Recently I read a report from the Institute for Employment Studies on the importance of employee voice and the damages a business risks when they ignore it. The researcher compared the potential consequences of disregarding employee voice with democratic elections of the last decade that have surprised analysts and produced uncertainty because the powerful didn’t see them coming. The comparison went like this: in organizations, like in societies, the powerless have opinions, concerns, and perspectives that often go ignored by the powerful, which results in a deepening division and discontent until a breaking point is reached and potentially damaging, uncontrolled change occurs.
The comparison seemed reasonable enough. In so many respects organizations mirror the societies they operate within, but they differ in one key respect: most businesses are not democratic. The sudden and unforeseen changes is generally not a realistic scenario in business because employees often cannot produce en masse decision making without executive oversight. Instead the effects of a lack of employee voice in business are much more subtle and corrosive.
Individuals can take a stand and leave an organization, but collective action is difficult, particularly in the US and UK where unions tend to wield less power than some of their European counterparts. Discontent as a result of voicelessness can be more corrosive in businesses precisely because there is no sudden shock result followed by earnest introspection from the powerful, who ask themselves how they got it so wrong. Businesses can operate with their heads in the sand for much longer without realizing there is a problem. Without realizing they are losing valuable employees because they feel ignored, without realizing the lack of employee voice in the organization is impacting the bottom line, because the dissatisfaction of employees is impacting the quality of the service or product.
The dangers of voicelessness
Paying attention to employee voice is in the interest of any kind of business because there is a need for it wherever people work. People have an innate drive to make their voices heard, no matter the circumstances. So not providing them with a platform to express themselves will not result in them simply shutting up. They will instead seek out alternative and subversive means of making themselves heard, which has the potential to be less constructive and actively damage team morale as well as, potentially, the reputation of the business.
The positive effect of prioritizing employee voice is the improved general well-being of a team that feels valued and respected. Making them truly feel like stakeholders in the organization, rather than cogs in a machine. While overlooking employee voice risks disengaging team members, losing them to competitors, and contributing to a generally negative atmosphere.
One of the less obvious consequences of presiding over a workforce that does not feel listened to is that they go silent. In this sense, the effects of enhancing employee voice go both ways. You’re not just opening your organization up to negative opinions and discontented venting; by providing an employee voice platform you also reap the rewards of creating a channel for fresh ideas and insightful perspectives.
Employee voice program
The ideal employee voice program is well thought out and structured in a way that is tailor-made for the particular business, with the aim of enhancing and improving the employee experience within your particular organization. It needs to be well advertised and accessible to all. Incorporating formal and informal structures within the system will help to include differing preferred ways of working from different employees, and allowing for anonymity will help encourage the more tentative contributors and will increase the likelihood of honest feedback.
A simple form of employee voice infrastructure that you can set up as an employer is an employee survey. This can be carried out annually, biannually, monthly: whatever you think suits your organizations’ needs. This means that feedback can be structured within a framework predetermined by you, but it is also important to allow space for people to express their thoughts outside of the framework, and use it – if needed – in the next iteration of the survey. This will help to demonstrate to employees that their feedback is being heard and fed back into the corporate conversation. These kinds of surveys need to be well advertised and everyone within the organization should be encouraged to take part.
These larger scale, comprehensive surveys can also be supplemented with more informal check-ins during more routine company meetings, to repeatedly check-in, track progress, and demonstrate that peoples’ voices are being heard. These employee voice practices can be optimised by making sure contributions are truly anonymous in order to encourage honesty. Also make sure you dedicate allotted time to this: book it into peoples’ calendars, allowing employees to give useful input and feedback takes time and expressing your voice should be seen as part of our working hours not an added chore. It is also important that the results of all forms of employee voice are made transparent and shared throughout the organization.
Annual surveys are useful for gaining a more comprehensive insight into the satisfaction of your employees, but a token employee voice initiative rolled out once a year really isn’t often enough. You need to create open channels for employees to have their voices heard at any time; through effective line management and regular meeting feedback sessions. The better way of working they identify today they will have forgotten about in 4 months time when the infrequent survey is rolled out.
In addition to transparently sharing results with the wider company, one of the most important things is that you actually have to listen to the feedback you receive and do something about it! I have written at length before about the senselessness of ignoring your employees for a whole year until the annual survey comes around, but in addition to more regular opportunities, you also need to take action on the information you receive. Listen to your employees. Employee voice that falls on deaf ears is no employee voice at all.
Now more than ever
The cliché of the boss whose door is perpetually open has always been something of a myth. A packed calendar, personal assistant to guard the threshold, or just the overwhelming aura of being too busy to concern themselves with your problem, often serve as barriers to employee voice. But this sense of detachment is heightened in the time of Covid-19, where that door has never been more closed (since it may no longer even be in the same building).
Admittedly, their (digital) inbox is of course always open, but – when working from home – the work lives of colleagues of all stripes become something of a blackbox. When it comes to remote working, and especially in the case of the boss, an assumption is often made that they must be incredibly busy. Too busy to deal with the thing you wanted to talk to them about. When this might not necessarily be the case, and certainly shouldn’t be the case all of the time.
Also, looking hopefully towards the future, as we move forward, away from a fully remote working environment and towards a hybrid model, this too may bring its own problems for employee voice. The asymmetrical nature of hybrid, where some people are at the office and may have an informal route to communicate concerns or improvements, while those at home are marginalized, the need for formal structures to enable multidirectional communication within the organization becomes even more apparent.
Employee experience has a direct impact on customer experience. Prioritizing employee voice will ultimately serve to improve employee wellbeing, which ultimately serves to produce a positive financial return. So, if you don’t already have a program in place to give your employees a voice in a structured way, now is the time. Allow for anonymity, incorporate the formal and the informal, listen for trends, be curious, repeat. Then set action plans to resolve.