Workplace Transparency - Create a Transparent Workplace, but Do It the Right Way

Nataša Mlađenović
Nataša Mlađenović
Sep 21, 202211 minute read

Workplace transparency is a hot topic these days, but what does it really mean to create a transparent workplace?

And more importantly, how can you do it the right way?


Creating a healthy transparent workplace is harder than it sounds. It requires a delicate balance of making sure everyone has the information they need while also protecting sensitive data and respecting people's privacy.

In this article, we'll take a look at what workplace transparency is, why it's important, and some tips on how to create a more transparent workplace without oversharing.

What is Workplace Transparency?

Workplace transparency is usually defined as the sharing of information between employees and management in an open and honest way. This includes everything from sharing company goals and objectives and fostering open communication to giving feedback on someone's performance.

The goal of workplace transparency is to create a more open and collaborative environment where everyone feels they have a stake in the success of the company.

Why is Transparency Important?

There are a number of reasons why that is important.

For one, it can help to build trust between employees and management. In today's world, there's a lot of skepticism when it comes to companies and their motives.

Workplace transparency can help to combat this by giving employees a window into the inner workings of the company. When they see that management is being open and honest, it can go a long way towards building trust.

Transparency can also lead to greater employee engagement. Employees who feel like they're in the dark are more likely to become disengaged and uninterested in their work. On the other hand, employees who feel like they're part of the decision-making process are more likely to be engaged and motivated.

Finally, transparency can also encourage creativity and innovation. When people feel like they're able to openly share their ideas, they're more likely to come up with creative solutions to problems.

The Dark Side of Transparency in the Workplace

It sounds like a great idea, the concept of everyone having access to all the info they'll possibly need, but humans aren't computers. We need some level of privacy, whether it's in our personal or professional lives.

A few years ago, HBS professor Ethan Bernstein set out to find evidence that transparency in the workplace does improve performance, but what he found is that there is much more nuance to it.

In his research, he found that workers in these kinds of environments felt like they were being constantly monitored and evaluated, which led to a feeling of mistrust.

This kind of transparency can lead to what's known as "the paradox of visibility," where people are so focused on being seen that they're actually less productive.

So What Went Wrong?

Fostering transparency is not a new trend by all means and companies around the world have tried to find the right way to make their workplace more open for decades.

Open workspaces, for example, were one of those tries. In theory, they should promote open communication and collaboration between colleagues - be it within one team, or across departments.

And it worked for some, but others not only did not benefit from the switch, but actually became less productive - the number of people who say they can’t concentrate at their desk has increased by 16% since 2008, and the number of those who don’t have access to quiet places to do focused work is up by 13%.

The problem is that, in their efforts to promote transparency, companies have overlooked the importance of giving employees the choice to opt-in or out of it.

Take Away for example - an American-based luggage and travel accessories retailer - in an attempt to make their organization more transparent made communicating via Slack channels mandatory.

Emailing colleagues was not allowed as all communication needed to be transparent and freely available to all employees.

Unsurprisingly, instead of fostering a more collaborative environment, that incentive had the opposite effect - employees felt like they were being micro-managed, and that their every move was being watched.

The Importance of Boundaries

It's all about balance and finding the sweet spot between transparency and privacy. Bernstein says that in his field studies he witnessed that companies which managed to do just that, were able to reap the benefits of both.

They used four types of boundaries to establish certain zones of privacy within open environments:

Zones of Attention

These refer to a certain level of physical separation of a team or a part of the team with the intention to avoid exposing every little action of those employees to the scrutiny of a crowd.

That resulted in increased productivity and collaboration within that group, as they felt much more comfortable trying out new things, without the constant pressure of having to perform in front of an audience.

Zones of Judgment

These boundaries refer to performance reviews and regulate how they are conducted and with whom the evaluations are shared.

Performance reviews are stressful for most people, but many actually do like to partake in them, as they offer a chance to get both recognized for one’s work, as well as an opportunity to improve.

However, if the results of these reviews are shared with people who don't really need to know them - such as the boss's boss, HR, or even other employees - it can create an environment of fear, instead of one of collaboration.

Zones of Slack

This one might be the hardest to establish, as it goes against the grain of what most organizations are used to. It refers to the set boundaries between decision rights and improvement rights.

What does that mean? Well, managers are the ones who execute decision rights. They are the ones who decide how things are done and who does what.

However, if only a few employees get to make decisions while the rest are left out, it can lead to a feeling of powerlessness and frustration - especially if they aren’t welcome to improve systems and processes.

This will have employees withhold their ideas and creativity, which in turn hampers innovation.

In order to avoid this, it's important to separate the decision rights from the improvement rights, by giving all employees a chance to contribute their ideas and be heard.

Zones of Time

These are boundaries around carefully defined periods of experimentation to avoid both too frequent and too infrequent interruptions.

Simply put, this method helps companies balance transparency and privacy by ensuring that there are specific times set aside for employees to experiment with new ideas and other times when they can focus on their work without distractions.

