The increasing importance of employee voice in today’s world
In ‘normal times’, we all know the fundamental importance of employee voice as an enabler of engagement, helping organisations to improve efficiency, collaboration, decision making, or innovation, to identify customer needs, or highlight issues. And from an employee’s perspective, it is fundamental. I think most of us would agree we would prefer to work somewhere we are listened to; our views count and we can influence and contribute to the success of that organisation.
But the last few months have been anything but ‘normal’. During the Covid 19 pandemic many organisations have worked tirelessly to communicate and engage with their people (many have not, but that is a different topic!). In the early stages, communication naturally focused on the basics: what steps the organisation was taking to keep employees safe and the business functioning; what employees needed to do; and how people could ask questions and get more information. As time went on, wellbeing of colleagues was at the forefront of leaders’ minds; managers were encouraged to have regular one-to-one conversations; colleagues to look out for one another; having time to share our concerns became a priority rather than a nice-to-have in meetings; and Friday online team quiz sessions a common experience.
But while communication and efforts to engage may have been strong, and colleagues felt their wellbeing looked after, have employees had their voices heard through this period? And if not, is this a missed opportunity?
As individuals the pandemic experience has forced us to ask a lot of questions about our lives, our expectations, and the things we value. We have had to be more innovative in how we connect socially, balance child-care and work, or even plan our meals.
It is the same in an organisational context. We have had to do find new ways of getting things done, think creatively, and work in different ways. Many of us are used to an office-based environment for most of our working week. Even those of us who work from home regularly (or all the time) have been faced with change as everyone is doing the same. There are obvious learnings about working practices and our use of digital technologies to work and collaborate with colleagues, clients, and customers. Harnessing employees’ views on their experiences and ideas could be vital to building digital communication competence, improving efficiency, or working in more agile and flexible ways.
In addition, the experience of the last months and weeks has also highlighted what is most important to us about life at work. Culturally things have changed, and we have realised we are missing things we need to thrive. Either because they relied on face-to-face contact in an office environment, or because they were absent in the first place and we had not realised, or their lack has been exacerbated in trying times. Cultural themes like trust, collaboration, social interaction, ownership, empowerment, transparency, silo-working have all been topics of conversation in teams across the globe. Now could be an ideal opportunity to understand employees’ views on what they feel is important to them so that they can get the most out of life at work.
And ultimately, in the same way as there are those considering the resilience of their personal relationships through the stress of lockdown, illness, bereavement, childcare pressures, furloughing, or simply working in the same room as one’s partner for too long; some colleagues will be questioning their relationship with the organisation they work for.
For many, a positive experience will engender a stronger sense of engagement, loyalty and deeper trust and emotional connection. Some will be rightly proud of the organisation they work for, and their response to the crisis. For others, there may be concerns about leadership behaviour. Remember the tweet from the civil service twitter account following Boris Johnson’s defence of Dominic Cummings: “Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?”. Official or not, it is a damning indictment of how one (or more) employee felt about their leaders. Or there could be those feeling disconnected to purpose if strategic decisions have been taken that employees do not feel are in line with their understanding of what their organisation is all about.
Again, now could be the time to really understand how employees feel about working for you, and how this has changed, for better or worse, because of this experience.
The world has changed. Whatever the ‘new normal’ looks like, it seems that it would be a real missed opportunity not to use the collective views and experiences of your employees to shape and create it together.
Top tips for gathering employee voice
Whichever channel or tools you use, there are some fundamental principles for creating successful dialogue:
Active listening – having an open mind about what employees have to say, accepting perception is as valid as reality, and not second-guessing issues or concerns
Create a safe space – to create the climate where people feel they can speak up, they need to know there will be no negative repercussions on jobs or career development from doing so.
Listen to everyone, not just the loud ones – in every organisation there will be those who are willing and able to share feedback, views, or ideas more easily. It is worth investing time in ensuring a variety of mechanisms to include your harder to reach employees.
Be prepared to act on the findings – seeking employee feedback is a risk. You might not like what is said and, through asking, you create an implicit assumption that there will be resulting action. If leaders are not willing to act on the findings, it is better not to ask at all. However, with risk also comes reward; and the power and potential of a fully engaged and contributing team is a reward worth having.
Author Bio: Kathryn Willoughby, Consultant Director Corporate Culture
Photo Credit: Isreal Palacio: Unsplash