When Clugston’s chief executive volunteered as an Undercover Boss he discovered information gaps, rumours and poor communications

As a manager, have you ever worried that your job title and company status get between you and what’s really happening on site? If offered the chance to check in your management persona at the site hut and walk on site as just another operative, would you take it?

Stephen Martin, chief executive of the £120m turnover Clugston Group, was given just such an opportunity when he signed up for Channel 4’s upcoming Undercover Boss series. It was a brave decision, especially as the Lincolnshire-based contractor had just made staff redundant and the order book was showing only low-value work coming in.

But the London Business School MBA was undaunted. ‘I thought it would be a great experience, we could find out at the grassroots what the real issues were, and what people think generally. I jumped in with both feet and totally immersed myself in it.’

Immersion meant living away from home in a Scunthorpe B&B, swapping his suit for work clothes and PPE, and labouring incognito on a different site each day for two weeks. To explain the camera crew, the story was that Channel 4 was filming a documentary about an office worker who wanted a taste of the active, outdoors life.

The entertainment value for readers is matched by management value for Martin, who made discoveries about retaining older workers’ skills and training new recruits. However, he says the ‘overriding theme’ was communication. ‘I found you’ve really got to look at communication in a recession, you can’t over-communicate because you need absolute commitment from the people in the organisation.’

Martin says he realised managers needed to be even more visible and accessible in a downturn than normal – or the vacuum is filled by rumours that sap morale. ‘Managers weren’t giving updates because there wasn’t anything to say, but that’s exactly what they needed to get out and talk about,’ he says.

Understandably, the main concerns were about not winning work and redundancy.

If we can improve morale, it’ll help us compete with the best in the industry

Stephen Martin, Clugston Group

‘On the whole, HR and legal teams are good at managing redundancy for people who leave, but we don’t give the full explanation for people who are staying,’ explains Martin. ‘Because people didn’t understand the criteria, they think “next time it’ll be me”.’

He also found site noticeboards that were ignored because the displays never changed, managers’ ‘open-door’ policies that failed because workers felt the onus was on them to make a complaint, and briefing notes ignored because the language was too formal.

After filming, Martin initiated a company survey to find out how Clugston workers wanted communication and feedback. One outcome is the idea of regular ‘skip level’ meetings, where managers meet the teams two levels below. ‘It’s a chance to raise issues that perhaps aren’t being addressed,’ says Martin.

The company’s quarterly news bulletin has also been abandoned. Instead, company announcements, such as new contract wins, will be made at site meetings.

A Worker Engagement Team, comprising representatives from board down to site level, has also been established to raise and communicate issues, while Martin has invited site workers to join him for a ‘beer and sandwiches’ lunch in the boardroom. ‘It’s a relaxed format, and it’s already resulted in useful requests, such as for steel-soled boots.’

In overhauling Clugston’s communications, Martin has never lost sight of the overall goal. ‘It’ll help us to compete with the best in the industry if we can improve morale and demonstrate to the workforce how we can make a difference. In these difficult times, you need to show commitment and change your culture.’