LAST REVIEWED Apr 08 2019 8 MIN READ
By Margarette Jung
Communication is crucial to any company, and especially at startups – when everyone can talk to the CEO, cross-team collaboration is the norm, and each employee has an outsize impact on culture, poor communication can fracture a company faster than any failed product. Open office floor plans, actively solicited feedback, and extreme transparency are startups’ answer to the communication problem. For the most part, they’re useful, providing easy access to coworkers, course-corrections that are particularly useful in early stages, and a sense of buy-in. On the flip side, though, you have distractions, flaring tempers, and confusion. The key to better communication isn’t just getting rid of walls – it’s a mix of self-knowledge and shared language. Here at Human Interest, we want to encourage new ideas and build a close-knit community, while making sure we can actually get things done. To do so, we’ve developed a communication guide – a document that lists every employee’s personal communication preferences (Example: “Margarette: Prefers receiving feedback via email or in-person, doesn’t check Slack often”). We have every new hire add themselves to the doc within their first few weeks. Here’s how we did it, and why it works. We recommend this to any small company that wants to have open lines of communication without giving up productivity.
Understanding different work styles
We started with the knowledge that every role (in fact, every person) requires a different environment. Engineers and writers typically work best given chunks of uninterrupted get-things-done time; managers and salespeople may prefer to discuss their thoughts in the moment. Roles aside, everyone processes information in different ways – one person may be at her best when she can talk through new ideas with someone else, while another may struggle to remember verbal conversations until he’s written them down. Good communication starts with each employee looking inward and understanding how they best work, receive information, and express ideas. Ask yourself:
In what environments am I most productive – time of day, noise level, with coworkers or alone, in one continuous stretch or sprinkled with breaks?
Do I process information best when it’s spoken or written?
Do I prefer to respond to that information on the spot or take time to digest?
Am I understood best when I speak or write?
Do I need time to gather my thoughts or would I rather think on my feet?
The difference between being accessible and constantly available
Once you’ve understood how you personally want to communicate, you’ll need to translate that into your work environment. Typical communication channels include instant messaging apps like Slack or Hipchat, email, phone calls or texts, or the old-fashioned way – talking face to face. Each lends itself to different work and personality styles. You can use these channels to set levels of urgency. Here are some real examples from our team:
“I will drop what I’m doing and respond to anything you Slack me, so keep that in mind.”
“Slack/Email/Myspace/Phone/Aol AIM/If I am not on the phone come chat!”
“Slack for expected timely responses. Email for FYI/whatevers. In person if headphones off.”
“Slack for quick/urgent responses. Email for less time sensitive/longer responses.”
“Slack for fun/casual, low stakes. Otherwise, email.”
“Slack and general interruption OK, can easily tune out distractions so in-person if immediate response needed.”
Good startup communication means everyone can make their voice heard by anyone else in the company. However accessible you are, though, you can and should limit your availability to make yourself as productive as possible. Ask yourself:
Which channels do you prefer to use, and at what times?
What kind of communication (work or fun, quick or thoughtful) would you like for each channel?
What response time coworkers should expect?
How will you signal that you don’t want to be bothered?
Getting and giving good positive and negative feedback
The last piece of the puzzle is also the most difficult: How you’d like to receive feedback, especially negative feedback. The person giving feedback should feel empowered to do so, and particularly to chime in early before too much effort is wasted. The one receiving feedback should be able to consider the feedback, provide more context, and not feel defensive. For example, an all-hands meeting might not be the best place for an engineer to challenge content strategy without knowing what led to that decision, or for a sales rep to demand a new feature before considering the technical implications. Individual preferences also vary. One person might prefer to get constructive criticism immediately, even if it’s during a meeting, or during a face-to-face conversation. Another might be more comfortable with written feedback that can be read privately. Identifying those preferences means constructive criticism is both understood and acted upon. Ask yourself:
When am I most comfortable with hearing negative feedback – alone or in a group, immediately or a little while after the fact?
If someone gives me negative feedback, when and how would I like to respond?
Would someone be uncomfortable giving me negative feedback right now? How can I make myself more approachable?
The result: better communication and better timing
At Human Interest, the process of outlining and sharing communication styles has been invaluable for building a strong culture and company. Around half of our team has a management consulting background, while the other half comes from startups. While one employee may have exclusively used pitch decks to demonstrate ideas, another might have only given feedback through code reviews. Learning that other people communicate differently hasn’t just helped within our office, it’s built empathy and understanding that permeates our entire lives. *Other Human Interest culture articles:
Additional recommended reading about giving feedback (from one of our startup clients, Buffer!):
Margarette Jung is a former Head of Marketing at Human Interest.