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How to Create an Internal Communication Guide to Save Time and Improve Teamwork

Have you ever been waiting on an email response only to see your colleague actively commenting on Slack threads or sending you unrelated instant messages? What about receiving a request to complete a task without any details or specifics resulting in back and forth communication that could have all been covered in an original brief?

When you rely on unspoken rules or cultural norms, misunderstandings are almost guaranteed, particularly in global teams. If guidelines aren’t formalized these constant misunderstandings can lead to simmering resentment, or at the very least, wasted time going back and forth with teammates, redoing tasks or simply trying to gather necessary information. 

In fact, a study by the author of Digital Body Language, Erica Dhawan and Quester, found that poor digital communication costs the average office worker four hours per week, with 70% of office workers experiencing some form of unclear communication from their colleagues. 

And it’s not just from their teammates, over one-third of employees are dissatisfied with how their managers communicate with them.

While some of this is to be expected when working with diverse groups of people, much of it could be bypassed by formalizing internal communication guidelines.

The value in formalizing internal communication

During our shared podcast season last year, I spoke with Pilar Orti about how “visible teamwork” can help distributed companies feel closer and more connected. She shared with me how this visibility isn’t always inherent just because you’re working in a team, but requires discussions, systems and often reliable software. 

“I’m working with the IAF England and Wales chapter (I’m part of that team) and we are at the moment agreeing on how to use our tools for visible teamwork,” she said. 

“Some people said, ‘I just want to be able to find what’s relevant to me, to my project, to my tasks.’ On the other end of the spectrum someone was saying, ‘I want to know everything because I’m very nosey.’ So we said, ‘Okay we have to design a system whereby the people who want to find only what they need can do that. All the way to the people who are curious and who are engaging on that level at the more macro level.’”

Asking these questions defined the parameters of what their communication systems needed to address.

“Being really specific about what each person needs can then help us to design that. And I think between the different tools, different mediums, and asynchronous and synchronous things, you can design something where you don’t lose anyone. Not everyone is happy all the time. But you don’t lose anyone.”

Having rules around how and where to communicate between your team may feel awkward at first. But remember that you were likely already functioning within a system of rules before these new ones were formalized — they were just unspoken. 

“You need rules to be able to play,” Pilar says. “If you have a blank canvas, you’re lost, you don’t know where to start, you don’t know who to play with.” 

When miscommunication leads to disconnection 

Pilar recalls a time when miscommunication made her feel disconnected from her team. 

“I remember I used to teach in a drama school, I was teaching six hours a week only. And so I’d come in, I’d do my stuff, and then I go back. And sometimes I’d turn up to find out that my class had been cancelled. And nobody had told me. And, of course, this is probably stuff that was circulated by pigeonholes, or word by word of mouth, or something that had been decided the day before or something,” she says.

These communication norms meant that team members like Pilar were excluded. 

“Luckily it was only a 10-minute walk from my house. But still it’s that feeling that you’re not in anyone’s thoughts,” she says, 

“You can imagine like the 21st century equivalent of the story would probably be that someone [would upload a notice onto Slack saying], ‘Hey, everyone, tomorrow, there’s not going to be a class.’ And then they don’t have to think if Pilar is coming in. They don’t have to think of who else because they can put it somewhere and then everyone has a responsibility to check and be involved in those conversations.”

There’s no chance for people to fall through the cracks or misunderstand the intention because there is a system for announcements. 

“You don’t have to always have in mind who might need to know because we’ve set a system up where those who need to know, know where to look for the information,” Pilar says. 

How to establish your own communication guide

So how exactly do you create a communication guide? What should you include? And how do you use it?

“I recommend scheduling a meeting with the sole purpose of having this norm-establishing discussion. To foster an open dialogue, frame the meeting as a group brainstorm and working session,” Erica wrote in a piece for Harvard Business Review entitled, Did You Get My Slack/Email/Text?

By involving your team you’re more likely to produce systems that will actually help them, rather than basing rules on your own assumptions. 

Erica suggests asking questions like “What’s been the most collaborative experience you’ve had [in the various communication channels you currently use]?” 

By focusing on formalizing positive experiences it won’t feel like you’re bringing in a whole new way of communicating. 

“You can be very sensitive and understand what a team or an organization might need, and see what norms are useful and formalize those and then try and discourage some of the other behaviours. The other thing is that in formalizing what kind of conversations we have, where etc, I think it can reduce that sense of ‘I don’t know where I am,’” Pilar says. 

As with everything, your specific system should reflect the needs and interests of your team. However, there are some principles that may guide you in your conversations. 

1. Find out how you’re using your current communication tools

Do you rely on email for all communication or are you mixing it up with instant messaging, public forums and video calls? Are there any current norms for when to use what, or do employees use their judgement each time? Do you have guidelines around response times/being mindful of timezones? Is information being sent across multiple platforms to ensure everyone sees public announcements?

2. Discuss previous positive and negative experiences with these tools

Do constant IM notifications make it hard for employees to switch off? Do emails often get lost in the fray? Are public notice boards like Slack being used for personal conversations? Maybe some teams use IM really well or always schedule Zoom meetings at the beginning of projects that helps the communication flow seamlessly afterwards. Make note of it all. 

3. Formalize norms that are useful for the team, encouraging more positive experiences 

Again this will be specific to your company needs.

Maybe IM discussion should only be used during designated working hours, and after that discussion should move to private Slack channels to be replied to the following day. Maybe you decide not to use email internally and instead use public Slack channels for company wide announcements and IM for direct requests. Maybe you set up rules around when emails can be sent or set company-wide standards of response timeframes so employees know they have a few days to reply to emails, whereas instant messages need a response ASAP.

These standards should be in direct response to the previous experiences, formalizing positive use while creating solutions to avoid negative ones. 

4. Share your new communication guide among your team 

Guides don’t have to be lengthy documents detailing every possible scenario. When creating a guide for how one of her clients should use their collaboration tools, Erica set up a table outlining the tool, when to use it, the agreed response time and the norms. This table gave a quick overview for her client’s team to refer back to and acted as a training document for new onboards.

5. Prioritize longevity 

Creating sustainable change means committing to the new norms over time. “People have a habit of sliding back to their old ways,” Erica says. She suggests selecting ‘channel advocates’ to “encourage best practices within each channel and give shout-outs to those who were modeling the right behaviors.”

Alternatively, following the guide could be integrated into competency reviews or brought up in team meetings until they’re fully embraced.


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