What to know to make two-way communication at the workplace successful

Jelena Kalaba

Last updated on: May 18, 2022

A common issue that often plagues organizations, both big and small, is the underutilization of two-way communication in the workplace. 

Two-way communication is an important factor that influences trust and employee engagement within an organization. It encourages a free flow of information in both directions, and facilitates constant growth of both leaders and employees.  

The more deliberate encouragement of two-way communication within internal workplace communication systems is one of the many steps leading modern organizations in a good direction.

In this article, we explore the concept of two-way communication, the reasons why it should be considered the most important aspect of any organization, and what you can do to make it work in your company.

Two way comm - cover

What is two-way communication?

Imagine two-way communication as a tennis match. Once the ball is served, the player on the other end is meant to return it — otherwise, there’s no game. 

This continuous back and forth between two or more players is what makes the game possible, and it’s also what makes it interesting. Playing in an empty court, not allowing anyone else to participate, and expecting the audience to stay invested in the game is unrealistic, to say the least.

Communication in the workplace functions in a similar way. Talking at people, instead of talking to them causes apathy and lack of motivation in employees, which reflects in their overall engagement and job performance. Motivated, engaged, and productive employees are the ones who feel that their voice is heard — who feel that they are working with the management, and not for the management. In other words, unlike one-way communication, two-way communication encompasses both upward (from employees to managers) and downward communication (from managers to employees).

Two-way vs one-way communication

Two-way and one-way communication are two very important types of internal communication. They both have a part to play in building an open and efficient communication system in the workplace. But, to use them effectively, we must first understand the differences between them.

One-way communicationTwo-way communication
Linear — information flows from the sender to the receiver and ends there Circular — information continuously flows back and forth from the sender to the receiver
Feedback is neither necessary nor expectedFeedback is expected and encouraged
Used to transmit simple messages, orders, updates, and announcementsUsed to transmit more complex messages, brainstorm, and make arrangements
Takes less timeTakes longer
More formalLess formal
Does not improve understanding and the relationship between sender and receiverImproves understanding and the relationship between sender and receiver
Examples: group emails, newsletters, presentations, speeches, radio/TV broadcasts, memos on the notice board, etc. Examples: staff meetings, face-to-face conversations, video calls, phone calls, etc.

Reasons to improve internal two-way communication

Relying on downward communication alone won’t take your business endeavors far. After all, two-way communication encourages an upward flow of information. Here are the four main reasons why an unimpeded and transparent flow of information in both directions is good for your business.

Two-way communication prevents information overload

Consider the age we live in — phones, laptops, tablets, PCs — most people can find at least one of these devices at arms reach at any point during the day. On these devices, we are greeted with an overflowing inbox, social media notifications galore, and an endless scroll of news and click-bait articles lurking around every corner. 

It’s no coincidence that the stream of new content on any app or social media is called a feed — we are constantly being fed debatably relevant information. In our private lives, or at work, the situation is the same — especially now, with remote work becoming more popular.

To avoid being one of the numerous sources “feeding” employees irrelevant information, employers should consider personalizing their messages. 

Personalization is one of the traits of two-way communication. It encourages responsiveness and feedback by speaking directly to the employee, instead of the entire organization. Its other important usage is to prevent employees from having to waste their working hours by reading information that has nothing to do with them, because the sender couldn’t bother to address it to the right people.

Therefore, two-way communication creates a way to make relevant information more easily accessible and clearly discernible, reducing information overload in the process. 

Job satisfaction hinges on open two-way communication

Employee turnover is a costly issue for companies all across the globe, and it’s inextricably tied to job satisfaction.

It’s only logical that people who aren’t satisfied with their jobs are constantly on the lookout for new opportunities. A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management reveals that “respectful treatment of all employees at all levels” is the main factor that influences employee satisfaction. This is further supported by Gallup’s study of 7,272 U.S. adults, which points to managers as the main culprits for employees quitting their jobs. Apparently, the popular phrase “people leave managers, not companies” is true. 

The study reveals that one of the things employees value most in managers are approachability and the effort to engage in daily communication. According to our statistics, people want to feel that they are part of the team and that their contributions matter. The best way to make this possible is to communicate.

Two-way communication is a key element in establishing a fruitful work environment based on mutual trust. Not only does it prevent valuable employees from leaving, but it further boosts their performance by making them want to work, rather than have to work. 

