easy way to do this is simply create a Communication section in your internal documentation (if you don’t already have one) and then reinforce it in action. For instance, the doc might say:

We use Redbooth for our production pipeline — Any questions about workflow should be conducted there.

Everyone on the team should enforce these standards. If a team member pings you about a task on Slack, simply say, “Let’s move this to Redbooth.”As people grow more comfortable with this communication strategy, it becomes general practice that everyone follows.

Like every aspect of a business, communication skills can be optimized. Click To Tweet
Like every aspect of a business, communication skills can be optimized. Occasionally, the effectiveness of communication should be evaluated on a qualitative and quantitative basis. Qualitative evaluations can take place in the form of an employee survey where you ask for feedback on communication and channels. For quantitative factors, you can assess the impact of a change in communication on overall team productivity and job performance. For instance, did the number of missed deadlines go down when you started using a project management tool?

When you establish a communications process, individual contributors can perform tactically, sending out messages in the predetermined channels. Each message will also be easier to find when it’s placed in the proper context, having found its place among the problems it seeks to solve.

Signing off

Putting communication in context contributes to the overall sense of law and order at a company. Problems and their corresponding solutions become much clearer. And when a problem is addressed in context, there’s no need to run around frantically trying to respond to everything.

The better you communicate internally (and the faster you nail down a process for determining communication paths), the better you’ll be able to determine the best mode of external communication — whether that’s communicating with current clients, reaching out to new leads, or marketing to potential customers.