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How to be open and honest with your employees in the new era of work

By: David Brown, CEO of Hays U.S. on August 20th, 2020

The world of work as we know it has changed forever and the impact of COVID-19 has meant that we as business leaders have had to adapt the way in which we manage our employees. As we continue to embark on this new era of work, being open and transparent with our staff is more important than ever. In fact, it will be crucial to the success of organizations going forward.

At the beginning of the pandemic, from a personal point of view, I, like so many, was looking for definitive answers, when perhaps there weren’t any. Looking back on it now, all I really wanted was for someone to tell me the truth – even if the truth was hard to hear, “we don’t know how long this crisis will last” or “we don’t know if we’ll ever develop a vaccine.” At that point, I would much rather have heard hard truths, than have been kept in the dark and not told anything at all. This holds true in our professional lives too – when it comes down to it, everyone values honesty and transparency.

However, as leaders we sometimes forget that. We get wrapped up in feeling that we’re expected to know all the answers, and that we must, at all times, be able to instill confidence in our people through the words we speak. But, no matter how hard we try, that can’t always be the case. So, rather than avoiding responding to questions or offering a vague answer, we owe it to our employees to tell them how it is and explain our thinking – even if that truth might be uncomfortable at the time.

After all, as I said above, when it comes down to it – everyone values honesty and transparency. Once you realize that, and adapt the way you communicate accordingly, you’ll soon see that you’re far better able to:

  • Develop trusting, supportive relationships
  • Build a sense of inclusion and togetherness
  • Empower employees and ensure your workforce is happy and productive

Seven ways leaders can be more transparent

Looking back to the early days of the pandemic, people were scared, there was a strong sense of stepping into the unknown. So, we quickly identified that as a senior leadership team we had to communicate to our people on a frequent basis to help build a culture of honesty and transparency, and ultimately ensure our people didn’t feel left in the dark. As a result, I’m pleased to say that our business, top to bottom, is closer now and communicates more than it ever did before.

However, that same feeling of the unknown and navigating unfamiliar waters will continue to persist as we enter a new way of working – the hybrid working model in which teams won’t necessarily be in the same location, at the same time. We must remember that as we enter the next phase of the crisis, the questions we’re asked will be different, but the need for clear, honest and transparent communication will continue to be important.

So, here are some of the lessons we learnt as a team when adapting our approach to communicating with staff during these turbulent times.

1. Increase the frequency of communications

While the pandemic is still ongoing, and we can expect to be feeling the effects of it for some time, I recommend communicating as frequently as possible. For instance, from the outset we went from communicating to the wider business on a monthly basis to weekly. Use this as an opportunity to let everyone know what the latest developments are in relation to the new way of working, reassure them that you’re watching the situation very carefully and that their health and safety always comes first. Be as transparent and honest with them as possible, every step of the way.

By communicating on a regular basis, you are giving yourself more opportunity to keep people in the loop and believe me, they will appreciate it. It will help foster a culture of transparency, providing your employees with a better idea of the bigger picture and the various cogs that are in motion, and, most importantly, what role they have to play.

Speaking from my own experience, this approach has not only meant that as a management team we are being more transparent with staff, but the effect has trickled down – my people are being much more open with one another and with me. There’s a lot more chatting happening online, a lot more emailing back and forth and a lot of conversation over the telephone and video conferencing. I don’t see that ever going away now. In fact, even in a scenario where we’re all back in our offices, I see that continuing.

2. Consistent, concise and clear messaging

Prior to the pandemic, our management team would talk on a call once a week and we would meet in person once a month. Now we’re talking on a daily basis. Among the various pressing issues that we discuss, consistent messaging to our teams is always high on the agenda. After all, it’s important for everyone to be receiving the necessary information in a clear way, whilst ensuring there are no conflicting or confusing messages.

In fast moving situations it can understandably be difficult to keep track of things, and confusing communications do not help the situation at all. This becomes increasingly important when your teams are divided by location. You must ensure everyone is receiving the same message. For instance, don’t provide an update to the team in the office and forget to update those working remotely. Doing so will only create a divide between your workforce and has the potential to generate distrust in the management team as they feel they are not privy to the information that other colleagues are.

Also, be sure to provide reasons to any decisions you make, this will help your employees to understand how and why you have come to that conclusion and will ensure they don’t have to connect the dots themselves. It’s also important to remember to communicate in a human and authentic way. If you don’t have all the answers, be vulnerable and admit that – it will help to build trust.

Due to the frequency of our communications and the joined-up approach from the management team, our messaging is now clearer, more concise and unified than it ever has been. This has been one of the biggest lessons I have learnt during the crisis so far.

3. Share news, both good and bad

Sharing positive news from across the business lifts spirits and promotes a sense of togetherness, during a time when it is needed. It also keeps people connected and ensures everybody can still celebrate one another’s success.