This can be done by assigning improvement rights to certain groups of employees for a fixed time frame - let’s say a month, or a quarter - or even by just providing them with unmonitored slack time, which they can use as they please.

The key here is not to micromanage, but to give employees the freedom to try out new things and learn from their mistakes.

Bernstein states that, across several studies involving different industries, cultures, and types of work, the companies that had done all this were the ones that consistently got the most innovative, productive, and thoughtful work from their employees.

How do you Increase Healthy Transparency in the Workplace?

So now that we know what needs to be avoided, and which boundaries need to be established, how do we actually go about increasing transparency in the workplace in a healthy way?

Here are a few tips:

Encourage Two-Way Communication:

The first step to a more transparent workplace is to encourage two-way communication between employees and management.

This means creating an environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up and offering their suggestions, without fear of retribution.

It also means that managers need to be open to hearing these suggestions and taking them seriously, instead of brushing them off or dismissing them outright.

Make Information Readily Available:

A centralized hub where you gather all information in one place is always a great idea, as it makes it easy for everyone to stay up-to-date and find all necessary information in one go.

Of course, there will always be some things that need to stay confidential, but in general, try to make as much information as possible available to all employees.

This includes things like financial reports, company goals, marketing plans, etc. The more information employees have, the better they will be able to do their jobs and contribute to the company's success.

Make Use of Technologies:

In this day and age, there are countless technologies available that can help increase transparency in the workplace, and improve overall communication in the workplace.

From project management tools that give everyone an overview of what's going on, to communication platforms that will connect your communication silos, there's sure to be a tool out there that will fit your specific needs.

Connect the Silos Across Your Company

Bridge silos and foster greater cross-team collaboration across the company.

Encourage Feedback:

Finally, it's important to encourage feedback from employees on a regular basis. This can be done through surveys, polls, or even just informal conversations.

The important thing is to give employees a chance to voice their opinions and suggestions and to actually listen to what they have to say.

By implementing these tips, you can start increasing transparency in the workplace and create a more positive, productive environment for everyone involved.

Daring Examples of being Transparent at Work

Your typical examples of transparency in the workplace might be things like sharing financial information with employees or being open about company goals.

But there are some companies that take transparency to a whole other level. Here are a few examples:

1. Basecamp: All Workplace Policies Made Public

Basecamp is a company known for two things: its project management tool and their extremely transparent workplace.

A couple of years back the company released its entire employee handbook online, for anyone to read and adopt if they wanted to.

Recently they also made all of their workplace policies public.

Co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson said: "We now invite our customers and anyone else who’s interested in reviewing our policies to collaborate on making them better, making them fairer. To this purpose, we’ve put all our Basecamp policies on GitHub!"

This allows not only their employees but also everyone who’s interested, to try and improve their policies. Hansson also invites readers to use the policies in their own companies and only asks for "a bit of credit" in return.

2. Buffer: Calculate-Your-Salary App

This might be out of the comfort zone of most organizations, but Buffer decided to be completely transparent about how they calculate salaries.

Buffer is another company that's known for its transparency when it comes to revenues, investments, progress reports, and such.

But they are one of the few companies that not only disclose employee salaries but also give you an insight into how these are calculated - they even created an app for it.

Disclosing this information helps to create a more level playing field and gives employees a better understanding of how their compensation is determined.

3. HubSpot: No Doors Policy

HubSpot is a company known for its efforts in creating a healthy company culture - they even released their Company Culture Code Template for other organizations to use.

Among other things, they value transparency a great deal and have raised two-way communication to a whole new level.

By implementing the "no doors" policy, they enabled everyone in the company to contact anyone - even the CEO - via direct chat message.

This ensures that communication lines are always open and that employees feel comfortable reaching out with any questions or concerns they might have.

4. Valve: The Flattest Hierarchy Around

Valve, a video gaming company based in Bellevue, Washington, has a truly unique company structure, as it has no management whatsoever.

This means that the Zone of Slack boundaries are pretty much obsolete, as each and every employee gets to choose the projects they want to be involved in, and have therefore all the decision and improvement rights within that self-chosen group.

This makes for a rather horizontal company structure, with very little room left for any sort of hierarchical thinking.

The company is also very transparent about its structure and policies and has released its (quite creative) Handbook for New Employees to the public. In there they state:

"Maybe it’s too much to ask the rigid hierarchies at other development houses to drastically shift to this free-loving hippie way of conducting business, but it shouldn’t be too much for those companies to treat their employees like adults. After all, hiring someone is a sign of trust. Extend that trust to every aspect of the position.”

In Conclusion

Transparency in the workplace is a matter as complicated as it is important so investing time and resources into doing it right is crucial for the success of any organization.

By taking small steps to improve communication and creating an environment where feedback is encouraged, you can make a big impact on the overall transparency of your company.

And if you're feeling extra daring, you can always take a cue from some of the companies that are leading the way in this area and push the boundaries of what's considered "normal" when it comes to workplace transparency.

What's important is to understand that these policies take time, and should never be forced upon employees - transparency should always be a two-way street.

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