Job strain, busyness and stress –current discourses about the world of work continuously refer to exhaustion and the management of work-related stress. What tends to go unmentioned is that the question is not just about the strength or weakness of individual employees: it is a broader phenomenon that emphasises the role of interaction in the workplace.

Leena Mikkola.

The quality of communication in the working community influences both the efficiency of working and wellbeing at work. Interaction relationships also define how you get support for coping with job strain and how possible problems are solved.

This is the message of Leena Mikkola, a senior lecturer in communication from the University of Jyväskylä, who recently, together with her colleague Maarit Valo, edited the book Workplace Communication about interaction in the world of work.

The book aims to provide a comprehensive picture of various interaction challenges in work communities: interaction is studied from the perspectives of, among others, leadership, digital communication and the management of work-related stress.

Is it your fault if you can’t cope?

Problems at workplaces are often approached at the level of the individual instead of creating an overall picture. It is easily thought that stressed-out employees cannot manage their duties or that the personal chemistry of two employees just doesn’t match. According to Mikkola, this is the wrong way to approach the issue, because there may be more than individuals’ personal characteristics in the background.

“It is time to shift the mindset from the individual towards the working community, in which the importance of interaction cannot be overly emphasised,” says Mikkola. “Workplaces should understand how important it is to give and receive support and learn to recognise what kind of help is needed in different situations. Emotional support makes employees feel they are able to reduce their job strain, but in information work support is also needed to solve problems and create solutions.

For an employee, it is worthwhile to consider your ability to ask for help and ways to respond to colleagues’ pleas for help. Do you remember to ask how people are doing? Do you offer help if you notice that your colleague seems worried?

Your manager must be there for you

The new book also discusses the interaction between supervisors and employees. Mikkola reminds immediate supervisors that it is important to be present also in technology-transmitted interaction.

“It is important to construct and nurture interaction relationships, so you should create sufficient opportunities to meet people,” Mikkola says. “Ensure that employees are able to manage with their stress and workload and provide adequate resources for coping. Employees are able to solve problems if they are given the tools to do so.”

The book also gives hints for building trust and analysing data management communication practices. Mikkola says that in order to ensure fluent workflow, it is important that employees have a common view on the purpose and reason for what they are doing.

Assistance in developing interaction

Previously, workplace interaction has been discussed mainly in guidebooks and consulting literature. The strong research foundation of Workplace Communication, therefore, makes it a unique and multifaceted collection of scientific knowledge about interaction.

“The book is not a collection of step-by-step advice but offers conclusions and applications that are specifically based on research and help readers to develop their personal communication skills,” says Mikkola.

The book can be used as a course book but first of all it is meant for knowledge workers.

“Knowledge work is based on communication, but interaction is rarely discussed in education,” Mikkola says. “Often employees recognise communication phenomena at the workplace but lack models and concepts to process them. After reading the book, you will understand workplace communication much better.”

Leena Mikkola’s tips to be more aware of interaction at the workplace:

  1. The most important task of interaction at the workplace is to build common meaning. A shared understanding is needed to set and achieve goals at work.
  2. Workplace communication comprises task-, relationship- and identity-oriented goals. When solving tasks, we also build mutual relationships and employee identities.
  3. Categorising employees based on characteristics, such as background or personality, is simplifying and dangerous. It is more likely to create interaction problems than to solve them. Instead of characteristics, focus on the communication skills.
  4. Appropriate communication practices are crucial to guarantee productive work. What is considered appropriate should be reviewed regularly.
  5. Workplace communication occurs both face to face and in digital environments. The channels should not be juxtaposed. Instead, it is more important to understand the characteristics of interaction in different communication situations. Artificial intelligence and social robots are also part of workplace communication.

Workplace communication. Leena Mikkola and Maarit Valo (ed.), Routledge: 2020. More information

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