What is horizontal communication: Definition and how to get started

Get a clear definition and actionable insights on horizontal communication, including best practices, tools, and technologies to initiate horizontal communication and enhance employee collaboration and engagement.

Inês Pinto

What is horizontal communication: Definition and how to get started

Table of contents

What is horizontal communication?

Horizontal communication refers to the flow of information across departments, teams, and functions at the same organizational level. It facilitates collaboration between peers, rather than the top-down vertical communication between managers and subordinates.

Horizontal communication is mainly informal and lateral. It connects various business units, allowing them to coordinate plans, activities, and objectives. This is different from formal vertical communication through the chain of command from higher to lower organizational levels.


Why is horizontal communication important?

Horizontal communication is a vital part of any organization. It enables improved efficiency through faster information sharing between interdependent departments. Sales and marketing can align go-to-market strategies, while production teams can coordinate with procurement for just-in-time inventory.  

Cross-functional collaboration through horizontal communication also leads to greater innovation. When different perspectives come together, new ideas emerge. Brainstorming sessions and cross-departmental projects thrive on horizontal communication.

Finally, horizontal communication promotes higher employee engagement. As team members across the organization interact directly, silos break down. This leads to a positive, transparent culture with mutual understanding between teams.

Types and flow of horizontal communication

Horizontal communication can be either formal or informal in nature. 

Formal horizontal communication typically follows official protocols and procedures. Examples include cross-departmental meetings, company-wide emails, and collaboration through shared databases or intranets. Formal communication allows information sharing across silos in a structured manner.

Informal horizontal communication is more casual and occurs through conversations in the hallway, lunch meetings, phone calls between colleagues, and team chats. While less structured, informal communication enables the free flow of ideas and quick coordination. 

formal horizontal communication vs informal horizontal communication

The patterns and channels used for horizontal communication depend on a company's organizational structure. In rigid hierarchical structures, horizontal communication may be more formal and limited. Flat organizations with fewer levels tend to have more informal and open cross-functional interactions.

Examples of horizontal communication flows in the workplace include:

  • Marketing and sales teams coordinating on lead generation campaigns through regular status update meetings.
  • HR sharing new policy changes that impact all employees via department-wide emails. 
  • The IT helpdesk communicating issues and fixes to various business units through an internal chat platform.
  • Cross-functional project teams brainstorming ideas and making decisions through informal whiteboard sessions.
  • Executives briefing their peers on financial results and strategies through quarterly leadership team meetings.
  • Customer support and product teams discussing common pain points and improvements through weekly lunch meetings.

The appropriate channel for horizontal communication depends on the message, urgency, formality and intended audience. A mix of formal and informal communication is usually optimal.

Characteristics of effective horizontal communication

Successful horizontal communication relies on several key traits and factors within an organization. Understanding these characteristics can help improve cross-functional collaboration. 

Key traits of effective horizontal communication

Some of the most important traits for effective horizontal communication include:

✔️ Openness: Employees must feel comfortable openly sharing ideas, giving feedback, and voicing concerns across departments and roles. There should be transparency, not secrecy or territorial behaviors between teams.

✔️ Mutual trust and respect: Horizontal communication requires mutual trust between employees. There must be an understanding that everyone has the organization's best interests in mind. Respect for diverse viewpoints helps foster constructive debate.

✔️ Active listening: When collaborating cross-functionally, it's critical that employees actively listen to understand different perspectives. Teams should avoid talking over or interrupting colleagues from other departments.

✔️ Clear communication: Using clear, concise language avoids misinterpretation and confusion. Jargon and acronyms should be minimized when communicating across functions.

✔️ Consistency: Information shared horizontally should be accurate, timely, and consistent. Contradictory or outdated messages undermine effective collaboration.

✔️ Problem-solving orientation: With cross-functional input, there's great potential for innovative solutions. Feedback should focus on solving challenges, not assigning blame.

The role of organizational culture and structure

An organization's culture and structure can either enable or obstruct effective horizontal communication.

Flat, decentralized organizations without rigid hierarchies and red tape tend to foster better horizontal collaboration. Meanwhile, bureaucratic cultures with many approval layers and "command-and-control" management often inhibit seamless cross-team communication.

Leaders play a key role in shaping organizational culture to promote open, flexible communication across departmental lines. Setting clear guidelines for horizontal collaboration while allowing employees autonomy is optimal.

Impact on collaboration, teamwork, and decision-making

Smooth horizontal communication ultimately leads to better collaboration, teamwork, and decision-making.

With open channels for giving input and sharing feedback, teams can achieve better solutions. Horizontal communication also speeds up decision-making cycles with real-time cross-functional input.

Employees feel more engaged when they are empowered to collaborate across departments. Fostering connections between teams also reduces productivity-killing organizational silos.

In summary, horizontal communication has a profoundly positive impact on an organization's success when implemented effectively. It enables the free flow of ideas, greater innovation, and a collaborative culture.

