Comment

Being open with staff is key to running a successful business

Lockdowns have dramatically improved how employees feel about information being shared with them – and they're more productive as a result

A happy person working at a computer (illustration)
Only through the fulsome sharing of information will staff feel trusted, empowered and content

Reports suggesting that Donald Trump is unwilling to share daily intelligence briefings with President-elect Joe Biden, as has historically been the case, is a clear example of the old adage that information is power.

I have long held the view that the sharing of information, as broadly as possible, is the most important prerequisite for an engaged and productive workforce. Only through the fulsome sharing of information can people feel truly trusted, empowered and given responsibility. From that flows an increased sense of purpose and reward.

In this context, it has been instructive to watch the debate on the second lockdown in Parliament.

The UK Statistics Agency rapped the Government on the knuckles for not sharing the “data and assumptions” behind Sage’s models “transparently”, while housing secretary Robert Jenrick admitted there had been no proper assessment of the economic damage of a second lockdown.

Against this backdrop, MPs spent most of their time debating the validity of the numbers and speculating on the balance between health and economics without fulsome information. This cannot be the best foundation for gaining consensus or informed policy making.

I’m not for one moment saying that business should adopt the same process for agreement as Parliament. But I have long held the view that the sharing of information, as broadly as possible, is the most important prerequisite for an engaged and productive workforce. Only through the fulsome sharing of information can people feel truly trusted, empowered and given responsibility. From that flows an increased sense of purpose and reward.

On my Engaging Business platform, we measure an organisation’s prowess at sharing information through our workplace surveys.

We ask employees “do you have the information you need to do your job?” to understand how well trained and equipped they are.

We ask “is information openly shared with you?” to understand how well information is being cascaded.

We also ask “are your views heard at work?” to ascertain if there is a free flow of communication.

Our research consistently shows that organisations are least good at “openly sharing information”, scoring five percentage points behind the other two questions.

I suspect this is either because middle managers are too busy to pass wider business data on, perhaps feel that information gives them power and they are not inclined to pass it on, or haven’t been involved in the design of the message so feel removed from it.

Interestingly, the one question where non-management score more highly is on having the information to do their job well.

Our scores differ of course across the 26 sectors we measure. The tech industry comes top consistently. Not far behind are the marketing and advertising, and real estate industries.

So which industries need some help? The chemicals industry scores the worst, followed by the agriculture and architecture sectors. Education is also notable for a poor performance on employees’ views being heard.

When it comes to age, those in mid-career feel less well informed – and our data shows the longer you work for an organisation, the more in the dark you feel.

For gender, it’s women who score highest overall, albeit by a slim margin. Yet the biggest gap in favour of women is the response to whether their views are heard at work – perhaps because many feel women are better listeners and more empathetic.

Our analysis on ethnicity reveals that Asian employees score the highest, driven by Asian males, making this the only ethnic group that saw men score higher than their female counterparts. This is followed by white and black employees.

But there is good news. The lockdowns of 2020 have dramatically improved how employees feel about information being shared with them – so much so, it has become the highest-scoring section in our survey. The overall score jumped six percentage points, with all questions related to information sharing seeing a positive increase.

That’s good news, but it’s worth reflecting for a moment on why. Is it that managers now feel they have to keep their teams updated more given they are physically not close? Is it that employees working in isolation need to be trusted more with information? Or are employees finding the time without a commute to read everything that their managers are giving them?

For this positive trend to continue, the questions I ask are these: are my employees continually being trained and given the information they need throughout their careers to be effective?

Is senior management successfully cascading information on the organisation's performance and direction or, as our research suggests, is that information getting stuck at middle management level – and why?

Lastly, what culture have you bred and what feedback loops do you have to encourage two way communication to adapt and improve organisational performance?

Lord Mark Price is founder of Engaging Business, and former trade minister and managing director of Waitrose

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