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Overcoming physical barriers to communication

Brandi Gratis

Brandi Gratis

February 04, 2022

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, 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.

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).

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.

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.

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 work around.

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 need to remove some physical barriers, others can be compensated. 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 messaging apps with designated channels for chat topics. Employees can get more immediate answers to questions and easily track organized conversations online.

Highly efficient companies develop 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 continuously improve with increased video and sound quality and lower costs. And 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.

Removing 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.

Final thoughts

When you remove or compensate for physical barriers, teams can focus on discovering collaborative solutions to the tasks in front of them. And they never have to worry that anyone on their team might miss a nearby bear.

This post was originally published on October 19, 2016, and updated most recently on February 4, 2022.



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