Advantages and disadvantages of horizontal communication

Horizontal communication offers several benefits that can improve collaboration, engagement, and productivity in an organization. However, it also comes with some potential drawbacks to be aware of. Striking the right balance between horizontal and vertical flows is key.

pros and cons of horizontal communication

Pros of horizontal communication

Faster information sharing: Communication and coordination can happen more rapidly across departments and teams when following a horizontal path. This speed allows quick decision making and problem solving.

Increased engagement: Employees feel more empowered and invested when they can communicate peer-to-peer. This leads to higher motivation and satisfaction.

Enhanced collaboration: Cross-functional collaboration thrives with open horizontal communication. Knowledge is freely exchanged leading to synergies. 

Improved innovation: Horizontal flows allow ideas to emerge from all areas of an organization, not just top-down. This sparks creativity.

Stronger relationships: Relationships grow stronger when communication flows freely. This builds trust and connectivity.

Cons of horizontal communication

Miscommunication risk: Nuance and context can be lost with informal horizontal communication compared to formal vertical flows. This can lead to misunderstandings.

Lack of structure: Without defined protocols, horizontal communication can become disorganized and ambiguous. Clear guidelines are needed.

Reduced alignment: When not properly synced with vertical directives, horizontal communication can be misaligned with company goals and strategies.

Decreased accountability: Peer-to-peer communication lacks hierarchy and supervision which can cloud accountability.

Territorial behaviors: Silos can form when teams don't communicate cross-functionally. This inhibits open knowledge sharing.

Striking the right balance

The most effective organizational communication utilizes both horizontal and vertical flows in a complementary way. Leaders should encourage horizontal communication while still maintaining clear vertical directives.

Protocols can help optimize bidirectional communication. With balance, an organization benefits from enhanced alignment, innovation, and engagement.

3 Main barriers to effective horizontal communication (and how to overcome them)

Horizontal communication can face several obstacles that prevent it from being truly effective across an organization. Understanding these barriers is key to overcoming them.

4 common obstacles blocking horizontal communication

Some of the most common barriers to smooth horizontal communication include:

Departmental silos: When departments don't collaborate and share information, silos emerge. This can severely hamper horizontal communication.

Unclear guidelines: Without clear guidelines on horizontal communication protocols, employees may be unsure how and when to communicate cross-functionally.

Poorly defined roles: Overlapping or poorly defined roles across teams/departments can obstruct horizontal collaboration.

Lack of leadership support: If leaders don't actively encourage and facilitate horizontal communication, adoption will be limited.

Organizational silos and territorial behaviors 

Silos between departments or teams who don't want to collaborate or share information are a prime barrier. Some teams may hoard information or resources rather than openly communicating across the organization.

Territorial attitudes when certain departments are unwilling to collaborate cross-functionally can also emerge. These behaviors often stem from fear of losing status or control.

Leaders must actively work to break down silos and unproductive territorial attitudes for horizontal communication to thrive.

Physical workspace and technology limitations

Physical workspace layouts that isolate teams and departments can stifle spontaneous horizontal interactions. 

Additionally, legacy communication tools that don't facilitate company-wide collaboration can cause barriers to effective horizontal communication. For organizations with a large workforce split between in-office and frontline roles, it’s especially important to select internal communication tools that are easily accessible on desktop and mobile devices.

Finally, information trapped in department-specific software programs or storage systems with limited access hinders smooth information sharing. Opt for company-wide systems, such as an employee experience platform or company-wide intranet, to ensure equal access to all relevant information and documents.

5 tips to improve horizontal communication in the workplace

Horizontal communication across teams, departments, and business units is essential for organizational success. However, many companies struggle to foster effective collaboration and information sharing across silos.

There are several strategies leaders can implement to enhance horizontal communication:

Promote cross-functional teams and projects

Assigning employees to cross-functional teams and projects can break down barriers and open communication channels. Rotate staff on temporary assignments to expose them to different operations. Bring together team members from various departments for brainstorming sessions and collaborative problem-solving. This interaction builds relationships and trust.

Leverage technology for transparency  

Digital tools like intranets, employee experience apps, instant messaging, and project management software enable transparency. They allow employees to communicate and share knowledge across boundaries. Having open access to documents and data from multiple departments also facilitates coordination. 

Create clear guidelines and expectations

Leaders should provide clear direction on horizontal communication responsibilities. Set expectations for response timelines, meeting cadences, and information sharing protocols across teams. Ensure employees understand goals for improving collaboration and have training to interact effectively across the organization.

Design workspaces to encourage spontaneous exchanges

Informal, spontaneous conversations between employees are key for horizontal communication. Workspace design should spark these organic interactions through open office plans, casual meeting areas, and shared spaces. Locating interdependent departments together also helps.

Reward and recognize cross-departmental successes

Offer incentives and recognition for collaboration between teams, such as awards for cross-functional project success. Celebrate wins that result from departments working together seamlessly. This motivates employees to share information and ideas horizontally.


Horizontal communication in flat organizational structures

Flat organizational structures, also known as horizontal organizations, are characterized by minimal levels of hierarchy and management. Instead of a traditional vertical chain of command, flat organizations have open communication and decentralized decision-making across all levels and functions. This creates unique horizontal communication challenges and opportunities.

