What is informal communication: A comprehensive guide

Explore the realm of informal communication in this comprehensive guide, covering its definition, advantages, obstacles, and tactics to harness informal communication for improved workplace connectivity and collaboration.

Inês Pinto

What is informal communication: A comprehensive guide

Table of contents

What is informal communication?

Informal communication refers to the exchange of information, ideas, and opinions between people within an organization that takes place outside of formal communication channels. This type of communication usually happens spontaneously and is not bound by rigid rules, policies or procedures. 

Some common methods of informal communication include conversations during breaks, discussions over lunch or coffee, phone calls, emails, memos, and hallway chats. Unlike formal modes of communication such as meetings, presentations and written reports, informal communication tends to be more casual, conversational and free-flowing.


Informal communication plays an important role in the workplace as it helps build relationships, increase understanding, promote collaboration, spark creativity and innovation, share knowledge and improve job satisfaction. It provides opportunities for employees to give and receive timely feedback, ask questions, brainstorm ideas, share concerns and develop trust with colleagues and managers.

Strong informal networks keep organizations agile and help disseminate information quickly. Informal communication complements formal methods and is essential for organizational culture, morale and productivity.

Characteristics of informal communication

Informal communication tends to be more spontaneous and casual compared to formal communication. It does not follow any predefined structure and can flow in any direction.

Here are some key characteristics of informal communication:

✅ Spontaneous: Informal communication is spontaneous as it occurs naturally without any prior planning. Conversations can start spontaneously between colleagues or friends.

✅ Casual: The environment in informal communication is casual. There is no strict protocol to be followed. Conversations can be relaxed and friendly. 

Unstructured: There is no set structure or format to informal conversations. Discussions can move flexibly between various topics.

Bi-directional: Informal communication allows for two-way interactions. Any participant can freely share their thoughts and opinions.

Spread through word of mouth: Informal communication spreads through word of mouth, gossip, rumor mills etc. There are no formal channels and it spreads through interpersonal interactions.

Informal Communication vs Formal Communication

Informal communication differs from formal communication in several key ways:

Characteristics: Informal communication tends to be more casual and spontaneous, while formal communication is more structured and planned. Informal communication arises out of personal needs or interests, while formal communication fulfills organizational requirements.

Direction: Informal communication can flow horizontally, vertically, or diagonally between people regardless of rank or position. Formal communication typically flows vertically through an organization's hierarchy. 

Flexibility: Informal communication is more flexible, with fewer rules and procedures. Formal communication adheres to established protocols and official channels.

Speed: Informal communication is generally faster, allowing for an immediate exchange of information. Formal communication has built-in delays as it passes through proper channels.

Record: Informal conversations are rarely recorded, while formal communications often result in memos, documents, reports, etc. 

Objectives: Informal communication fulfills social needs and relationships. Formal communication aims to share company information, give instructions, and make decisions.

informal communication vs formal communication

In summary, informal communication complements formal communication in an organization. Informal channels help spread information quickly, bind teams together, and address personal needs. Formal communication ensures rules are followed, objectives are achieved, and information flows properly through official channels. Both are vital for an organization to operate effectively.

Types and examples of informal communication

Informal communication in the workplace often occurs through:

🍇 Grapevine/rumor mill: Information, especially speculation and gossip, spreads quickly through word-of-mouth and social interactions. This "grapevine" communication network tends to thrive on rumors, which may or may not be factual.

🌊 Water cooler conversations: Casual small talk that takes place spontaneously by the water cooler, in the cafeteria, or in other common areas of an office. These daily interactions help build social bonds, though substantive work issues are rarely discussed.

🥪 Lunch and coffee breaks: Coworkers chatting during meals or coffee breaks often share rumors, complaints, and the latest workplace news. While this strengthens relationships, vital information may be absent.

👋 Impromptu discussions: Informal, unplanned conversations that spring up, allowing for brainstorming and quick questions. However, without an agenda, these chats may lose focus. 

📱 Social media: Private social media groups and chats among coworkers facilitate casual chatter. This can improve morale but also breeds cliques, divides, and distractions. Confidential business matters may also be shared carelessly.


Advantages of informal communication

Informal communication provides several benefits in the workplace and organizations. Here are some of the main advantages:

✔️ Promotes social bonds

Informal communication helps build interpersonal relationships and rapport among employees. Chatting during breaks or over lunch enables people to get to know each other better. This promotes friendships and strengthens social bonds, which enhances team cohesion. Employees who share good relationships tend to cooperate better on tasks. 

