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How Your HR Can Benefit From Informal Communication

14 Jun 2021

four people talking and laughing

Informal communication is no longer a forgotten art. It is in fact an excellent business technique used in many workplaces. The following article will look at how your HR can benefit from informal communication, the types of informal communication, how informal communication methods benefit your business, and how it can be used to the best effect.

What is Informal Communication?

The dictionary definition of informal communication refers to unofficial or casual communication between team members, or between worker and employer. Informal communication avoids the usual office channels, which tend to be organised, formal, and planned out in detail. On the other hand, formal communication utilises company policies, rules, government regulations and the chain of command, such as supervisor to manager.

One key characteristic of informal communication is the uncertainty surrounding the channel of communication, and the wooliness governing when the communication began and ended. Colloquially, this is referred to as ‘hearing something on the grapevine’ and is an expression we all use. 

Any workplace will have its social circles, and co-workers are known to discuss things online, over the phone, and at the water cooler. These relationships form outside of the workplace and help to blur the line between business relationships and personal relationships. 

The office ‘grapevine’ as it’s known, is a form of communication that we are all familiar with, so it works well with all types of people. The phrase comes from the American Civil War days, where telegraph wires were strung through trees in a way that made them look like a grapevine. Sharing information through the grapevine communication is social, personal, and unofficial. However, don’t discredit it as a means of business communication.

Telegraph grapevine messages were often confusing, disorganised, and incorrect, but a lot of this was down to technology and sound quality. You won’t have this problem with your office grapevine!

One form of communication that will always be a part of your business is informal communication between your workers and senior staff. The only approach to take here is to find ways of managing it, at minimum, or better yet, find ways to use your office grapevine for business communication.

Informal communication can sometimes be more efficient and quicker than formal communication. Used in conjunction with official channels, the grapevine can supplement and enhance your formal business communications. 

Some examples of informal communication include:

  • Two co-workers discussing a new company policy at the water cooler, or in the staff room.
  • A senior member of staff verbally reprimanding a junior member of staff.
  • A co-worker telling someone from a different department about a change of manager.
  • Two co-workers discussing rumours of a pay cut.
  • Several co-workers discussing one person’s pay rise on social media.

Informal communication occurs whether you like it or not, but you can utilise it for your own means, and, as a form of communication between co-workers and managers, it’s completely free. It will also support your usual formal channels of communication and the grapevine tends to get the word around much quicker, too. 

Types of Informal Communication

With different levels of informal communication flows, it can seem overwhelming, trying to figure out how to use the grapevine to the best effect. However, we take you through all the major types below.

  • Single Strand Chain: informal communication shared through a single strand chain follows a linear route from colleague to colleague. Person A shares the information with Person B, who shares it with Person C, and so on. Single strand chains can be very long, and the longer the chain, the higher the likelihood of misinformation and errors there is. Single strand chains are a lot like the old game of Chinese Whispers, and it only takes one person to distort the information enough to cause inaccuracies. However, single strand chains can still be utilised successfully for business communication.
  • Gossip Chain: a gossip chain begins with one central figure, perhaps the office gossip, or maybe even a member of your senior staff. Gossip chains look like daisies, with your instigator as the core of the flower, and everyone they pass information to as a petal around them. The petals are not necessarily linked, so Person A, where the chain originated, is responsible for a fast and wide-ranging spread of information. If you can pinpoint who your office gossip is you can utilise them as a fast method of getting the news out.
  • Probability Chain: when information passes through the probability chain, it’s a scattered passage from one person to any other person or persons. For example, if Person A tells Person B, and then Person B tells Person C and D, but then Person D tells no one, and Person C tells Persons F and G. Person E is left entirely out of the loop, but everyone else received the information. Probability chains look the most like grapevines.
  • Cluster Chain: similar to probability chains, cluster chains look very similar to actual grapevines. However, unlike probability chains, cluster chains revolve around closer, inner circle relationships. The passage of informal communication travels through small groups of closer contacts in clusters. 

In any work environment, people spend a lot of time working alongside each other. These co-workers are likely to form long-lasting relationships and chat about things revolving around both work, and their personal lives. 

It is understandable that this grapevine connection between your employees could spell disaster. However, the first step to preventing a catastrophe is understanding your grapevine and learning how best to manage it. 

Promoting social connections between your employees is beneficial because you can then use your grapevine to quickly share information throughout your workforce. It also allows you to track clusters, centres of flowers, and other key personnel who tend to be at the heart of any informal communication spreading rapidly. 

All the types of informal communication can be utilised for business communications, and with your regular formal communications running alongside, the information you need to communicate will reach your workers’ ears quickly.

