A new study compared formal and informal communication at work, and the results are no fun

Precision counts.
Precision counts.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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For decades now, the trend in business is toward informality. We refer to bosses by their first names, casual Friday is also observed Monday through Thursday, and rigid rows of cubicles have been replaced by laptop-using workers sprawling on couches.

That drift has taken place in communication style as well. Meetings have been replaced with Slack chats, and memos with texts. For our increasingly dispersed and flexible workplaces, that makes sense. Meetings suck up time and are often unnecessary, according to the current management thinking, and we should talk with co-workers in the ways they prefer.

But a new study argues those informal communications channels come with a cost. Manufacturing systems that use formal methods of communication, like meetings with set agendas and required participation, are more efficient and have fewer errors than those that rely on emails and phone calls, according to professors at IE business school in Madrid, in a paper published last month in Decision Sciences (paywall).

Antti Tenhiälä and Fabrizio Salvador worked with seven industrial companies—which make equipment ranging from air-defense artillery to elevators—to better understand how to prevent “glitches,” the hiccups in production caused by delayed shipments of materials or customer change orders. They looked at 163 production processes at 73 manufacturing sites in 18 countries, and considered whether the companies used phone calls, emails, regular production meetings, or automated notification systems to communicate disruptions.

They found formal communications are more effective in preventing errors because they remove any ambiguity about who is responsible for what. While informal channels can make sense in the event of rare and unexpected disruptions, like natural disasters, production glitches happen regularly and with predictable causes. Having reliable and codified means of communicating them can improve on-time delivery by an average of five to eight percentage points, the authors found, noting that the best method of formal communication depends on the nature of the glitch.

The most effective methods of communication, however, were rarely the most preferred. Workers would rather pick up a phone or fire off an email than receive automated notifications, in part because humans are hardwired to prefer spontaneous communications, and are suspicious of formal procedures. The authors acknowledge that there’s some value in supplementing the formal methods with the informal, at least in part because workers resist the impersonal systems.

As companies and employees loosen their collective ties and rebel against the stuffy work styles of the past, it may be worth considering why those rigid, boring structures were created in the first place. In business, precision matters, and to ensure it, sometimes we need to sit through a meeting, however rote it may seem.