Moving forward we are going to ensure we keep this going, as it’s proved to be invaluable. As colleagues continue to physically see one another less frequently than before, it’s important that they still catch sight of each other’s activities and understand the difference each of them are making. The more people that know about what is happening in the business the better – then there is no chance of people feeling left out. Instead, everyone feels that they have a real understanding of what is happening across the business, and we’re all on the same page.

When sharing good news, use this as an opportunity to thank people, give them recognition and make sure there is a healthy balance between praise for those in the office and those working remotely. Draw on examples of office-based and remote teams working together to deliver results. Let your staff know that despite the challenges everyone is facing, there is a way of working together, of being open with one another, and then share that success.

It is also important that you don’t just focus solely on good news. There will undoubtedly, from time to time, be bad news, that is unavoidable. But deciding to not even acknowledge it could be damaging. If the news has the potential to be in the press, it’s also important your employees hear it from you first, otherwise it will likely destroy any trust between you and your employees. So be transparent about it and make sure you are communicating it to the business with the detail it requires.

4. Be personable

Take the time to speak with your people on a human level, join team calls, ask people how they are and don’t be afraid to share aspects of your own life, your experiences and how you’re feeling. Are there any concerns that you have about operating in the new hybrid model, is there anything you’re struggling to get to grips with? Let people know and connect with them. Our CEO, Alistair Cox, recently wrote about the importance of human leadership, you can read it here.

I join a couple of team meetings every day, often with just a handful of people, and we talk about how everybody is doing, how their families are doing, how they are holding up, what’s happening where they are and what are they seeing in the market. I also make myself available to answer any questions they have. These calls provide me with some real insights into what employees are thinking. They also allow me to show them my authentic self, to gauge the mood and find out what we should be doing to ensure they remain happy and productive.

It’s important to remember that sometimes all people want to do is talk. So, speaking to them directly, in an authentic and real way, will encourage them to do so. This to me has been so important. There is no stone unturned when speaking to your people on a more personal level, allowing you to build on the trust you already have with them.

5. Create an open-door concept

I operate an open-door policy, even in the virtual sense, to make myself available to anyone who has questions and making sure to not turn anyone away. When people are struggling or if they have concerns, it’s best that they don’t try to deal with them on their own. By making yourself available to talk, even if you are unable to answer all their questions, you’ll build trust and create loyalty among your workforce. Of course, if I am unable to answer all their questions and I tell them as much, that honesty and transparency is appreciated. That goes a long way.

To create an effective open-door policy, we make it clear to my people that as a leadership team we are here to support them, that they are the most important part of our business. We reassure them that their mental and physical wellbeing is not only critical to their own happiness, but also to our success as a business. I not only encourage people to contact me if they want to talk, but to reach out to their line managers and their regional leaders too, and I think the measure of success from that is that they do. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t have a flurry of emails or calls, from people that just want to talk.

6. Listen and take feedback on board

Transparency in the employer/employee relationship shouldn’t be one sided, so if you are being open with your staff, encourage them to share honest feedback with you. I can’t emphasize the importance of listening enough. Listening to people is invaluable, it allows you to know what’s working and what isn’t. It’s increasingly important as we step into the hybrid model, which is unfamiliar to most of us. Once you have received feedback from employees, you can finetune your approach and let this new way of working evolve into something that works for everyone. It’s also a priority for my management team too, when we speak on our daily calls we always dedicate some of that time to talk about what we’re hearing from teams right now, and I think that this is another one of the by-products of the crisis which will continue into the new era of working.

It’s important that you take the feedback you receive on board and not only that, but action it if necessary – show your workforce that it pays to be honest and that together you can create a better workplace. Show them that you value their input, share good ideas with the wider team and open up discussions.

7. Reach as many people as possible

It’s important when communicating the big things to the entire business, not to leave anybody out. Your communications need to be inclusive, making sure everybody is receiving the same concise message. Let them know what you’re thinking, the conversations you’re having at management level and of course the latest developments which affect them.

I use my weekly newsletter to communicate to everyone at the same time. This allows me to communicate directly to our company on my latest thoughts about the business, what’s on my mind and the things that we’re considering. I also use it is an opportunity to encourage and thank people. Our entire business is thanked every week, for their hard work and their dedication, and their focus.

I’ll talk about the challenges of maintaining good mental health and of us working remotely. I’ll also share my own struggles, like those days when I feel like I can’t stare at the same four walls anymore. This is important as it lets employees know the value in being open, especially about how we’re feeling and our concerns. I find it cathartic.

I hope you have found these pointers useful, but above all else, the main take away from this blog is the importance of remembering that you can’t be expected to know all of the answers. It’s OK to admit that – doing so is not showing weakness and it will not damage people’s confidence in your leadership. In fact, their respect for you will grow. Being open and honest, especially now, when people feel very vulnerable, is more important than ever.

For more advice, visit the resources section of our website

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