At least commutes have gotten a lot shorter with COVID. But, the distinction between home and work life is blurring further and talking to coworkers feels more like ordering a cup of coffee from Starbucks than a collegial exchange of ideas.

Through conversations with our CEO Roundtable Panelists, we have seen a large proportion of companies with an increase in productivity as more of their staff are working from home. In the face of hardship, they have admirably pulled together and just “get stuff done” at an exceptional rate. No doubt, the absence of distractions from office life has given the WFHers a greater opportunity to focus and the flexibility to work when and how they need to. 

Luckily, communication tools (like email, Slack, text messaging, and Zoom) have allowed us to increase our range away from the office. But, these tools have contributed to more transactional communication. COVID accelerated this trend as more people had to work from home and utilize these tools even more heavily. Although very efficient for any individual task, this deviation towards transactional communication can negatively impact commitment, engagement, and innovation. These tools and the need/desire for flexibility are here to stay, so to consciously and deliberately build a modern, engaged workplace, we want with them in mind.

Characteristics of Transactional Communication

Transactional communication is highly efficient. Buying a cup of coffee only requires an order and a little case. You’re asking for what you need, when you need it (and hopefully getting it back!). When we think about transactional communication, there are a few specific characteristics to be aware of:

  1. It arises from a specific need: it happens only when you need something – or something is needed from you
  2. It appears urgent: the sender needs to get something off of their task list, so gets it to the next person
  3. It is low context: because of specificity and urgency, it will focus on the sender’s needs (and not why they need it). Tone is also lost; a well meaning message can unintentionally be interpreted with negative connotations.

While gaining efficiency, the longer term impacts of transactional communication must give leaders pause:

  • Lower connection to the organization’s common purpose: it’s more efficient to ask for something and not provide a reason for it. Tasks are increasingly unconnected to the organization’s purpose and individuals lose sight of how their own work supports the overall organization.
  • Factionalization and Tribalism: With the loss of context, individuals can lose their understanding of a shared goal. In normal circumstances, this can result in an “us/them” dynamic (with “us” being the people they associate with most). We’ve all been a part of organizations where one department resents another because they “just don’t get it”. In this scenario, department members are identifying much more with their department than the shared goal of the organization. Increasing transactional interaction between people increases the pressure to see the person on the other side of the transaction as “outside your tribe”. (
  • Assumption of less than benevolent intent – we become much more likely to assume the worst when interactions are reduced to transactions. Assuming the worst of others decreases our ability to work together in order to reach a shared goal. 
  • Lower assumptions (or lack of awareness) on the capabilities of others: we simply aren’t learning what other people can do because we are only trying to resolve a discrete task. (It doesn’t matter that if a barista could do your taxes in half the time at half the cost because you are only concerned with getting your cup of coffee from them!)
  • Decreased ability to “connect the dots”: In a job that is a series of tasks, those tasks are turned into discrete, unconnected pieces, without relation to the bigger picture and hence less engagement with the purpose of a company.
What’s a leader to do?

As a leader, keeping everyone on the same page is not easy. With these added pressures, it’s not getting easier! 

Working from home and our multitude of communication capabilities are not going away, nor do we want them to. So, to create an engaged environment with your teams, committed to a common purpose (in the face of the pressures of transactional communications), leaders can take a few specific steps:

  • Be aware of the costs and benefits of transactional communication: Just knowing these pressures and impacts exist allow you to think differently about how you communicate. 
  • Provide opportunities for connection. Some specific solutions include:
    • Providing 10 minutes at the start of some meetings to not talk business 
    • Open Zoom “office hours” where employees can drop in on managers or other employees
    • Shared meals over Zoom. Breaking bread together pulls down many barriers and takes conversations in entirely new directions.
    • Regular open Zoom happy hours with games or special guests
  • Set an example:
    • Pick up the phone – interactive, synchronous communication creates a higher level of connection between people, makes it more likely for the bigger picture to be shared. Plus, some people are stressed by being on video all the time. Despite losing non-verbal cues, simple voice-to-voice communication can be effective. 
    • Provide context – explain (succinctly) why you need something and connect activities to larger objectives. Make team members feel like they are in the same tribe in pursuit of a larger goal (rather than different functions that only have to interact because it’s their job.
    • Clarify intent – ask why and when someone needs something if they don’t provide it. It’s a great practice for all of us!

For more on what an aligned organization can do and how to get there, check out how NASA did it to an exceptional degree in its early days. Good luck, be well, and remember that none of us can do it alone. 

Matt Sitter leads Advantary’s Executive Capital Practice and is CEO of the Advantage Foundry Network (AFN). He is passionate about optimizing team collaboration and harnessing the power of networks. Matt is an ICF credentialed executive coach, has led a wide variety of functional areas and served on multiple executive management teams. He received his BA from Brown University and MBA from the Tuck School at Dartmouth.

Categories: General


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