In the post-pandemic process of recovery, many companies find themselves at a crossroads.   Some, such as Salesforce, plan to make working remotely a permanent option for employees. Others such as Apple, BlackRock, and Google are opting for eventual – if not swift – Return to Office (RTO) plans for many of their workers.

One way or another, the immediate future of office communications will likely require a hybrid approach. Team members can expect to find themselves talking face-to-face while simultaneously engaging with others via platforms such as Zoom.

From a communication and presentation standpoint, hybrid working presents unique challenges few of us have experienced, even during 18 months of virtual meetings.

The pandemic pushed teams to shift from face-to-face communications to face-to-camera. Now, the hybrid environment asks us to juggle both of these, while perhaps also folding in workers who are dialing in on an audio-only basis, and others who can see and hear us but can only communicate via chat or text.

Suddenly, there’s a lot more to manage.


2 categories of disruptive ‘noise’

Communicating successfully in a hybrid environment means being able to engage people in multiple rooms, on multiple media, all at once. And using more platforms means a higher probability of interruption or misunderstanding – particularly from two categories of disruptive ‘noise’ that can interfere with workplace communications.

The first category of noise relates to the communication model initially detailed in Claude E. Shannon’s 1948 text, A Mathematical Theory of Communication.

The second category is linked to a more holistic understanding of disruption, as explored in the 2021 book, Noise, co-authored by Daniel Kahneman, Cass R. Sunstein, and Olivier Sibony.


First category: The 3 types of noise

In a hybrid environment, much of our communication comes to us via platforms such as Webex. There’s a sender of the message and a receiver of the message. Both can be easily disrupted, for example by a lack of response, or by an absence of the trust on which the free flow of engagement depends. These difficulties aside, the three biggest barriers to communication between sender and receiver are semantic noise, physical noise, and psychological noise.

With semantic noise, the problem lies with a sender who’s struggling to get their message across. This is usually because the information the sender is saying, displaying, or relaying is unclear, perhaps due to lack of comprehension, preparation, practice, or poor communication skills. To avoid semantic noise, make sure to do the research, practice, and presentation adjustments necessary to make the message and materials as clear as possible. Avoiding unnecessary jargon and complex semantics will help to lessen the impact of this type of noise.

Psychological noise involves the receiver. Sometimes, even after adjusting for semantic noise, the sender’s intended audience may still misunderstand, react negatively to, or simply not be engaged by the message. That’s why it’s vital to know your audience, so that you can develop a strategy to engage them through both your message and your presentation style. This may require observation, practice and tapping institutional knowledge for audience tastes. You might even ask the receiver to share their communication preferences.

The third type of ‘noise’ in this category is physical noise, or technological disruption, such as bad wi-fi, slow computers and networks, time lags, and other bugs. The best way to lessen the impact of this type of noise is to prepare and test your tech. Ask for help from a professional or member of your IT staff, if necessary. Physical noise is inevitable when working with technology, but preparation and assistance can go a long way towards reducing those risks.


Second category: Noise as ‘unwanted variability’

Attending to the first category of noise will improve the quality of your communication on individual platforms and media. However, if you want more holistic improvements, it would be wise to pay attention to ‘unwanted variability’, the second category of noise.

In their 2021 book Noise, Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow), Cass R. Sunstein (Nudge), and Olivier Sibony examine the concept of noise as an unwanted variable in judgments, processes, and communications. The best way to illustrate this concept is to compare unwanted variability with ‘wanted variability’.

We seek wanted variability when we want as many different ‘takes’ on a topic as possible. For example, when brainstorming, we may seek out multiple viewpoints in order to get to the best idea. When looking for a good financial manager, we might examine a wide range of advisors to determine whose style and results best suit our investing needs. When looking for a good movie or restaurant, we often seek opinions from a wide variety of sources and reviewers. Variability, when gathering information, is most welcome.

Variability in skills, however, is less useful. In our ability to navigate the various media we use for team communication, we usually do not want wide variability. Communicating with unwanted variability in a hybrid environment might mean that we’re good in a face-to-face conversation, bad about engaging people who are audio-only, have a hard time with Zoom, and occasionally forget about the folks who prefer to text or chat. This inconsistency in communication skills is unwanted variability, or noise.

To avoid this second category of noise – unwanted variability in skills – one must practice fluency with every platform that comprises the hybrid workplace. This begins with a ‘noise audit’, in which you examine your multi-platform skills, both for strengths and for areas to be developed. That’s followed by a deliberate strengthening of the communication skills that require more attention.


Increasing team engagement

Disruptive noise in a hybrid working environment may lead to alienating, ignoring, or overlooking key stakeholders. That’s why it’s important to understand how to avoid the first category of noise on a platform-to-platform level, while also managing your overall communication skills to avoid unwanted variability, the second category, in your general practice.

With RTO plans in flux, the exact arrival of the hybrid workplace as the standard ‘new normal’ is unclear. However, regardless of the current status of your workplace, an exploration of the two categories of disruptive noise can help you to increase team engagement, workplace efficiency, and your overall communication skills.


Gene Douglas is a Working Voices Trainer based in NYC. He’s been teaching communication and performance since 1999.


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