What are the benefits of informal communication?

There are many advantages of informal communication, such as:

  • Promoting social relations between co-workers: the better the relationship between your co-workers, the easier your life will be. If your staff work together well, the atmosphere in the workplace is better, and your team are happier. This leads to higher productivity and lower staff turnover. 
  • Fast flow of information: using the grapevine is often quicker than using formal channels, and informal communication can quickly get information throughout your workforce. This can be used to significant effect in emergencies or when you have important news to share.
  • Breeding ground for new ideas: if your staff can express their feelings and opinions freely, they are more likely to come up with ideas for the company or within their individual roles. The freedom of expression the grapevine provides encourages creative freedom.
  • Improves relationship between workers and employers: if senior staff use the grapevine, it builds more of a rapport between them and their bosses. Closer bonds between bosses and workers improve office productivity and create a much friendlier atmosphere. Workers who like and are treated well by their senior staff are more productive and have increased loyalty to their company.
  • Makes it easier for managers to monitor employee reactions: another benefit of informal communication is that it makes it easier for senior staff to keep an eye on potential conflict or unwanted opinions amongst the workforce.
  • Creates a freer atmosphere for information to be received in: an unpressurised, informal space to process news and information leads to less conflict. This creates a freer atmosphere for information to spread and for you to monitor reactions.
  • Functions as an outlet of expression: when you have to break bad news, it’s essential that your workers have a safe space to vent their frustrations and complain amongst themselves. The office grapevine is the perfect place for this, as all your workers may be in the same boat, and therefore discussing the issue together can help some of the tension simmer off and keep it out of the workplace.

Just as there are benefits to informal communication, there are also disadvantages. Some of the disadvantages to informal communication include:

  • Hard to control: the grapevine is difficult to control, and once things get out of hand, it’s hard to get them back. You have no control over how fast or how far the information spreads, and you can’t control the inaccuracies or emotional reactions that will inevitably occur as a result.
  • Inaccuracies: sharing information via informal communication leads to inaccuracies and false information. You also run the risk of ending up with dramatised versions of events or news, instead of truthful and realistic interpretations. 
  • Issues locating culprits: because the grapevine is hard to track, it can be almost impossible to locate the instigator of false or malicious rumours. This could create conflict in the workplace, or even divide your workforce. Locating the person responsible for this could be crucial, and you may find it difficult to do this.

How can informal communication be effectively used?

You can utilise informal communication by using it in conjunction with your formal channels of communication. It helps to understand the patterns that informal communication travels through, so teaching yourself the types of informal communication mentioned earlier on will really help.

You’ll also want to keep an eye on your office grapevine and participate in it yourself. You’ll get to know the staff who share the most information, and this can then be utilised to get news to your workforce more quickly. Spending time getting to know your crew will give you insight into any clusters that may become an issue or close-knit groups that are likely to share information more often and more quickly.

Understanding your clusters will also help you spot any groups that are likely to disagree or where conflict is likely to arise. It can also help you spot bullying or any discrimination amongst your workforce.

If you are an active participant in your office grapevine, you will also be in a great position to counteract rumours, as well as simply knowing what your workers believe. You can keep an eye on things and add further information or counter-information as and when you see fit.

Another great way to carefully manage your informal communication network is to encourage a friendly, inclusive atmosphere in the workplace in general. This could include clear policies for whistleblowing, discrimination, or conflict between workers and friendlier senior staff. Involving your workers in decision-making where you can, is also a good idea.

Providing your staff with a physical space to socialise is also beneficial and helps encourage informal communication. Happier staff are less likely to spread rumours and cause conflict, so consider offering your team a comfortable break room and a social media space, such as a What’s App group, Facebook group, or recreational Slack channel.

As a manager, one of the best things you can do to manage informal communications is accept that the office grapevine exists. Trying to deny there is any gossip or rumour-spreading in your office only leads to issues that go undealt with and more conflict than is necessary in the workplace.

Try discussing the grapevine with your senior staff at regular meetings, and make it clear that you’d like your team to participate and monitor it.

Conclusion

Informal communication can be a minefield, but a carefully managed office grapevine can also be used to significant effect. Any of the four types of informal communication offer both pitfalls and benefits, but either way, you can’t avoid the presence of the informal communication system in any workplace. Some of the office grapevine benefits include a fast flow of information and higher productivity in staff. However, one of the disadvantages is the potential for inaccuracies in information as it’s being passed amongst your workers. Whatever you do with your informal communications, remember that it works better in conjunction with your formal communications.

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