5 Easy Ways to Improve Cross-Departmental Communication in a Digital World

Despite the multitude of improvements that the digital age has brought modern business, communication, especially between groups, remains a challenge. Organizations have attempted to tackle communication issues by implementing the latest and greatest technology-based solutions, such as setting up an intranet, providing an internal chat platform, and yes, using a collaboration and task management tool like MeisterTask.  

And while these tools greatly improve the speed and diversity of communication and collaboration, they don’t necessarily improve their quality if they aren’t used mindfully.  

Communication is, at its core, something that takes place between human beings. Behind every comment, tag and tweet, is an individual human being communicating with others. Unfortunately, when using digital mediums, the human element is sometimes lost. 

Focusing on empathy and sensitivity improves our ability to communicate, so why not extend this to cross-departmental communication as well? With that in mind, here are a few tips on how to communicate with a heightened sense of awareness using the technology available to you.  

What Don’t They Know?

The term cross-departmental communication itself contains crucial information that is often overlooked. Cross implies communicating with someone outside of your department, and chances are, someone outside of your department is not privy to your department’s inner-workings.

That is to say that they probably don’t know a whole host of different things about your work — from who is responsible for what on your team, to team member’s names, or (if you work at a large enough company) maybe even where your team is physically located. If they don’t know those things, it’s likely that they haven’t checked out your project board or tasks either. So, try seeing the following tips as an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes.

1. Write clear task descriptions

Most of the time, we assume that the tasks on our project board are only for our team, and we write them with exactly that audience in mind. But if you know ahead of time that you will need support or input from another department, take the time to write the task description for an audience who hasn’t attended every meeting leading up to the task or project creation. Compare the two task descriptions below:

For those who were there for the discussion that led to this task, the objective may be clear enough from the first description. But as someone who doesn’t know the backstory, it leaves me a bit lost. As a technical writer or designer tagged to give input on this task, I would need several questions answered before I could get to work.

The second description, while not much longer than the one on the left, is much clearer. The user’s role, the task goal, the error and solution are now defined, and the checklist items not only show in which order things should be done but also give names to the people outside of the department who should be contacted for input.

2. Comment mindfully

When looping another department or person into the task via comment at a later stage, make sure the comment is detailed enough. If you’ve written a clear task description from the start, a simple “Please read the task description and let me know if you have any questions,” may suffice. If you realize that the task is probably unclear from their perspective, there are several options: write a detailed comment, write a quick comment with an offer to chat, or change the task description.

Why offer to chat if we are all supposed to be digital communication pros? Sometimes people are afraid to ask follow-up questions, especially digitally, for fear of seeming uninformed, behind, or simply unknowledgeable. And until individuals know that they will not be reproached by you for seeking more information, they may not ask questions when they need to. This leads to the classic situation of providers producing good work that isn’t at all what the requester intended. Save yourself a few rounds of drafts by being specific from the get-go.

And one last note about comments: If you and your team have been commenting on a task so much that the comments now contain crucial information, update the task description! There’s nothing like being asked to jump into a task and having to read weeks worth of comments just to understand what’s happening. Or worse, working based on an outdated task description because you didn’t catch one significant comment.

3. Attach a visual

The phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” exists for a reason. If there is any way to provide the next recipient of your task with some visual support, do so. Oftentimes, seeing what is required, rather than just reading or hearing it, can drastically improve the outcome. As someone whose job it is to provide words, I am constantly asking my stakeholders to show me what they want. 

If you’re a MeisterTask user, you’ll know that we just released our most requested feature of all time: Timeline. And, not to spoil anything, but we’ve got another long-awaited feature coming out very soon. My point is, the MeisterTask product team has been asking me for little bits of text regarding the new features. And while I’m happy to receive a task from them with just a short description, they know by now that I prefer a screenshot, too. It might seem silly, but even something as simple as the screenshot below helps me immensely. 

See the emojis as placeholders in the blue popover? Now I don’t have to wonder where the text they requested will be used, how long it should be or how the user will experience it. Important to note here is that the team gave me the full screen view and not just a small screenshot of the corner. In this way, they are giving me the most context possible, and if you are able to do that for other departments you work with, I’m sure they would appreciate it, too. 

4. Perform a needs analysis

If you request something from another department and what you receive back is not what you needed or expected, you should perform a needs analysis. It’s an easy way to improve the work-flow process because communication is, after all, a two-way street. Ask the recipient what information they would like to receive the next time you send them a task. Then, turn that information into something actionable, like a checklist. This is really easy to do in MeisterTask using checklist templates. I created this one so that anyone at Meister can easily load it into a task and make sure that they are giving me all the information I need to provide the best content I can. 

You can also do this in many other forms — a Word document with bullet points would suffice. Pull it out anytime you need to pass a task on to that person or department and make sure that you are giving the right information to the right people. 

It’s never too early to do this. Chances are if you communicate with someone in another department once, you will communicate with them again. Even if you do this purely for yourself and save it in a file no one else ever sees, it is an exercise in empathetic communication — and that is always a good thing.

5. Ask for clarification

Conversely, if you are on the receiving end of poor communication, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. When you’ve gone several rounds with someone, and still aren’t sure what they’re asking for, your frustration level is bound to rise. But at times like these, it’s important to remember that no one intentionally communicates poorly. Everyone is doing their best, and usually only sees things from their own perspective. 

Guiding someone towards giving you all the information you need to do your job properly is not an admission of a lack of knowledge. From personal experience, I can say that, generally, the more questions I ask to clarify my own understanding, the more appreciative the other party is. And they are certainly happier with the end result. Offering to have a quick session about task description writing also usually goes over well. At the end of the day, people do love saving time, and that’s exactly what this accomplishes. 

Go Forth and Type

These tips may not seem like they can move mountains, but subtle changes over time can truly make a difference. Just as we try to communicate mindfully in person, so we should strive to communicate mindfully across our ever-diversifying digital formats. By making these small efforts to humanize your virtual interactions with other departments, you may find that they one day return the favor.