Communication in firms has changed dramatically over the past year. As remote working becomes commonplace, leaders find themselves in front of an array of different channels that need to be managed, and informal comms channels are a big part of that.

In our conversation with Robert May from The May Firm on The Rankings Podcast, we discussed the importance of adding informal channels to Slack. These act as a kind of ‘virtual water cooler’ where employees can share news and chat off-topic. However, there’s always the risk of gossip and rumors spreading in these unofficial modes of conversation. So, how should law firms approach informal comms in 2021?

What Is Informal Communication

Informal communication is nothing more than casual communication between coworkers in the workplace. It is unofficial, meaning that it is based on the relationships that are formed outside of the usual firm hierarchy.

You might hear informal communication referred to as ‘the grapevine’, due to the fact that there’s no definite channel of communication. Messages are relayed through many different individuals and cover a long distance, sometimes making their origin unknown.

What Do Informal Comms Channels Look Like?

Whereas informal communication was traditionally the chat around the water cooler, channels have necessarily gone digital as firms have adapted to new ways of remote working.

Informal comms channels can take the form of:

  • Email
  • Messages in Slack or similar apps
  • Messaging boards
  • Social media
  • Pre or post-meeting video chat

What Are The Benefits Of Informal Comms Channels?

Informal communication is often more flexible and rapid than formal channels, meaning that solutions can be reached quickly. In general, these channels are good for human relations as there is less pressure to sending a message. This freedom also encourages problem-solving and helps to boost employee morale. Most importantly, informal comms channels allow space for a little fun in the workplace!

What Are The Risks Of Informal Comms?

A drawback of informal communication is that conversations are not documented. Important details that are mentioned in passing are easily forgotten, and if you follow up with the staff member there’s no evidence the conversation happened in the first place! You may find yourself wishing you’d put your request in writing.

This downside is lessened somewhat by the fact that a lot of our informal comms have moved over to email or instant messaging apps like Slack. At least here, messages are retained in their original form, but there are other drawbacks to keep an eye on.

Written communications can often be misconstrued, particularly if they’re written in haste! Jokes and sarcasm can be hard to convey and you risk upsetting the other party if the tone isn’t clear. Slack’s emojis are useful to combat this, but you should always think twice before hitting send.

Gossip & The Rumor Mill

The most difficult drawback of informal comms is also the hardest to regulate: gossip. Rumors and distortion of the facts can run rife if informal communications channels are not kept in check.

Employees do need a channel where they can chat informally. Management can be present, but the rule of thumb is not to intervene unless absolutely necessary. The majority of conversation in informal channels is pretty harmless, and it’s important not to try to manage the chat. After all, if your team thinks management is breathing down their neck, they’ll just take their gripes somewhere private where you have no eyes on the situation. If a particular conversation is straying into gossip territory then speak to the individuals privately to resolve the situation.

How To Make The Most Of Your Virtual Water Cooler!

Informal communications channels can provide a little levity to the working day – something we all need in these tricky times! Management should actively encourage their teams to engage in informal conversation. Getting to know one another is paramount for collaboration further down the line.

To facilitate this, try creating specific Slack channels with different themes, and encourage your team members to create their own! Ideas include:

  • Podcasts & movies – where everyone shares their recommendations for the lockdown months!
  • Fitness – for health and wellbeing suggestions, tips, and even recipes!
  • Weekend Photos – encourage your employees to share some photos of what they got up to over the weekend! This channel is particularly effective at getting team members who might not normally cross paths to engage in conversation.

The possibilities are endless, but having categories really helps to focus the conversation. Do it right, and you’ll boost team morale, encourage company culture, and possibly create new powerhouse working relationships!