Two-way communication leads to trust and loyalty at the workplace

According to research by Innsbruck’s University School of Management, the major drivers of employee satisfaction are trust and loyalty. The authors of the research claim that trust and loyalty have a direct influence on the quality of performance due to their positive impact on motivation and morale. However, they point out that it’s not only the trust in management that matters, but also the trust in peers, especially in more modern, team-based environments.

The main question, then, is, how do companies build that trust? Most business leaders agree that effective internal communication is the key to building a trusting work environment. That said, a staggering 91% of employees believe their managers lack good communication skills. 

Assuming that managers lead by example, this statistic implies it’s impossible to foster trust and loyalty without a democratic attitude toward internal workplace communication that comes from the top. This entails not only allowing employees to voice their opinions, but actively listening and acting on that feedback. Nothing breaks the mirage of open communication quite as effectively as a pile of employee complaints left unaddressed. 

Two-way communication drives employee engagement

There’s evidence to suggest that employee engagement leads to employee empowerment, higher retention rates, and greater profitability, among other things. It’s strongly linked to job satisfaction, and highly dependent on trust and two-way communication at work.

Free and open internal communication leads to good relationships, a lack of fear toward expressing opinions, and, therefore, to continuous constructive dialogue that propels a business to new heights. Employees who work in a mutually supportive environment tend to have a personal investment in the business. This is then reflected in their attitude toward business partners and customers, and directly influences the success and public opinion of the organization.

How to improve two-way communication in the workplace

Now that we’ve covered some of its major benefits, we’ll go about explaining how exactly to improve two-way communication in order to ensure optimal results in the workplace.

Use the right communication channels

A big part of establishing good communication is understanding your audience, i.e. your employees. A good example of this are Millennials. There is still a mix of tech-savvy and not-so-tech-savvy generations in the workforce, but Millennials currently comprise the majority of the U.S. workforce.

According to Businesswire, Millennials don’t enjoy phone calls or face-to-face communications. Instead, they mostly prefer messaging platforms (55%), with a smaller percentage (28%) choosing emails as their preferred mode of business communication. As a Millennial myself, I can attest to this.

So, instead of forcing an unwanted means of communication upon employees, it would be more effective to make communication comfortable for employees by analyzing their preferences and meeting them on their own turf. 

How internal communication software improves two-way communication

Most of us are familiar with feeling bogged down by an overflowing inbox, and the frustration of being unable to find the information we need among those emails. And it’s no wonder, considering that, according to some research, an average office employee receives 121 emails every day. Adobe has even calculated that some employees spend over five hours a day checking emails, both business and personal — which is an absurd number. 

While it’s impossible to avoid using emails in business communication, one way to circumvent these issues is to use internal communication software. Internal communication software is built to mimic regular chat apps most people use on a daily basis. As such, they encourage a more free and informal type of communication. This makes employees feel relaxed and more likely to share their thoughts and opinions with each other, fostering a healthy and unimpeded flow of information within an organization. And, unlike emails, the exchange of messages is instantaneous.

One way that Pumble, our internal communication software, encourages feedback is through the use of reaction emojis. Even if someone is short on time, or insecure about sharing their opinion in words, a simple reaction emoji can go a long way in encouraging people to express themselves.

Reacting to messages with emojis in Pumble
Reacting to messages with emojis in Pumble

💡 Still unsure whether emojis are a good idea for business communication? Check out our blog post that answers this very question

Personalize information

To better understand how to improve two-way communication by personalizing information, let’s look at an example. 

Imagine Joe. 

Joe is a department leader in an organization that mostly uses one-way communication to deliver news and updates to their staff. On a given day, about half of the emails he receives are subscription newsletters — and the rest, important contacts he needs to get back to. 

Occasionally, Joe receives an email from his boss. These emails are normally sent to all employees and hardly ever have anything remotely to do with the work he does. Joe opens email after email from his boss, and finds nothing that concerns him, so after a while, he starts mentally throwing those emails in the same “irrelevant, might open later” pile, along with his subscription newsletters. One day, Joe gets a call to his boss’ office, only to find that he was meant to attend a meeting that morning along with all the other department leaders, and he knew nothing about it because he failed to open the email. 

Looking at it from a traditionalist’s perspective, the fault lies entirely with Joe. He received an email from his superior, and his duty was to open it because there might have been something important in it. However, the focus here is “might have been”.  

Expecting employees to waste valuable time during their work hours to read emails that contain information completely unrelated to them and their work is unreasonable and unproductive. 

