Overcoming physical barriers to communication

In this series, we discuss The Seven Barriers of Communication. This post is dedicated to physical barriers. Stay tuned as we discuss each.

Physical barriers to communication have plagued the workforce since hunter-gatherers first walked too far into the woods to hear their fellow hunters cry “BEAR. VERY BIG BEAR.”

While bears have become less of an issue (for most), physical elements still come between us: doors, walls, building floors, excessive noise, even continents. The larger and more spread out the workforce, the harder it seems to be to make everyone’s physical environment conducive to communication.

Identifying these barriers is the first step. With a little effort, your organization will be able to spot and resolve these issues way before you need to warn Bill from Accounting about any amount of bears.

Types of Physical Barriers to Communication

Luckily, physical barriers are fairly easy to spot. If you want to talk to your boss, but they’re locked in their office, you’ve found a physical barrier. If you’re making a verbal announcement and the people on the second floor can’t hear you, you’ve found a physical barrier. Anything in the physical world (i.e. not in your mind) that stands between you and effective communication is a physical barrier that can be addressed.

In general, there are three types of physical barriers that prevent individuals from effective communication:

1. Environment – These barriers are due to the place we’re trying to communicate in. As anyone who has been to a noisy bar and tried to hold a conversation will know, excessive noise can lead to a lot of missed information. One person tries to nod along politely as if to say “Ah, yes,” as the other waits patiently for a response to a question that’s gone completely unheard.

2. Distance – Distances between floors, buildings, or cities can make collaborating and communicating with team members a struggle. Bringing people together to work towards a common goal when they aren’t even on the same continent introduces real challenges to efficiency. Phone calls and emails end up displacing face-to-face interactions, and that small difference can have a big impact on team cohesion.

3. Medium – So much of modern communication takes place across different pieces of technology. For communication to be effective, people need to understand and ascribe to certain norms of how these mediums are used. What’s appropriate to say when and where? What do certain actions or symbols mean? And how do we interpret more subtle queues? If someone doesn’t understand the norms for using a certain medium (I’m looking at you grandma that keeps ending her Tweets with “Sincerely, Agnes”) when sending a message, their intention can be lost.

Common Solutions that Enhance Communication

Don’t worry, the solution to physical barriers isn’t to have us all exist in a sustained group hug. Some physical barriers may need to be removed, but others can be compensated for. Here are a few examples of solutions:

– Many industries that thrive on collaboration adopt “open office” plans that substitute cubicles and corner offices for open tables and shared conference rooms. Most people agree that still having personal areas to focus is important for productivity (and sanity), so quiet stations are created to give those who need time to themselves during certain work activities a break from the bustle.

– As teams disperse across the globe, email tends to become a top form of communication. Today, email has become one of the biggest time-sucks for the modern worker. Consequently, organizations are adopting new technologies, like messaging apps with designated channels for topics, where employees can get more immediate answers to questions and easily track organized conversations online. Highly-efficient companies come up with best-practices for sending messages so as not to overwhelm employees with too many simultaneous conversations. Notification controls and direct messaging functions ensure employees only see messages relevant to them.

– Video conferencing tools continue to improve each year with increased video/sound quality and lower costs, and as a result, they have become a tremendous asset in organizations where regular in-person meetings are impossible. Video tools give teams the face-to-face interactions they desire while reducing company’s reliance on expensive travel.

– With so much information to keep track of, project management tools have become increasingly popular on teams and in industries where they weren’t previously used. Instead of gathering huge groups of people into long, drawn-out status meetings to keep track of complex projects, project management tools automate tracking and give visibility to every team member. Teams can now stay informed in real-time about assignments and progress of different team members within their organization, instead of having to wait for the next weekly catch-up. On top of keeping teams more organized, automating these processes opens up meeting times for more productive communication and planning time.

Final Thoughts

With physical barriers removed or compensated for, teams can focus on discovering collaborative solutions to the tasks in front of them. And, they don’t ever have to worry that anyone on their team might miss a nearby bear.