The Best Way to Communicate in the Workplace

Find out the best ways to communicate in the 21st century workplace.

January 12, 2009, 12:19 PM

Jan. 21, 2009 -- Today's wireless world offers an endless array communication choices, giving businesses and individuals a myriad of efficient options to keep in touch with the rest of the world. But in many cases, the proliferation of choices has also blurred the rules of professional protocol.

Check out this scenario:

Kylie is stuck in traffic, running late for a meeting with her supervisor, Danielle. Danielle is a pretty mellow boss, only a few years older than Kylie, but she is strict about the importance of being on time.

Should Kylie:

a) call Danielle's office phone

b) call Danielle's cell phone

c) text Danielle

d) send Danielle an e-mail from her iPhone

Twenty years ago, the only possible answer to this questions would have been "a." There were few cell phones, text messages or e-mails, so professional protocol was clear.

But what about today? What is the right way to communicate when we have so many choices?

The answer is not simple. Because there are so many options, the way you choose to communicate at work has now become as important as what you say when you communicate. While you could see this as a challenge adding more complication to a job or internship, I suggest you consider this a great opportunity. Every time you make a savvy communication decision you are building a stronger professional reputation.

The best way to make decisions about how to communicate in various situations with various people is to ask this question:

How would this person want to receive this information?

That's it. Communication is first and foremost about the other person. It's not about what would be easiest, fastest or least scary for you. If you want to get ahead at work, communicate whatever way the other person wants to be communicated with.

Remember that "u" comes before "i" in the word "communicate." If you want your message to be received, the best thing you can do is to present it in a way that the listener wants to hear it.

Let's go back to the example of Kylie and Danielle. The first thing Kylie should ask herself is, "How would Danielle want me to communicate that I'm running late?"

While you may not know the exact answer in every situation, you can make some assumptions based on your knowledge. Is Danielle always on the phone so most calls go right to voicemail? Does she obsessively check her BlackBerry? Has Kylie ever texted Danielle? Knowing this information, Kylie can choose the fastest way to tell Danielle that she's running late.

Ask Others How They Prefer to Communicate

What if you don't know how someone likes to communicate? My answer to this question is pretty radical: go ahead and ask people how they like to communicate. In particular, be sure to ask this question to your boss. All you need to say is, "Since there are so many ways to communicate, I wanted to ask you what you most prefer when I need to give you urgent information -- e-mail? Text message? IM? Voice mail?"

You'll probably be the first person ever to ask your boss this question, and even if he or she doesn't know how to answer, you'll get points for being proactive. You'll also avoid irritating your boss unknowingly, which is something that happened to me in a job early in my career.

I thought my boss would like it if I cc'ed her on every e-mail I sent so that she would be in the loop on everything. Well, it turns out this boss hated to have an overloaded e-mail inbox.

One day she came up behind me in my cubicle and tapped on my shoulder, completely freaking me out. "Lindsey," she said, "can you puh-leeze stop cc-ing me on every e-mail? You are driving me crazy! I trust you! Just send your e-mails and tell me if there's anything I need to know!"


Of course some bosses will not be so forthright and will seethe silently instead. This is why you need to ask how your boss wants you to communicate.

You can use this same tactic with colleagues, clients, vendors, professors or anyone else you'll be working with on a regular basis. All you need to say is, "Since we'll be working together a lot, I wanted to ask the best way to communicate with you."

If your questions don't give you the information you need or you're communicating with someone you don't feel comfortable asking about their preferences, there are other ways to determine what the person would want:

Pay attention to how people communicate with you. In many cases, you can take your communicate cues from other people, particularly when you're responding to a request. If the design department e-mails you a question, e-mail back the answer. If a client texts you that she needs to cancel your sales call, then text her back. If the CEO's assistant leaves you a voicemail message, then call him back.

Rules of Communication

When in doubt, pick up the phone or walk over. If you have something complicated to explain, if you have a super-urgent message to deliver, if you get the sense someone is annoyed at you or if you are annoyed at someone, your best bet is to talk one-on-one. Not to mention the fact that it's often safer not to put certain things -- your social security number, how your CEO looked like an idiot on CNBC, where you keep the key to the petty cash box -- in writing.

Pay attention to the culture of your organization. At some companies, IMs fly around all day. At others, IM is banned. Some companies spread their most important company-wide information by voicemail, as painful as that is for young professionals who find it inefficient. Whatever the case, one way to determine how to communicate is to observe people you respect in your company and follow their lead.

Don't shy away from face-to-face interaction. If you've grown up in front of a computer screen, it's likely that's your most comfortable way to communicate. However, when it comes to business -- and life, really -- nothing will ever replace talking to another human being face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball. The more you can have such interactions, the deeper the relationships you will create. Yes, this is more important if you work as a salesperson rather than a computer programmer, but face time is important in every industry.

I'm not suggesting you drop by the VP's office unannounced, but a colleague's cubicle? Absolutely. According to a 2008 ComputerWorld Yahoo Hot Jobs survey of young professional employees, two-thirds of respondents selected in-person conversations with their co-workers as their preferred communication method.