Informal Communication

Informal communication, often called grapevine communication, is the type of communication that flows freely across the whole of an organization. Typically, it is:

  • Quick
  • Natural
  • Relational 
  • Spontaneous 

Informal communications might cover a range of diverse topics, and there is never a trail of paper. This type of communication will generally grow in a natural way through an organization’s workforce, and it’s generally because of the socialization that takes place.

Another feature of informal communication is that it doesn’t always follow a hierarchical organizational structure from top to bottom.   

Informal Communication Examples

A perfect example of informal communication in the workplace is when one employee interacts with another conversationally and casually. For instance, they might be talking about a movie they watched on TV last night or a change in company policy. 

Think of informal communication as akin to a family sitting around the dinner table discussing over dinner. Anyone sitting at the table can turn to another and casually ask them questions. The atmosphere is calm and carefree, and people can discuss anything. 

Let’s give you a few more examples of informal communication in the workplace:

  • The water cooler: informal chats often start while employees are standing around the water cooler. They can just as quickly start anywhere else in the office.
  • Messaging apps: popular apps such as Microsoft Teams and Slack allow employees to communicate naturally with each other. 
  • Lunch breaks: we’ve already mentioned the family dinner table, but a similar setting in the workplace is in the staff canteen during lunch breaks. There’s no hierarchy of formal communication, and questions can be asked and answered very informally.

Informal Communication - Different Types

  • Single strand: one person converses with another, then converses with another, and so on. 
  • Gossip chain: this is a very common type of informal communication. It’s a conversation between a group of people in which everyone informally discusses a specific topic. 
  • Probability chain: messages passed randomly between various people in an organizational setting. 
  • Cluster chain: a person shares details on a specific topic, but only with select individuals. They then share the information with another group of selected individuals.  

The Pros and Cons of Informal Communication

Informal communication often seems casual and carefree, unlike more formal communication that feels distant and cold. Of course, both types of communication play a vital role in an organization, but informal communication is beneficial for several reasons.

  • It bridges any gaps between departments.
  • Creates a sense of belonging
  • It’s an inviting and friendly way to communicate.
  • Employees feel connected and able to keep abreast of how an organization works.
  • Improves productivity because issues related to work can be discussed and then solved quickly
  • Creates healthy relationships within a workforce and promotes a better and more collaborative working environment

One disadvantage of this form of communication is that it’s informal. As a result, unconfirmed or unofficial information can spread across an organization, leading to mass disinformation. 

Other downsides include:

  • Informal communication is difficult to record: it is often undocumented, so you can’t rely on it in the same way as formal communication. 
  • It can cause misunderstandings: because it is often spontaneous, it can be taken the wrong way.
  • Informal communication may be inaccurate: Chinese whispers are an issue with informal communication. People exaggerate the truth or share incorrect information. Some people may prefer to believe the gossip rather than the official truth. 

Formal vs. Informal Business Communication

  • Formal communication: the sharing of official information relating to the workplace. It tends to follow the established hierarchical rules of a particular organization.
  • Informal communication: unlike formal communication, there are no predetermined rules to follow. 

The difference between formal and informal communication comes down to the structure of the business and its rules of communication. These determine whether the communication is formal or informal.

Without informal communication, life and work would feel very unfriendly and stiff. Informal catch-ups and interactions are what glue a business together. They help new employees onboard quickly, help to distribute information efficiently, and spread behaviors and norms that are a crucial part of the way an organization works.