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Overcoming physical barriers to communication

Brandi Gratis

Brandi Gratis

May 10, 2024

In this series, we discuss The Seven Barriers of Communication. This post is dedicated to physical barriers to communication. 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, and even continents. The larger and more spread out the workforce, the harder it is to make everyone’s physical environment conducive to communication.

Identifying these barriers is the first step. With a little effort, your organization can 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 five types of physical barriers that prevent individuals from communicating effectively:

1. Environment

Environmental barriers are due to the place we’re trying to communicate in. Anyone who has tried to hold a conversation in a noisy bar knows that excessive noise can lead to a lot of missed information. One person nods along politely as if to say, “Ah, yes,” as the other waits patiently for a response to a question that went completely unheard.

Anything that harms concentration — bad lighting, poor air quality, clutter, a poor WFH setup, etc. can be an environmental barrier.

Examples of environmental barriers

  • Noise: Loud or distracting noises in the environment, such as construction work, traffic, or conversations in nearby areas, can interfere with effective communication by making it difficult to hear or concentrate on the message being conveyed.
  • Poor Lighting: Inadequate lighting in the communication environment can make it challenging to see facial expressions, body language, or written materials, which are important cues for effective communication.
  • Crowded Spaces: Overcrowded or cramped spaces can create discomfort and distractions, making it difficult for individuals to focus on the conversation or message at hand.
  • Temperature Extremes: Extreme temperatures, whether too hot or too cold, can affect comfort levels and concentration, leading to reduced attentiveness and engagement in communication interactions.

2. Distance

Distances between floors, buildings, or cities can make collaborating and communicating with team members difficult. Bringing people together to work toward 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 greatly impact team cohesion (if you don’t have the right online collaboration tools).

Examples of distance barriers

  • Location: Physical separation of individuals due to being in different locations, such as separate offices, buildings, or work sites, can hinder face-to-face communication and make it challenging to convey messages effectively.
  • Remote Work: Increasingly common in modern workplaces, remote work arrangements can create physical distance barriers to communication, as team members may be dispersed across different cities, states, or countries, limiting opportunities for in-person interaction and spontaneous communication.
  • Travel: Travel-related barriers, such as being on business trips, attending conferences, or commuting between locations, can disrupt communication by reducing availability for meetings, delaying responses to messages, and creating time zone differences.
  • Workspace Layout: The physical layout of workspaces, such as cubicles, closed offices, or open-plan environments, can affect communication by either facilitating or inhibiting interaction among team members based on factors like proximity, visibility, and acoustics.

3. Time

Scheduling meetings and quick catch-ups can be more challenging when your workforce is spread across different time zones. Team members have smaller windows of availability, and you often have to wait longer to get a response to questions.

When your team works in person, time can still be a factor if your staff has conflicting schedules. For example, managers who limit their availability and require appointments for every interaction make it difficult for employees to connect with them.

Examples of time barriers

  • Time Zone Differences: Communicators located in different time zones may face challenges in coordinating schedules for meetings, conference calls, or real-time communication due to differences in working hours and availability.
  • Shift Work: Individuals working different shifts, such as day shift, night shift, or rotating shifts, may struggle to communicate effectively with each other due to conflicting schedules and limited overlap in working hours.
  • Deadline Pressures: Tight deadlines and time-sensitive projects can create barriers to communication by increasing stress levels and reducing the time available for thoughtful consideration and collaboration.
  • Time Constraints: Busy schedules and competing priorities can limit the amount of time available for communication, leading to rushed or abbreviated interactions that may lack depth or clarity.
  • Communication Delays: Delays in receiving or responding to messages, whether due to technical issues, backlog of emails, or other factors, can hinder timely communication and impede progress on projects or decision-making processes.

4. Medium

So much of modern communication takes place across different technological channels. For communication to be effective, people need to understand and ascribe to certain norms of different media.

What’s appropriate to say (and when) in specific environments? What do certain actions or symbols mean? And how do we interpret more subtle cues? If someone doesn’t understand the norms for using a certain medium (I’m looking at you, grandma, who keeps ending her Tweets with “Sincerely, Agnes”) when sending a message, their intention can be lost.

Examples of medium barriers

  • Technological Limitations: Outdated or incompatible communication technologies may restrict the ability to transmit messages effectively. For instance, a lack of broadband internet access in rural areas could hinder video conferencing capabilities.
  • Channel Overload: Over-reliance on a single communication channel, such as email or instant messaging, can result in information overload and make it difficult to prioritize messages or filter out irrelevant content.
  • Security Concerns: Concerns about privacy and security may restrict the use of certain communication channels, particularly for sensitive or confidential information. For example, regulations like HIPAA in healthcare or GDPR in Europe mandate secure communication channels for handling patient or customer data.

5. Technical difficulties

Modern businesses depend on many types of equipment to maintain communication and workflows. A major equipment failure, such as a network outage, can temporarily slow or shut down communication. Broken phones, fax machines, projectors, and computers are all physical barriers to getting your job done. Fortunately, these barriers are often the easiest to fix or workaround.