Taking just a few minutes to make sure the emails or channel messages in internal collaboration apps are addressed to the right people can make a big difference. It prevents other employees from being distracted by irrelevant information, ensures that the right people always receive the message, and makes the ensuing exchange of information a lot more personalized.

Tagging team members in Pumble
Tagging team members in Pumble

Practice transparency

The road to an open and trusting work environment is through communicational transparency. According to Michigan State University, the definition of transparency in communication is “the act of both good and bad information being shared upward, downward, and laterally in a way that allows all to see the why behind the words”. According to them, some of the benefits of transparent internal communication include the following:

  • Better collaboration
  • More creative innovation
  • Increased trust
  • More open communication
  • Free sharing of ideas
  • More informed workplace

By showing a willingness to be honest and transparent in their communication with employees, employers set a good example, and encourage employees to do the same. Transparency removes communication barriers and breeds healthy internal communication that flows in both directions.

Ensure leadership training

Leaders are the ones meant to set an example for the employees to follow. Problems arise when people are promoted to a leadership position without proper training and expected to do an amazing job. 

We are often told that someone is “a born leader”, but there is no such thing. Leaders learned how to lead through experience. Dave Jennings, WSJ bestselling author, and author of the book “The Pit of Success: How Leaders Adapt, Succeed and Repeat”, said it well, “You are not in your job because you have all the answers; you are in your job because you have what it takes to find the answers”.

The best way to teach leaders how to be leaders is to teach them how to take advice, how to take criticism, and when to concede and admit they are wrong. But in order to do this, the organization needs an environment where giving such constructive feedback to your superiors is encouraged. So the first thing leaders should learn is how to listen and take feedback.

Practice empathy

One of the biggest mistakes employers make is setting unrealistically high expectations for their employees, and expecting everyone to perform at their maximum capacity at all times. But each person is a unique individual with their own lives and their own chain of problems that they don’t just leave behind when they come to work. In fact, our personal lives often bleed heavily into our professional lives and inevitably affect our performance. This is something author and inspirational speaker, Simon Sinek, talks about in his speech about leadership and empathy.

Two-way communication in the workplace helps employers understand their employees. Being friends with everyone in their charge is impossible, but at least a basic level of interest and empathy toward employees is necessary to build a trusting relationship. 

Employers who know nothing about their employees are detached and tempted to look at workers as machines. On the other hand, employers who communicate with their employees might find out that someone’s child is sick, or one of their family members passed away, and show understanding if that employee’s productivity drops. This kind of show of kindness can be much more effective in building loyalty in employees than a raise can.

Provide feedback

Most managers dislike giving feedback, but feedback is an essential part of employee development, and it’s necessary to build confidence in an employee, along with a sense of direction to their work. 

However, feedback shouldn’t flow in only one direction. Instead of forming feedback as a lecture or a list of items to be improved upon, consider forming it as a constructive discussion. Good feedback is a two-way conversation — by shifting the tone and manner of the feedback, the session turns into a more pleasant experience. 

Encourage feedback

Besides the usual, top-down feedback most companies practice, any company dedicated to fostering free, and open-minded internal communication should also encourage upward feedback.

Upward feedback is a touchy topic in most companies because it asks employees to criticize their managers or bosses. Few are fearless enough to do that outside of exit interviews, if then. But that’s just it. Fear should have no place in an organization with a well-rounded internal communication system. 

In fact, one way an employer knows they’ve made two-way communication at their workplace successful is when all communication barriers are gone. In such an environment, employees are able to communicate their thoughts and ideas without fear of being judged, reprimanded, or worse yet, penalized. 

Wrapping up: Successful two-way communication is based on continuous dialogue

Building a successful internal communication system with two-way communication at its heart is not rocket science. In fact, it’s based more on basic common sense than anyone would initially think. The one difference is that employers, wrapped up in their own business endeavors, tend to forget that people who work for them are, well… people.  

What two-way communication helps employers do is get a new perspective, and all it takes is the willingness to engage in both casual and professional dialogue.

Author: JelenaKalaba

Jelena Kalaba is a bookworm and productivity nerd, constantly in search of new ways to make her daily workflow more effective. As a remote-working introvert, Jelena enjoys the freedom and flexibility of working from home, but is also intimately acquainted with the various pitfalls caused by computer-mediated communication. Driven by her love for writing and helping others, she spends her days behind the keyboard, researching the best ways to overcome communication and collaboration challenges in remote workplaces.

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