Counsel Culture: The Origins of John Lewis’ Iconic Staff Consultation Practices – Source of the Month (February 2024)

The journey of The Gazette (the company newspaper of John Lewis) mirrors today’s challenges in internal communication and workplace culture. This blog post explores The Gazette’s story and how it highlights the timeless challenge that workplace cultures cannot be changed overnight. Instead, they require a gradual process of institutionalisation. In the digital age, the evolution of The Gazette still offers lessons on the clear vision and strategic planning necessary for modern organisations to embed new communication practices and to cultivate a culture of employee voice.

Forging a New Workplace Culture: John Lewis in 1918

Although the earliest company magazines originated in the late nineteenth century, it was in the years after the First World War that they became particularly widespread. These publications helped to hold together imagined corporate communities, projecting the organization’s ideals of camaraderie and shared purpose. The Industrial Welfare Society, founded in 1918, played a pivotal role in institutionalising company magazines, hosting conferences, and offering training, influencing their content and purpose for decades. Yet there has been constant tension over the last century between the aims of giving employees a voice and managers using the magazine as a channel for disseminating managerial messages.

The inaugural issue of The Gazette opened with a letter to the employees from John Spedan Lewis. These early issues of the newspaper were limited to employees of the Peter Jones business, but the principles outlined by John Spedan Lewis were those that would later shape the John Lewis partnership model that is so iconic today. In his letter, Lewis expressed his thoughts on the purpose and significance of the company newspaper. He emphasised the newspaper’s role in fostering open dialogue among employees. He envisioned The Gazette as a platform for honest and constructive communication. He announced that ‘honest criticism is good for all of us, and the higher our position, the more we are likely to lose for the lack of it’. His words reflect an ambition to create an environment where all staff members felt empowered to voice their opinions.

The Gazette, 16 March 1918, p. 1. John Lewis Heritage Centre, online resource.

The letter discussed Lewis’ wider vision of creating a self-governing community of businesspeople. He acknowledged the importance of internal communication. The letter stated that there were two vital elements for a healthy community: representative institutions and a newspaper press. Having initiated his vision of representative institutions through staff committees, Lewis founded The Gazette in 1918 as a channel for communication, constructive criticism, and the exchange of ideas among the staff.

Lewis was firm that The Gazette was not to cater to sensationalism or serve the interests of specific individuals or groups within the organisation. His vision was that, ‘just as the Institutions to serve their true purpose must be well-manned with honest and capable representatives, so the Newspaper Press to serve its true purpose must be honestly and sensibly conducted in the public interest’. This founding principle of independent journalism meant that The Gazette took quite a different form from many other company magazines that managers sought to use as their mouthpiece.

As part of a new workplace vision, The Gazette had to establish itself as a medium for interaction between employees and management. This was done through the famous letter page of The Gazette whereby partners were able (and anonymously) to voice constructive criticism of the business, and management were obliged to respond in the newspaper in writing. Lewis’ letter urged employees to actively engage with the newspaper by submitting their thoughts and concerns. It emphasised the hope that staff would contribute on matters they might hesitate to raise in person. Lewis expressed his hope that the newspaper would not die from ‘mere apathy’.

This message is reiterated in the issue’s main articles. The newspaper raised policy issues with a section on salary discrepancies among different staff types that invited employees to voice their own opinions. The newspaper also included a competition with prize money for contributing to the magazine. The newspaper’s plea for contributions reinforced by financial incentives reflected how the use of The Gazette as a channel of communication between employees and managers had not yet become institutionalised.

The Institutionalisation of the New Culture

Over time, however, the practice of communicating through letters to the editor became institutionalised and deeply engrained in the company’s workplace culture. In later issues, it was no longer necessary to actively call for contributions. As the practice became institutionalised, employees came to see The Gazette as a natural channel for expressing their thoughts. Far from requesting contributions, the sheer volume of letters emerged as a new challenge. The commitment to publishing all letters, except in exceptional circumstances, became difficult to maintain with a highly engaged workforce.

In a 1952 issue, the editor discussed how this challenge had become too great during the Second World War. The Gazette faced resource constraints during the war, like other newspapers and magazines, and had to delay the publication of many letters. After the hostilities, there was an attempt to catch up with this backlog. In 1952, however, the editor conceded that the delays had been so extensive that some of the letters were no longer relevant so would never be published.

Although phrased as a regrettable failure, it actually reflected the extent of John Lewis’ success in institutionalising The Gazette as a channel of internal communication over the preceding three decades. Many company magazines have disappeared with the rise of digital channels, but The Gazette is one that continues to this day. Over a century later, employees still actively engage in the practice of writing letters to the editor.

Institutionalising Workplace Cultures in the Digital Age

Although The Gazette is not a model that an internal communicator in the twenty-first century would necessarily try to replicate, the workplace culture that accompanies it is a valuable lesson. John Lewis gives us an early example of an attempt to create a culture of employee voice, an aspiration that remains central to many modern-day internal communication initiatives. Understanding how John Lewis navigated the challenges of creating a new workplace culture is just as relevant when new digital channels are used to change a working environment.

The need to actively encourage people to write letters when the newspaper began its journey highlights a timeless challenge: workplace cultures cannot be transformed overnight. Culture evolves gradually, shaped by persistent efforts to foster open communication and encourage employee participation.

The Gazette’s journey emphasises the importance of outlining a clear vision when aiming to create a new workplace culture. John Spedan Lewis’ 1918 letter envisioned a workplace where employees actively contributed their thoughts and ideas. Once the vision was articulated, the journey towards institutionalising a culture of employee voice required a well-thought-out strategy. Lewis’ letter was equally clear about the strategic role that The Gazette would play in this new culture.

Organisations today must also strategise how to embed new communication practices and the role that their communication channels will play in this. Whether digital or print, the process of using communication channels to change a workplace culture has not changed.

Sources

The Gazette, 16 March 1918. John Lewis Heritage Centre, online resource.

The Gazette, 27 September 1952. John Lewis Heritage Centre, online resource.

Heller, Michael, & Michael Rowlinson (2020). Imagined Corporate Communities: Historical Sources and Discourses. British Journal of Management, 31(4), 752-68.

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