Definition of Formal and Informal Communication Methods

by Steffani Cameron - Updated June 07, 2018
Business people in meeting on conference call

The digital world has made communication arguably the most important skill set for both individuals and corporations. When communications fall apart inside a company, it’s often a predictor of when other workplace dynamics will follow that downward spiral. To master communication, one must understand the fundamental differences between formal and informal communications, and when each is best applied. When communication is fluid and open, it often leads to increased efficiency, better relationships and greater morale.

What Is Corporate Communication?

Before getting into the intricacies of formal and informal communication methods, it’s good to have a basic gist of what comprises corporate communication.

Corporate communication can be both internal and external. At times, it can be about educating employees on brand image and how to both maintain and project the brand through all their efforts. Communications are used to build stakeholder relationships. It’s through messaging that damage is controlled or worsened when things go sideways. Communications define marketing, public relations and external brand awareness. It’s in messaging and communication that corporations create frameworks for where they’re headed and what projects are coming down the pipes.

In short, corporate communications are behind nearly every aspect of the modern business. To excel at communication is a key way both employees and management can take their careers to greater heights.

What Are Formal and Informal Communication Methods?

Any which way one chooses to make something known is a method of communication and the variety is vast. Some include:

  •        Talking around the water cooler.
  •        Sending a company-wide or person-to-person email.
  •        Posting to corporate forums.
  •        Sharing in a corporate newsletter.
  •        Pinning a pamphlet on the lunchroom bulletin board.
  •        Peer-to-peer chat messaging.
  •        Group or team conversations in a company Slack group or Basecamp board.
  •        Addressing a corporate roundtable.
  •        Making a speech at a company picnic.
  •        Any form of texting, social media and even videos.
  •        Issuing a stakeholder report.

None of these methods are ineffective for communicating. They all get the word out. The question is, are they an appropriate method for that message? Even more importantly, are they inappropriate?

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In some regions, texting after hours can be against the law or a contravention of an employee’s contracted terms. Befriending on Facebook can be inappropriate for a supervisor or manager as it could lead to unbridled informality out of work hours. From region-to-region and company-to-company, today’s array of communication presents a variety of dilemmas and considerations that should be acknowledged and understood by both managers and employees.

Examples of Informal Communication Methods

Informal communications are any method of communicating that doesn’t follow the corporate chain of command or adhere to established best practices within the company. It can include gossip, rumors, casual chatter, break-time banter and beyond. It happens in emails, through texts, on group messaging applications, handwritten notes, Post-its affixed to reports, on phone calls and even in team blogs. Often, it’s considered peer-to-peer, meaning it’s seldom occurring with persons on different levels of authority.

In general, it can be impetuous, unplanned, casual and unverified. It’s not usually meant to be taken as a final say and is often expected to be off the record.

Perhaps one employee casually says, “I saw the sales reports and I think it means bad things for our job security.” This is informal communication which in no way represents the company’s bottom line. Sales can be down for any number of reasons, from a major client declaring bankruptcy through to product development ramping up for a new launch that could render old product obsolete. For anyone to take such a flippant comment as gospel could be hazardous to team morale. It’s important that employees understand casual observations as “informal communication” from one person can damage the team.

Say another employee sends out a company-wide text inviting everyone for after-hours drinks at Wanda’s Watering Hole, where happy hour drinks are the cheapest ever. This may have happened on a corporate account and it may involve employees, but it’s an informal and unsanctioned office gathering. And these are great team-builders and should be encouraged, but the company should have policies about how such events are organized – such as not through company email accounts.

Informal communication can also be any kind of shooting the breeze. It’s employees talking about their weekend or spreading the news that Joyce had her baby. Football pools, chatting about the weather, griping about parking or wondering aloud about the new quarter’s product releases – these are all informal.

When workplace communicating is informal, often there is neither a need to maintain privacy nor an expectation of privacy.

Examples of Formal Communication Methods

When communicating formally in the workplace, there’s generally a directional consideration. It’s top-down, bottom-up, lateral or horizontal. It involves departments and established practices. Formal communication is generally conceived ahead of time – it’s a message that has been thought-up and planned then disseminated for particular employees, specific departments or even the company or its stakeholders as a whole.

It, too, can transpire in emails or through phone conversations. But the most important criteria for formal communication is that it’s considered “through the proper channels” communication.

An example might be when the company brass issues an email with an attachment that is formally written, explaining why overtime cannot be billed and will not be compensated for a specific duration. Such a letter will have involved management, accounting and possibly even the legal department so that it protects the company from anyone who has misunderstood the letter and attempts to bill unapproved overtime. It will likely involve a “read receipt” on an email as proof that each recipient has opened and read said communiqué.