Some key characteristics of flat organizational structures include:

  • Few or no middle managers between executives and frontline staff
  • Cross-functional, self-managed teams with autonomy  
  • Open sharing of information across the organization
  • Less rigid reporting lines and protocols
  • Decentralized authority and collaborative leadership

While flat structures empower employees and can foster innovation, the lack of traditional management layers requires strong horizontal communication skills. With fewer supervisors directing tasks, collaboration relies on effective peer-to-peer interactions. 

Examples of effective horizontal communication

Some examples of successful horizontal communication in flat companies:

💡 Software firm Menlo Innovations uses an open office layout to encourage transparency. Engineers share project updates through impromptu conversations, whiteboards, and online tools. This facilitates coordination across teams.

💡 W.L. Gore & Associates, makers of Gore-Tex fabrics, has a non-hierarchical "lattice" structure. Associates communicate directly with each other to make decisions. Leaders act as mentors, not traditional managers. 

💡 Atlassian, a software developer, uses HipChat messaging to enable real-time communication. With teams across the globe, HipChat helps create a sense of closeness and community.

The minimal hierarchies of flat organizations allow for greater creativity and ownership among employees. But open horizontal communication channels must be nurtured through a collaborative culture, training, and the right digital platforms. When done effectively, flat structures can achieve rapid coordination and innovation.

How to measure and evaluate horizontal communication effectiveness

Effective horizontal communication is critical for organizational success, yet it can be challenging to measure and evaluate. Companies need concrete ways to assess the quality of cross-functional collaboration and information sharing. Tracking key performance indicators, gathering employee feedback, and continuously refining strategies are key.

1. Track Key Performance Indicators for horizontal communication

Quantitative metrics are essential for monitoring horizontal communication effectiveness. 

Useful KPIs include:

  • Cross-departmental meeting frequency 
  • Number of cross-functional projects and teams
  • Employee sentiment ratings on collaboration 
  • Knowledge transfer speed between departments
  • Time to complete tasks requiring cross-team coordination

The right KPIs will shine a light on where communication breaks down and bottlenecks arise. Targets can then be set to improve problematic areas.

2. Gather feedback from employees 

Surveys, interviews, and focus groups provide qualitative data on how well horizontal communication is working. Ask questions like:

  • How easily can you connect with peers in other departments?
  • Do you receive timely responses from other teams when needed?
  • Are there adequate channels for sharing ideas and concerns cross-functionally?

Feedback may reveal issues not captured by quantitative metrics. The human perspective is invaluable.

3. Continuously improve and adapt strategies

With data in hand on horizontal communication health, companies can fine-tune approaches for optimal effectiveness. This includes:

  • Adjusting communication methods and messaging
  • Rethinking organizational design elements 
  • Providing communication skills training
  • Introducing new collaboration technology tools
  • Updating policies around information sharing

The goal is constant improvement. As needs change, strategies must evolve to keep cross-functional coordination running smoothly.

13 Steps to build a horizontal communication strategy

Developing an effective horizontal communication strategy requires careful planning and alignment with overarching organizational goals.


Here are some key steps for building a comprehensive horizontal communication plan:

1. Conduct an audit of current communication practices. Review how information currently flows cross-functionally and identify gaps, pain points, and areas for improvement.

2. Define clear objectives. What specifically do you want to achieve through enhanced horizontal communication? Improved collaboration? Faster innovation cycles? Increased employee engagement? Set concrete goals.

3. Identify key stakeholders. Who needs to be involved in shaping and implementing the strategy? Engage representatives from different departments and levels. 

4. Map internal networks and connections. Visualize existing relationships and channels between teams, groups, and individuals. Look for potential bottlenecks.

5. Develop guidelines and protocols. Outline preferred communication channels, formats, and expectations for cross-functional interactions.

6. Create centralized hubs. Enable smooth information sharing via intranets, shared drives, messaging platforms, and collaboration tools. 

7. Establish liaison roles. Appoint individuals to act as links between departments and promote horizontal collaboration.

8. Design workspaces to encourage connections. Cluster interdependent teams, include communal areas, and create open floor plans.

9. Plan training for staff. Equip employees with skills to communicate effectively cross-functionally. Teach best practices.

20. Develop change management plans. Help employees adapt to new horizontal ways of working through coaching, support, and reinforcement.

11. Implement in phases. Roll out communication initiatives gradually according to priority and impact.

12. Track progress with KPIs. Use surveys, productivity metrics, and other data to measure adoption and results.

13, Maintain with continuous improvement. Review processes regularly and adapt the strategy as needed. Refine over time.

Aligning the horizontal communication strategy with overarching company goals and culture is key to driving adoption. Provide adequate training and change management support at each step. With careful planning and buy-in across the organization, enhanced horizontal communication can be achieved.

Inês Pinto

Inês Pinto

Inês is the Head of Content at Oneteam. She mainly writes about employee experience and other HR topics. Fun fact about Inês: she is originally from Portugal, grew up in Canada and the US, and now lives in the Netherlands with her husband and 3 daughters!

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