The Communication Contract

Most knowledge workers are frustrated with workplace communication. It starts with the feeling that we have too many meetings. “This should have been an email” is one of the common complaints you will hear after (or during) a meeting, as an email is assumed to be far less costly. But then, we quickly find ourselves complaining about having too many emails, and rightfully so. Our inboxes explode with dozens (or more) of new emails every day, and we are in a hopeless race to process and respond to all of them. “This email should have been a Slack message,” we might think, but soon, we can’t focus for even three minutes without some notification distracting us and breaking our flow. The more we move from meetings to emails and from emails to instant messages, the more responsive and available we are expected to be. And this is not only a recipe for poor communication — it is one of the primary causes of ineffective work and poor well-being. 

The problem is not in any of the tools we use for communication. Workplace communication is broken because we don’t use the right tool for the right purpose and in the right context. Not all interactions are alike in terms of urgency, goals, and the people we interact with. When we fail to use the optimal tool for a specific context, the interaction cannot be effective and is often frustrating. 

An equally important problem is a misalignment of expectations. When we think a meeting is appropriate and our colleagues send endless emails, we feel we are ineffective. When we go into a meeting and immediately sense that it will not result in any bottom line, we feel we are wasting our time. 

Aligning expectations and establishing a Communication Contract can turn workplace communication into an effective activity that supports our goals. A Communication Contract is not about declaring a Meeting-Less Monday or limiting email length but, instead, deciding how to use each communication means and for what purposes. 

Once upon a time, not too long ago, I found myself responding to too many emails from my team. Or, more accurately, I should have answered because, in practice, I ignored or missed many of them. The vast majority of these emails were to-the-point. Most of them included information, questions, and dilemmas that affected our work. The problem wasn’t the content of each email but having so many in my inbox. And once I answered an email, it was rarely the end of it: My response was often the trigger for yet another email exchange, resulting in lengthy email threads. Many of these emails could have been resolved in a 10-minute discussion, but the fractured discussion took days or more to conclude (if I had responded to the first email, to begin with, of course). Whatever I had done seemed both unresponsive and a time and attention waster.

The simple solution was to align our expectations and define an informal Communication Contract. We’ve defined a set of simple guidelines for which communication means should be used in different typical scenarios: 

  • If some issue blocks your work: call (or if we are all at the office, knock on the door).
  • For any update or question that does not block you from progressing: write it down, add it to the agenda of our weekly 1:1 meeting, and send the agenda and the relevant material before the meeting. 
  • For issues that seem to require more than a 10-minute discussion: set up a dedicated meeting and attach the relevant background material and relevant data.

The result was both expected and remarkable. I was able to address the urgent issues in near real-time because my inbox was not cluttered with less urgent queries or updates. Many of the non-urgent issues were discussed in the weekly 1:1 meetings. Both my team members and I had time to prepare, process the information, and prioritize the issues. As a result, the discussion became highly effective. By the time of the weekly meeting, some of the issues were not relevant anymore, so we just skipped them. My team and I had much fewer distractions that stole our attention. At the same time, our discussions became more engaging and thought-provoking. 

We didn’t communicate less. But our interactions were more effective because they followed the contract we thoughtfully crafted. Communication didn’t get in our way — it served us. 

A Communication Contract shouldn’t be limited to the aspects we covered in our team’s contract. You might want to define, for example, a reasonable response time in different scenarios; you might benefit from agreeing on the required preparation for an upcoming meeting; it might be helpful to decide on some guidelines for who should be involved in each type of interaction. Anything that will help you leverage the different communication means and use them to support your goals instead of getting in your way can enhance your Communication Contract.

If you can create an organization-wide Communication Contract, go for it! The more people are on board, the greater its impact. If you can’t, start small. Create a simple contract with your team and immediate interfaces. Once they see the benefit of designing better communication flows, they will do the same with their teams and interfaces.

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