A stock report for stakeholders is a formal communication. An employee review with a manager can be considered a formal communication when there’s a written report involved. A video created by management to explain a project and accessible through the corporate cloud is formal, whereas a video chat is informal. A corporate blog post is a formal way to get the news out about new products or services, not only to a company’s team but also to both their existing and prospective clients. When bad news gets out about a project and the public relations department puts out fires, that’s external formal communication.

All these methods of communication share a big thing in common – none of them are spontaneous. All are likely to include good grammar, concise language, industry jargon, corporate terms and probably even company branding.

Why You Need Formal and Informal Communication Methods

Communication influences so much of what happens in our lives. It quells fears; it inspires and educates. It builds relationships and can tear them apart.

Companies who fail to have good communications often suffer a wide range of problems. It can make employees confused about what actions to take or how to behave. Clashes can occur between departments. Mistakes happen. Tempers can flare. The results can be everything from inefficiencies through to legal problems.

With good communication – both informal and formal – corporate culture tends to be stronger, healthier and more productive. When employees feel they have the tools to communicate both with each other and with management, they often have a better understanding of their roles and their goals.

When management has a wide range of avenues available for communicating with employees, it creates better relationships, inspires greater loyalty and can lead to increased productivity overall.

If communication only happens informally or formally, it creates conflicts.

Examples of Mixed or Mismanaged Communication

Perhaps the management never mingles with their team. Maybe Peter, the head of sales, has no idea that John’s been feeling sick on a regular basis lately, thanks to John’s brave face. As a result, Peter doesn’t realize that the team is stressed because John’s struggling so much. When John informs Peter that he’s been diagnosed with cancer, it’s a shock, because Peter’s never valued chatting around the water cooler, and shuns informal email volleys. Because Peter’s been so distant on an informal level, his sales department distrusts him, and they have fears about what John’s cancer diagnosis means for John’s job security and their impending workloads.

Good managers understand that informal communication makes relationships stronger, not just at their end, but as a morale-building block for the entire company, from the receptionist through to accounts receivable.

As a flipside, though, if communication is only ever informal, it leaves employees confused and frustrated. If every company policy is only ever issued through spontaneous, reactionary email blasts, and never issued formally as a well-thought missive, it can feel like the goalposts are constantly moving. Is this really policy, or just another mood that management’s in?

Perhaps, in May, the head of product development blasts the company with a casually-written email that says, “The team’s been working hard on a new interface that will make our accounting software easier to use for clients. Not sure on a name or release date, but it’s definitely in the works.”

Then, in July, an email comes out saying, “We’re back to the drawing board on interfaces. The goal is increased functionality that results in fewer customer service calls.”

Yet, there’s been no formal communiqué on anything to do with interface redesigns. What should employees say or do about interface issues if clients ask? In this instance, it’s imperative the company get it together and issue a formal communication saying exactly what the development team is working toward, because that’s critical information for every level of the company, from budgeting through to marketing, and departments can then develop a plan of action on upcoming interfaces.

How to Teach Employees Formal and Informal Communication Methods

When it comes to communication, there’s more at stake than ever. Policies are critical in corporate environments, and when laying these out, that’s formal. Written guidelines are required, with clarifications given as needed. Perhaps clarifying can occur via addressing staff in a meeting, or allowing a Slack channel for discussion, but it’s important there be no ambiguities.

Invite employees to engage and ask questions if they’re unsure of anything. Let them know it’s fine to send an email or other written communication if they’d like a paper-trail on the answers. Such paper-trail protects the company, too.

Policies should indicate where the firm stands on things like gossip – that it can be harmful and unproductive, that all employees deserve both respect and privacy on matters both in the workplace and outside it. Policies should also clarify that while people are free to use social media as private persons, they must not share work product or speak about company matters on their social channels.

Guidelines can also clarify whether it’s okay to use email informally within work or whether such communiqués should be confined to messaging apps and the like. They should stipulate whether there are rules to texting or emailing after hours and if employees are expected to monitor these off-site.

This is also where policies regarding flirtation and harassment should be repeated since they’re always informal communications that often flaunt company rules.

Ultimately, a written handbook about communication within the company is the best way to establish the corporate communication culture. Remember, informal communication is a valuable, morale-building part of any workplace and it should be allowed to flourish at times. Sure, it can get out of hand if it’s non-stop, so the company should have guidelines about when it’s appropriate and what’s appropriate to be discussed informally. Sexual conquests, no, but a great weekend away at a cabin, that’s fine.

In the end, by creating a positive, openly communicative work environment, you’ll find your company enjoys a less stressful, more productive environment, with employees who feel more loyal and valued in the workplace.

About the Author

Steffani Cameron is a nomad, writer, photographer, from Vancouver, Canada, who is slow-travelling the world for five years. Her work has appeared in Washington Post, Vox Media, Kitchn, About, and more.

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