Examples of technical barriers

  • Equipment Malfunctions: Technical issues with communication equipment, such as malfunctioning phones, computers, or video conferencing systems, can disrupt communication by causing delays, dropped calls, or loss of connectivity.
  • Software Compatibility: Incompatibility between software platforms or versions may prevent users from accessing or sharing documents, files, or messages, leading to communication breakdowns and delays in collaboration.
  • Network Connectivity Problems: Poor internet connectivity, network congestion, or infrastructure issues can impede communication by causing slow connection speeds, dropped calls, or interrupted video conferences.
  • Lack of Technical Skills: Insufficient knowledge or proficiency with communication tools and technologies can hinder effective communication, as users may struggle to navigate interfaces, troubleshoot problems, or utilize advanced features.

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. While you may need to remove some physical barriers to communication, most can be compensated (or even provide new opportunities!) Here are a few examples of solutions.

Balance open floorplans with quiet stations

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 personal areas promoting quiet focus are important for productivity (and sanity). So, you can also create quiet stations to accommodate team members who need time to themselves during certain work activities, giving them a break from the bustle.

Diversify your communication methods

As teams disperse globally, email becomes a top communication form. Today, email has become one of the biggest time-sucks for the modern worker. Consequently, organizations are adopting new technologies, like project management apps with messaging features right in tasks. Employees can get answers to questions in context and easily track organized conversations.

Highly efficient companies develop best practices for sending messages so as not to overwhelm employees with too many simultaneous conversations. Notification controls ensure employees only see messages relevant to them.

Video conferencing tools continuously improve with increased video and sound quality and lower costs. As a result, video tools (especially with virtual whiteboarding features) 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 the company’s reliance on expensive travel.

Limit meetings and stay connected with project management tools

With so much information to keep track of, project management tools have become increasingly popular in teams and industries that weren’t previously using them. Instead of gathering huge groups of people into long, drawn-out status meetings to keep track of complex projects, use project management tools to automate tracking and give visibility to every team member.

Teams can now stay informed in real-time about assignments and the progress of different team members instead of waiting 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.

Remove physical barriers in remote work environments

With the sudden rise in remote work, teams have had to rethink what it means to have good communication. And in many cases, remote teams discover that traditional forms of communication, such as frequent meetings, aren’t as effective or necessary as they thought. If time and distance are the biggest barriers to team communication, follow these suggestions to improve collaboration.

  • Share communication preferences. Even when working in a large company, most of us only communicate with a handful of people daily. Discuss communication preferences with your immediate team members so everyone is on the same page. If you use someone’s preferred method, they’re more likely to see it and respond sooner, reducing delays.
  • Schedule regular check-ins. Avoid micromanagement and boost transparency by scheduling fixed check-in meetings. Keep them minimal so you don’t slow down productivity. You should also let others know what information they need to prepare for these sessions. That way, everyone knows what’s expected of them and can show up ready to share their progress.
  • Send progress updates. Instead of gathering everyone together unnecessarily, use routine progress updates to keep your team informed. Everyone will know what other teams are working on and understand the company vision, even if they don’t see each other daily.

Embrace mobile communication tools

Invest in mobile communication tools that enable employees to stay connected and collaborate effectively regardless of their physical location. Mobile apps and platforms allow team members to communicate in real time, access important documents, and participate in discussions from anywhere, whether they’re in the office, at home, or on the go. This flexibility empowers remote and distributed teams to maintain seamless communication and collaboration, overcoming the limitations of physical distance.

Initiate more virtual team building activities

Foster a sense of community and camaraderie among remote and distributed teams through virtual team-building activities. Organize online events, such as virtual coffee breaks, team trivia games, or virtual team lunches, to facilitate social interaction and relationship building among team members. These activities not only strengthen bonds and morale but also help mitigate feelings of isolation and loneliness commonly associated with remote work arrangements.

Bridging the gap with Cacoo and Backlog

In a world increasingly dominated by remote and distributed work, tools like Cacoo and Backlog emerge as invaluable assets in overcoming physical barriers to communication. Cacoo’s intuitive interface and collaborative features facilitate seamless visual communication, allowing teams to brainstorm ideas, map out processes, and share diagrams effortlessly regardless of physical distance. With Cacoo, teams can bridge the gap between remote and in-person collaboration, fostering creativity, clarity, and alignment.

Additionally, Backlog serves as a centralized hub for project management, enabling teams to streamline communication, track progress, and collaborate effectively on tasks and projects. By providing a centralized platform for task assignment, file sharing, and progress tracking, Backlog ensures that team members stay connected and informed regardless of their physical location. With features like Gantt charts, Kanban boards, and version control, Backlog empowers teams to work together seamlessly, breaking down barriers and driving success.

Together, Cacoo and Backlog offer a comprehensive solution for closing physical barriers to communication in today’s dynamic work environment. By leveraging the power of these tools, teams can transcend geographical boundaries, foster collaboration, and achieve their goals with ease and efficiency. Embrace the future of communication with Cacoo and Backlog, and unlock new possibilities for collaboration and success.

This post was originally published on October 19, 2016, and updated most recently on May 10, 2024.



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