Informal Communication at Work

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Watercooler Conference by Jean, Flickr

The idea of an office “grapevine” and the notion of watercooler news exchange is not new or revolutionary. Many studies have been done about the existence of the workplace “bush telegraph” and its influence on the completion of daily tasks as well as the development of workplace culture.[1] You’ll also find reams of management advice on the topic. You can even take courses on accepting the existence of this type of communication and how to best use it to suit your needs as a manager or leader.[2]

Impromptu, unmonitored conversation (whether or not it happens by the watercooler) is included in the broad category of informal communication that happens in the workplace. It occurs on a daily basis and it’s not just the office rumor mill. It typically accounts for 70-80% of the communication that happens in a work day. This type of communication facilitates the execution of tasks, co-ordination of group activities, transmission of office culture, as well as organizing social and team-building functions.[3] You can see why, as employees increasingly use technology to bridge physical distance, the impact of this evolution on informal workplace communication is an area that warrants considerations.

What Is Informal Communication?

Informal workplace communication is identified as any kind of interaction that takes place in the workplace outside of office memos, emails, phone calls, letters, presentations, fax or any medium that is condoned or prescribed by management. In today’s workplace, this definition would be extended to include blogs, microblogs, company twitter feeds, facebook pages and other company sanctioned social media conduits.

Researchers identify informal communication as “casual interactions between colleagues.” Imagine poking your head into someone’s office to verbally confirm a piece of information, or to slightly modify a request made via email earlier that day. The interactions are brief, frequent, and essential to daily operations.[4]

Since the workplace can’t really function without this grapevine; what can employers do to nurture it as workforces become more dispersed?

Nurturing a Healthy Grapevine

If you work with people at a distance it’s important to consider whether you have anything in place to address this very necessary form of communication.  While face-to-face contact is difficult to replicate, there are various options available that aim to reproduce the connectivity of direct human interaction. Technologies like Skype, Apple’s facetime and Google’s video chat more closely imitate face-to-face contact. Video offers a level of connection that telephone calls and written communication can’t. Companies like Microsoft, Citrix and Teradici are creating cloud-based “virtual workspaces” to address the need for connectivity between remote co-workers.

As workforces become more dispersed (either working from home or living somewhere else on the planet), we can expect more new technologies to emerge that support both formal and informal communication between employees. For those technologies attempting to replace impromptu, casual interaction, it will be critical that they remain unmonitored, unscripted, and available for employees to use as needed. To ensure you’re nurturing a health grapevine in your workplace, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What systems do we have in place to enable casual communication?
  • Do we offer options that better simulate face-to-face interaction?
  • Do the systems we have in place enable unfettered, casual conversation?
  • Are our current systems physically accessible and available whenever employees need them?
  • Are the systems we have in place being used regularly?
  • Are these types of communications monitored?
  • Do our employees fear scrutiny or observation?

The prevalence of communications technology and people’s willingness to remain plugged-in makes many workplaces seem more connected than they have ever been. But research suggests that connection through email, text and telephone are not enough to support the informal communications networks that have traditionally represented as much as 80% of workplace interactions. What’s more, this informal communication is what keeps things moving, builds relationships and creates culture. Employers need to understand the importance of providing a communications environment that works for their employees—something that is as simple, confidential and unconstrained as knocking on an office door, or chatting with someone at the watercooler.


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[1] Jitendra Mishra. (1990) Excerpts from ...Managing the grapevine. Public Personnel Management.
 [3]Steve Whittaker, David Frohlich, Owen Daly-Jones (1994). Informal workplace communication: what is it like and how might we support it? SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems

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