This is the second installment in an ongoing series called Channeling Change. In our first thread, Slack CFO Allen Shim outlined how organizations can respond to this unique moment in history by embracing the opportunity for business transformation. In this thread, Slack’s Head of Internal Communications Amanda Atkins explains how transparency is key to helping organizations thrive.
The way communication happens in the world is dramatically different from 20 years ago, 10 years ago—or even six months ago. Major life events are communicated over group texts. Paper invitations through snail mail are a rarity. Apps let us avoid awkward talk about money and go straight to splitting the cost of meals or rides. We share details about our lives and thoughts and ideas with the entire internet and constantly consume those insights from others. Breaking news is known instantly—there’s no waiting for the next day’s newspaper.
As more transparent, real-time communication has become the norm in our personal lives, we can clearly see the influence—and benefits—of this new way of connecting at work.
I’ve spent nearly 20 years doing internal communications for companies large and small, across multiple industries, and two rules have remained the the same across the board:
- As communication in the world evolves, people’s expectations of communication in the workplace evolves with it.
- When companies don’t keep up with new communication norms, the conversation doesn’t stop—it just happens without you.
On the flip side, when a company acknowledges this reality, embraces it, and actively works to enable modern communication practices within their organization, everyone benefits:
- The company’s leaders set the tone and own the narrative.
- Employees feel heard, valued and empowered.
- Issues and conflicts are dealt with quickly and openly.
- Decisions are clear.
- Covert gossip, concern and malcontent diminish dramatically—so rumors are cut short and distractions are reduced.
Sounds good, right? And the best news is that your company can make this shift.
But before we get into solutions, it’s important to acknowledge and understand the realities of company culture and its role in setting the stage.
The reality of company culture
Within every company, employees have concerns, ideas, and misunderstandings. They hear rumors and share them with others. They question decisions and priorities. News that thrills employees in one region may confuse employees in another. This has always been true.
Now re-read that last paragraph but replace “company” with “society” and “employees” with “people.” This is how humans operate. People don’t magically change when they enter a company as employees, so the same communication patterns are going to be at play.
Ignoring this reality can foster drama and distraction: Rumors perpetuate and frustrations fester. Leaders appear out of touch and lose credibility. Engagement, loyalty and productivity suffer.
It takes work upfront to embrace transparency and invite even the toughest discourse within an organization.
You’ll hear and see and participate in conversations that may feel taboo or involve big feelings. You’ll sometimes have to make unpopular calls, or even be vulnerable and change course. It will feel uncomfortable, hard and frustrating at times.
But it will save a lot of heartache and painful clean-up down the road, creating a strong foundation for the health and alignment of your organization. According to the MIT Sloan Management Review, transparency trends are here to stay. And it’s not all because of millennials and Gen Z workers.
Expectations are rising across the board. Workers care about how the company operates. They want to understand more about its products and services. They expect leaders to capably field questions on all of the above.
Transforming your company’s conversation
Every company is different: different business priorities, different tools for communication and collaboration, and different employee populations. Yet every company can build its communication strategy on five common principles:
1. Demonstrate that transparency is important
Transparency isn’t about looping every employee in on every single detail. It’s really about four main things:
- Make sure employees understand how your business works. You want them to understand the big picture of your business, your industry, and your competition—and your employees want this too. The vast majority of workers are eager to learn more about the metrics that drive their company’s business. Sharing those details creates a strong foundation for everything: It enables agility and resilience during hard times, reduces distraction, and ensures people can see how their contributions fit in and make a difference. Build this in from the first day of onboarding, and regularly reinforce it.
- Inform employees about big news first—or at least time it within minutes of any public announcement. “Today we are announcing (or just announced) X—and here’s what it means for us” is all it takes to build stronger credibility and engagement than employees getting their company news from Twitter or a Google News alert. Is a sensitive press release hitting the wire at 9 a.m.? Have your company announcement ready to post at 9:01 a.m.
- Be upfront about things you can’t publicly share but know people will ask about. It’s better to be clear about what you can and can’t talk about (and why) than to say nothing at all. Otherwise, people will naturally insert their own narratives, and you’ll end up expending unnecessary energy chasing the rumor mill.
- Address potentially controversial topics proactively. Instituting a new policy you know will create friction? Acknowledge this when you announce it rather than waiting for it to be an issue you need to react to. Saying, “I know this change may be hard to hear. Here’s why it’s important,” goes a long way toward showing you’re in touch with your people and not making decisions in an echo chamber.
2. Create an infrastructure for handling employee questions and concerns
A transparent organization will still need to field questions and concerns. A scalable framework will set all companies up for success, no matter how large or fast-growing.
- Create a repeatable format for day-to-day questions. Every employee has questions about day-to-day operations—think expense reports, health benefits, or booking travel. The most scalable, sustainable way to handle these kinds of questions is to create avenues where the right subject-matter experts can monitor and respond to inquiries, such as a dedicated channel or team email alias. Here at Slack, each team follows a standard naming convention and creates their own channels for repeated requests, such as #help-finance, #help-benefits, or #help-travel. Over time, these channels become invaluable, referenceable resources for institutional knowledge.
- Offer reliable venues for questions and concerns that fall outside of day-to-day operations. Employees will have questions about that big organizational change you just announced, or why a fundraising decision was made, or how you decided to sponsor that charitable cause over all the other options. Don’t let these questions fester in backchannels or hallway conversations. Invite them into a public forum where they can be addressed swiftly and directly by a voice of authority. This could be a dedicated “ask me anything” (AMA) channel like we have at Slack, a regularly cadenced live Q&A forum, time-bound virtual AMAs on specific topics, or—ideally—all of the above.