✔️ Provides emotional support

Informal channels allow people to seek personal advice, blow off steam, share concerns, and find emotional support. Venting frustrations informally to co-workers can be cathartic. Knowing colleagues empathize can be comforting. This outlet helps manage stress and boosts morale.

✔️ Speedy transfer of information

Informal networks circulate information and messages quickly. Details flow rapidly through social interactions, including gossip, rumor, and casual sharing. This spontaneous exchange keeps employees informed despite gaps in formal communications. Informal channels can spread information missed or delayed by formal messaging.

✔️ Gives feedback on policies

Informal networks provide a sounding board for gauging reactions to formal policies. Employees' opinions and feedback on new rules or changes spread unofficially. This helps managers understand initial responses before final implementation. Informal chats act like an assessment tool to detect concerns about new initiatives.

Disadvantages of informal communication

Informal communication can have some downsides if not managed properly:

❌ Spread of rumors and gossip

Informal channels like the "grapevine" can spread information quickly, but this information is not always accurate. Rumors and gossip often get distorted as they pass from person to person, damaging relationships and morale.

❌ Loss of productivity

Too much informal chatter during work hours can reduce employees' focus and diminish productivity. Time spent socializing should be balanced with actual work.

❌ Misunderstandings due to lack of structure

Without clear guidelines, informal discussions can easily be misinterpreted or taken out of context. The absence of structure means there is no paper trail, which can cause confusion.

To minimize these drawbacks, managers should provide some guidance around appropriate informal interactions. But informal channels should not be discouraged completely, as they fill an important role in organizational culture and relationships. With some oversight, companies can reap the benefits of informal communication while avoiding its potential downsides.

Best practices for informal communication 

Informal communication can be very beneficial for an organization, but it also needs to be managed properly.

Here are some best practices for making the most of informal communication:

Set expectations on topics: Make it clear to employees what types of information can be shared informally versus what needs to go through formal channels. This helps avoid confusion and prevents sensitive data from being mishandled.

Leaders participate occasionally: Managers should join in on informal exchanges from time to time. This shows they are approachable and helps them stay in touch with what's happening on the front lines. But leaders shouldn't dominate informal interactions.

Provide spaces for interactions: Create comfortable places where employees can connect, such as break rooms, cafeterias, and designated collaboration areas. Having spaces that facilitate informal communication makes it more likely to occur.

Cultivate openness and trust: Build a transparent, trusting culture where employees feel safe candidly sharing ideas, asking questions, and voicing concerns informally. Openness leads to richer information exchange.

Following best practices helps ensure informal communication adds value in your organization while minimizing potential downsides. With the right structure and culture, informal communication can be an invaluable asset.


7 Tips to improve informal communication

Informal communication can be improved in organizations through some key strategies:

tips to improve informal communication

1. Set guidelines on appropriate topics

Make clear what topics are appropriate for informal discussions versus formal meetings. This prevents inappropriate or sensitive information from spreading.

2. Foster open communication

Encourage employees to communicate openly without fear of judgement. This allows for the free flow of ideas.

3. Provide spaces for informal interactions

Create physical spaces like break rooms or virtual spaces like chat channels to facilitate informal communication. 

4. Invite leaders to participate in informal channels

When leaders regularly participate in informal networks, it signals these channels are valued and builds trust.

5. Listen to informal chatter

Paying attention to informal conversations allows leaders to take the pulse of the organization and address issues early.

6. Train managers

Provide training to help managers understand the role and value of informal networks. This improves oversight and guidance.

7. Leverage digital tools

Use enterprise social networks, instant messaging and collaboration tools to enable efficient informal communication.

Improve your internal comms with Oneteam

If you’re managing a frontline team, you need an internal communications tool that allows your deskless employees to easily send and receive messages while they’re on the go.

Oneteam is a mobile-first employee experience that offers plenty of built-in internal comms features that you can leverage to boost your team’s internal comms.

  • Chat: Communicate quickly with your employees with group chats or by sending private messages.
  • Timeline: Every employee has their own personal timeline with only the messages that are relevant to them. 
  • Events: Schedule events and manage attendance in real-time.
  • Document management: Upload documents and manage access.

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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