Repairing the Downed Lines of Workplace Communications

Author Nick Morgan

Communication between co-workers, or between supervisor and employee, or mentor and pupil shouldn’t be difficult. But it is. Take it from Nick Morgan, who is considered a top communications coach and thinker. The author of “Can You Hear Me? How to Connect With People in a Virtual World” is chock full of nuggets to improve workplace communications. Workforce Editorial Director Rick Bell caught up with Morgan via email.

Workforce: We have email. We have Slack and Skype. Recruiters commonly text job candidates. We still even have landlines. Yet you seem to make the argument that workplace communications is almost beyond repair. Is it so broken that it can’t be fixed?

Nick Morgan: It can be fixed, if we learn a new language and commit to clarity in that language. We need to learn how to more clearly tell each other what we are intending with our communications, what we think we’re hearing back from the people we’re communicating with, and how that affects us. We need to do this because that information is normally communicated via body language, and it’s body language that’s missing from digital communications.

Workforce: Does the answer lie in more technology?

Morgan: Not at all. The answer lies in better expressing, in many small, nontechnical ways, how we are feeling, how we’re receiving what other people are telling us, and in general what our intent is in the workplace.

Workforce: What are we doing well in terms of communicating at work?

Morgan: We are handling an ever-increasing amount of communications by skimming. We have become a world of expert skimmers.

Workforce: Give me two ways to improve workplace communications.

Morgan: 1. At the beginning and end of every virtual meeting, ask participants: “How are you doing right now, green, yellow or red?” (like a stoplight), where green is great, yellow is OK, but a little stressed, and red is disaster.

  1. On the header of every email, every Slack, every text-based communication, put a simple, complete sentence telling the reader what’s in it. For example, “Here are three ideas to improve the budget process this year.”

Workforce: In your book you ask the question, “How can we build connection — and make it last — online?” Is there a short answer for that?

Morgan: Yes, consistency. To connect with other people in the narrow “pipe” of virtual communications, you need to make sure that all your communications are completely consistent, in tone, in value, in ethics, in humor — consistent. At the first sign of inconsistency, the other person will break the connection. That’s simply how online connections work. They are more fragile and easily broken. So, consistency.

Workforce: How do managers improve in-person staff meetings?

Morgan: Three quick ways (there are more in the book): 1. Have an agenda. 2. Have a check-in code at the beginning and end of every meeting. It can be a stop light code, a scale of 1-5, or your own code. 3. Start and end on time. These are perhaps obvious, but people don’t do them.

Workforce: Conference calls and video conferencing allow us to connect globally. So why are these virtual meetings dreaded in most workplaces?

Morgan: Because the nature of virtual calls strips out the body language that we humans have evolved in order to understand each other. As a result, we don’t get all that interesting information, and the result is boredom and misunderstanding.

Workforce: How can we improve virtual calls?

Morgan: Many ways in the book. Here’s one: add an emcee, someone who takes care of the emotional state of the participants by checking in with them, asking them regularly what they think, finding out why they’ve gone silent and ensuring their participation. Here’s another: keep them short.

Workforce: What’s your favorite communication device, tool or app?

Morgan: Zoom. While not perfect, videoconferencing is better than audio and much better than text-based virtual communication.

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