- Give employees dedicated venues to converse amongst themselves. Sometimes, people aren’t looking for an executive-level or other “official” response to something that’s on their minds—they just want to talk about it with their colleagues. That’s great! Having a dedicated channel or other venue for this is productive. Set expectations for where people can go to get a company response (might be a #company-ama Slack channel or a weekly virtual Town Hall) versus where they can discuss a topic amongst themselves (perhaps a #company-culture channel like we use at Slack, or dedicated social gatherings). Sometimes you’ll see topics jump from one venue to the other. That’s OK too.
- Make room for non-work discussions. Employees don’t stop being people when they start their workday. They want an outlet to talk about what’s happening in the world around them and connect with other employees on topics they care about. Enabling this discourse in team meetings, Town Halls or even through employee-created channels—things like #politics, #social-justice, #tech-culture—keeps you in touch with what’s on employees’ minds and demonstrates that you’re engaged in the societal issues that affect them.
3. Have a process to triage challenging topics and manage them to resolution
Encouraging hard topics to rise to the surface means you need a process to address them. Establish your process and share it, so people know what to expect. It should look something like this:
- Once a question is asked, acknowledge it. Leaving a question unacknowledged sends its own message. And acknowledgement is easy. It could be an :eyes: emoji reaction to a Slack post, or a response that says, “Thanks for your question, we’re working on it and expect to share a response here by the end of this week.”
Commit to a timeframe to respond. Time frames will vary based on a question’s complexity, and that’s OK—just set expectations accordingly. Need an hour? A week? Either is reasonable as long as you’re openly making a commitment so people know what to expect. And if you need more time than you originally thought to solidify an answer, say so.
- Discuss the response with the right people. Whether you have the discussion in an established private channel with other company leaders or over a quick call, make sure you align on what the response should be and who should post it. This ensures there’s agreement and support for the response before it’s shared with employees.
- Know when to intervene. Is a conversation getting heated? Creating a distraction you know you won’t be able to address right away? Then it’s time to intervene and redirect that energy to a venue that’s more productive. This might look like responding in a Slack thread with “I understand this is an important topic to a lot of people, and we’re committed to addressing it—but it won’t get resolved in this thread. We’ll hold a live discussion forum tomorrow at 10 a.m. where the subject matter experts on this issue will be available to answer questions. I’ll report back with takeaways from the discussion for those who can’t make it.” Or, keep it simple and say, “We’ll address this question at the next Q&A forum”—which works particularly well if you’re already having those on a regular cadence.
4. Set expectations for behavior
Your company’s Slack workspace and other virtual spaces are part of your company, and employees’ behavior should align with that.
- You don’t need different behavior guidelines for new communication venues, but it’s important to set the tone. Whether discourse is happening in a live meeting, in a Slack channel, over email, by the coffee maker, at a company-sponsored holiday party or anywhere else that’s work-related, expectations for employees’ behavior should be clearly communicated and consistent: Comply with the company’s code of conduct and organizational values.
- Anonymity is rarely the right choice. In almost all circumstances, people should be connected to and accountable for their words in the workplace. This adds a layer of gravity and thoughtfulness to how people communicate with one another and frame their inquiries. Tools like Slack can help with this: According to a recent study by Productiv, those who use Slack are more than twice as likely to use public channels for messaging than comparable messaging products. At Slack, we encourage our teams to default to working in public channels to help their colleagues stay up-to-date on their work. There are exceptions, and you’ll know when you find them. But in most cases, default to transparency and accountability.
- Leaders play an important role in this. If transparency is invited, the resulting discourse must be taken seriously and treated with respect. This means acknowledging and responding with as much clarity as you can, being honest about what you can and cannot say, and being OK with a response not being universally liked. And sometimes, it means saying you learned something new and are changing course. That can be hard to do, even for the most confident leader. But facing tough or even unpopular issues head-on is vital to maintaining credibility.
5. Experiment and continuously improve
You may implement all of these ideas verbatim and find that they work like a charm, or you may find that some work and others fall flat. That’s OK!
- Offer a variety of options for people to raise issues. Some people are more comfortable communicating in writing. Some prefer to raise their hand and speak in a live meeting. Others may be very engaged in an issue and its resolution but not want to speak up—virtually or otherwise—at all. By offering a consistent, reliable mix of public venues for transparent discussion that includes virtual and live options, you’ll meet everyone’s needs.
- Ask for feedback. Whether you use a recurring employee survey, anecdotal evidence, participation numbers, gut checks with various employee networks, or ideally a mix of all of the above, make sure you’re getting feedback on what’s working and what’s not.
- Try new things! Curious about trying a focus group series? Exec office hours? A new app integration in Slack? Great! Nothing you try has to last forever. Give it a month or two, get feedback, and decide if you want to keep going or not. At Slack, this is often as easy as sharing a quick poll in-channel! Experimentation and adaptation will increase visibility into your organization while also demonstrating your commitment to maintaining an open, ongoing dialogue with employees.
A new way of operating, a new way of leading
Encouraging transparency and open communication in the workplace can be uncomfortable but can have big rewards: true organizational alignment, fewer distractions, increased speed, shared understanding, and higher levels of leadership trust, credibility and confidence. These benefits help your company operate with less friction and foster a culture that attracts and retains talented people who want to have their voice heard at work.
When you break down the old walls and start engaging with more voices, you tap into a new level of insight about your business. You see how empowering employees to be their whole selves at work translates to a greater connection to the company and each other, and you see the benefits of an organizational discourse grounded in mutual trust.
Adopting modern conventions of how we communicate into your company culture is worth the investment of your time and energy. It’s worth the learning curve. You’ll be a better leader, and your workforce (and business!) will be stronger for it.
So, what’s one step you can take in this direction today? And perhaps as more important, what’s at risk if you don’t?