A growing trend in the business world has been creating a culture of “open communication” in the workplace. Open communication workplaces have been a welcomed and growing trend among employees, supervisors, and bosses — but what exactly constitutes “open communication” and is it right for your business?
What is an Open Communication Office Culture?
In short, an office with a culture of open communication is one where employees feel comfortable speaking openly without fear of backlash. Open communication means that both supervisors and employees can speak candidly about their problems in an environment in which both know they will be treated fairly.
For example, imagine that a designer is concerned about their current workload and thinks they may not be able to meet current deadlines. If that designer didn’t feel comfortable speaking about their limits to their supervisor, the designer may work late, then grow resentful of their job and company. In a culture of open communication, the designer would feel comfortable approaching their supervisor to adjust their workload. In the same respect, an open communication-friendly supervisor would authentically listen to the designer’s request and act on it in whatever way possible.
Changing an office culture doesn’t happen in a day, but changes from the top of a company often trickle down. The most essential step of fostering open communication is getting bosses and supervisors educated on the key points of an open communication office.
Know Your Employees as People
While this tip may sound abstract, seeing past employees’ titles and into their humanity is the basis of an open communication office. Learn your employees’ goals, ambitions, hobbies and otherwise. Let meetings and work conversations go off-topic every once in a while. Keeping communications strictly business quickly builds an “us versus them” mentality between employees and bosses.
A great way to get to know your employees is to get out of the office. Set up social outings a few times a year at local restaurants or attractions. By putting everyone on equal footing outside the office, higher-ups can take off their “boss caps” and learn about their employees less by their work responsibilities and more by their genuine personality.
Anonymous Feedback Channel
Either through surveys or anonymous email inboxes, having an anonymous avenue for feedback is one of the best ways to get candid criticism from employees in the early days of an open communication office. The goal, of course, of an open communication office is for employees to feel comfortable speaking their minds but starting anonymously is great first step for learning what your employees are looking for and in a zero-stakes environment.
If you plan to set up an anonymous Google Survey, advise employees to not use their gmail accounts when filling out the form, as it may show alongside their results. Advise the same when using an anonymous feedback email inbox.
When drafting your survey, ask the type of questions that matter to employees but that they may not be comfortable saying out loud. Ask questions like “do you feel happy at work, why or why not,” “Do you think our office runs efficiently, why or why not.” It is essential that when you get genuine criticism or feedback that you act on it immediately. Employees will begin to feel like their voices matter when their feedback leads to concrete action.
Learn from Exit Interviews
Employees leave companies for a multitude of reason, but make sure someone isn’t leaving your business because they felt stuck or unheard. Employees in exit interviews will likely be more open about both the good and bad things about an office since they are on the way out anyways. Don’t be afraid to ask hard hitting question not only about office culture but about the performance of bosses and supervisors.
Put together a written survey for exit interviews and ask outgoing employees to fill them out ahead of time. By giving employees time to think about your questions early, you’ll almost always get better thought-out answers.
In the actual interview itself, do everything you can to drop feelings of interrogation in exchange for conversation. Avoid targeted questions and make absolutely no reference to specific employees. If the conversation suddenly turns to bashing another employee, listen without directly agreeing. Your job is to get authentic feedback about what your outgoing employee liked and disliked about your office. Use their feedback to fuel future changes in yourself and the office.
After several exit interviews, see if you can find a trend among former employees and their feelings about the office. Like in the results of an anonymous survey, be certain to act on all feedback to further foster a culture where everybody’s voice matters.
Public OKRs and Regular Meetings
Be upfront with your employees about the company’s objectives and key results (OKR). Explain to each employee how their work fits into the company’s goals and plans. Make sure key changes in the company are communicated clearly and to everyone.
The best way to get all of a company’s information on the table is to host regular meetings both with your entire team as well as semi frequent one-on-one meetings. Find a flow for these meetings that lands between professional and informal. With the prevalence of remote work and Zoom meetings, it can be doubly difficult to find time for watercooler informal chats, but as the boss, take the first step in setting the tone for your meetings.
Open communication means open communication, so good and bad updates must be shared equally. The quickest ways for employees to feel left in the dark is for them to learn negative updates are being sheltered from them while positive ones are being celebrated. It’s not enough for just the boss to share news and OKRs. Employees must be a real part of the conversation. Get your team in the habit of sharing what projects they are working on as well. Since company OKRs are public, reenforce that everyone’s projects are pieces of the company’s overall goals.
Own Your Mistakes
In the world of tough-guy-isms and old-world corporate boys’ clubs, bosses who own up to their mistakes were weak and seen as weaker by their employees. This is absolutely not true. If a boss is willing to admit when they missed the mark, employees may feel empowered to do the same. Use your mistakes and shortcomings as a learning experience and be just as open about them as your successes.
Talking about mistakes with your team is another great way to break down the vicious us-versus-them mentality between employees and bosses. Trust is essential in an open communication workplace. Don’t betray your employees’ trust by withholding information out of fear of losing face, as the negative impact of suppressing information is almost always greater.
Open communication culture lives and dies by those “in charge”. If change isn’t authentically accepted by higher-ups, employees will never feel comfortable enough to speak openly.
Are You Effectively Using Open Communication Practices?
Many workplaces may be quick to claim their offices believe in “open communication,” but rarely do those claims come with concrete changes. Every business owner and employee can benefit from learning more about, and embracing an open communication office culture. So, if your workplace can use some improvements is to take small gradual steps, ensuring you include your employees along the way, and culture will follow.