Buffer’s extreme transparency: inspiring or dystopian?

What would happen if everybody in your company knew everything about your business – your revenue, everyone’s salaries, how the company pitches itself to investors, even how much you slept last night?

This might sound like the premise of a sci-fi novel, but it’s what’s happening right now at social media tools startup Buffer, a company with a small, distributed team that takes transparency to extremes. How extreme?

  • Your coworkers know when you sleep and what you eat. “We recently gave everyone at Buffer a Jawbone UP wristband. It allows you to automatically track your sleep, your daily steps, your nutrition, and a lot more…. Browsing everyone’s sleep patterns and talking about how to get more deep sleep has an amazing effect on productivity,” co-founder Leo Widrich recently told Inc.com.
  • The company shared its fundraising pitch deck with the world and disclosed the details of a $500,000 investments in the company.
  • Financial details like salaries (including equity) and revenue are completely out in the open.

While it’s crystal clear what Buffer’s policies are thanks to the company’s radical commitment to transparency, whether this full disclosure policy is an unalloyed good is far less cut and dried. Reactions to all this sharing (or oversharing, depending on your perspective) have been mixed.

Fans of transparency

First, it should be said that this level of transparency has its fair share of fans. Many celebrate Buffer’s openness — “It’s refreshing to find a team so committed to self-improvement and personal development,” said one representative commenter – and at least some candidates find it a big draw.

“Beyond their product, I’m really interested in being a part of their company’s culture. Even as an outsider, it’s clear that Joel and Leo have nurtured an environment that trusts team members to find what makes them happy and effective, and to constantly be learning from each other…. I see them as the poster child of how most startups will operate in 10 years,” wrote enthusiastic new hire Hartley Brody in a blog post announcing he’d be joining the Buffer team.

Meanwhile, over on the HBR blogs, strategy consultant Dorie Clark makes the academic case that leaders will need to increasingly rely on transparency rather than Steve Jobs-like mystique to motivate employees, recover from setbacks and scandals, and recruit like-minded talent.

Is extreme transparency a press ploy?

But while this transparency has certainly won praise, in some corners it has also raised eyebrows from those who wonder if it is, essentially, a spectacle – a very public and rather extreme stance that’s designed (quite successfully, it turns out) to attract media coverage.

GigaOM positively covered the company’s unconventional decision to share the minutiae of its fundraising efforts, calling it “an interesting explanation of a process that doesn’t often get aired in public and a refreshingly candid approach to announcing the news,” but also mused that such disclosures might be “just a clever marketing tactic from a company that couldn’t get press coverage otherwise.”

Note the word “clever” there. To say that transparency is a PR strategy isn’t necessarily to knock it – it appears to be working quite well – but simply serves as a reminder that there may be more than meets the eye when it comes to the motivations of those touting transparency.

Is it for YOU?

While some seasoned startup observers react to Buffer’s radical transparency with mild cynicism, others find the idea downright dystopian. “This is basically … 1984 sold as something good to the employees. We know your every move, but that’s for your own good,” writes one commenter on Inc.com.

This sort of reaction likely comes down to personal preference and attitudes towards privacy. There are simply some folks who just don’t want their colleagues to know what they had for breakfast or when they skipped the gym and those people are unlikely to want to work at a company like Buffer. Which is fine as long as you screen for this preference before you hire.

Transparency is something that needs to be disclosed upfront so that everyone voluntarily buys in the idea, “Transparency should not be an executive decision. While the head of the company will have the final say, if you want the whole team on board — you should probably involve them in the decision,” writes 15Five CEO David Hassell on the company’s blog. “Since [Buffer] hire[s] for culture first, living out these values is something that most (if not all) employees agree with. Done right, transparency should be exciting, not scary.”

What does all this boil down to? Radical transparency can be catnip for certain type of employees and the press, but a complete turnoff to others. Know that in advance and make sure you’re clear about your culture and thinking clearly about who you want to attract and how you want to position your company before following in Buffer’s footsteps.

“Making the decision to become a fully transparent organization sends a message to your stakeholders (staff, investors, partners, etc). Before you make that commitment, you need to be absolutely certain that the message you are sending aligns with your organizational goals,” writes Hassell. “For example, not only would it be dangerous for a security company to make this type of information public, it would be confusing — it would not align with their organizational values or mission.”

Does more transparency make sense for your company?

Post by Jessica Stillman

Jessica Stillman is a semi-nomadic freelance writer (current location: sunny Nicosia, Cyprus) with interests in entrepreneurship, remote collaboration, unconventional career paths and generational differences.