Maximising employee voice in a hybrid working world

Ruth Woodfield discusses the importance of employee voice in embedding organisational culture and the dangers of employee silence, with a case study and recommendations for enabling voice through a people strategy.

Organisations are currently in a state of perpetual crisis. As well as facing general instability, significant risk to the health and wellbeing of their workforce, financial insecurity and what has been called the ‘Great Resignation’, workforces are also transitioning to new models of hybrid and remote working. In order to retain and recruit high calibre employees, it has never been so important to ensure organisational culture is based on trust and mutual respect – and employee voice is crucial to this.

Enabling employee voice is key to developing sustainable working patterns, building engagement and cementing best practice. However, the danger of employee silence is particularly relevant in the pandemic context, where it is more difficult to gauge employee trust, motivation levels and opinion.

The importance of employee voice

Capturing employee voice is a critical component of modern organisational life that is only set to grow as employers navigate the changing expectations of employees. What employees say, as well as how their voice is enabled, listened and responded to, is integral to how well organisations function. Issues related to employee voice are deeply integrated with the five future trends identified by the CIPD, including responsible enterprise, ED&I, diversity of employment relationships and digital transformation.

If conditions are not right for voice to emerge, then the evidence suggests that organisations cannot make any positive assumption that ‘no news is good news’. It is safer to assume that silence in response to voice opportunities is hiding something ‘less palatable’ than contentment. This is especially the case when the constituency whose voice is being solicited is among the least powerful in the organisation. Balancing out the recognised positives of being heard are the negative impacts of not being heard, including stress, disappointment, disengagement, blame, resentment, distrust and anger.   

How to channel voice 

Diversity of voice matters. We know that diverse groups of people do a better job across a range of decision-making tasks than do more homogenous but more specialist teams. For instance, in terms of predicting future outcomes, diverse groups can do better than groups of highly-trained professional analysts1

The enabling of employee voice, as with engagement, tends to increase with seniority, but this means that we are likely to ‘hear’ more from homogenous groups and more specifically those who are older, less ethnically diverse, more male, wealthier and, by definition, more powerful within organisations. Different individuals and groups may need different motivations for using their voice, so organisations will need to regularly review the range of methods for enabling and capturing voice if they are to ensure it is representative of all genders, ages, disabilities and ethnicities. 

Challenges to employee voice through the pandemic

Whilst some banner headlines have declared meetings to be a waste of time, money, energy and talent, reported pandemic impacts have included a growth in meeting numbers, as well as attendant preparation and actionable points, with little opportunity to decompress and reflect between them. Additionally, there is evidence that voice is literally both harder to hear and process in online fora. While some employees have reported preferring Teams meetings, as their voice can be heard more easily, there are more reports of increased withdrawal of voice in online meetings. It has even been suggested that meetings reduce employee morale, organisational trust and lead to disengagement. Socially distanced and online working arrangements also all but destroy the ‘happenstance’ voice, the water-cooler and coffee machine discussions that forge social glue but also operate as crucial informal voice channels in many organisations. 

Channels that enable anonymised voice have expanded in recent years to include unidentified emails, online surveys, suggestion boxes and 360 reviews, and these can support staff to speak who would otherwise never do so. In the absence of many happenstance conversations, the focus on such formal employee feedback mechanisms has grown. Anonymous voice channels are inherently asymmetrical, however, and this can raise problems. As with some social media contributions, people may give voice anonymously to intensified versions of their feelings, that they might never want to defend if views were directly attributed to them. 

The danger of employee silence 

In a climate of increasing focus on enabling voice, the issue of employee silence becomes more problematic. 

Two broad reasons for silence in the context of offered voice channels are:

  1. Fear of negative consequences, whether these be risk to career, community or self-identity. This can include fear of offending, and eliciting negative reactions from peers, that has emerged more recently alongside the general phenomenon of fear of cancel culture.

  2. Employees feel it is futile to provide voice, with some research claiming a sense of futility is a stronger inhibitor of voice than fear. If previous contributions have not been acted upon, for whatever reason (for example, lack of organisational response or commitment, lack of post-collection resources allocated to take action, or recognition that a culture change is required), then employees are more likely to vote with their feet the next time their views are sought. In addition, voice might have been ‘drowned out’ by ‘institutional noise’  where organisations are focused on trying to get their responding ‘pitch’ right. 

Silence is not golden; feelings of dissatisfaction, disengagement and distrust do not disappear because they cannot be articulated. Specific resentments that are not being ventilated because the perception that it is not safe to do so can fester and deepen, and risk morphing into anti-organisational expression. This can manifest itself in less commitment and productivity through to acts of workplace sabotage2.  If employees cannot identify internal channels, they can turn to online fora and, in some scenarios, may see whistleblowing as the most ethical option.  

The pandemic and pro-social silence

Interesting evidence exists relating to how voice and silence operate specifically in the context of crisis. This suggests that both the fear and futility factors underlying employee silence are likely to be intensified and silence may become the new norm if the crisis is longstanding. This normalised silence need not be anti-organisational, however. Prouska & Psychogios (2018) undertook research in the context of long-term financial crisis and highlighted a new form of positive and empathetic employee silence when crises first hit. For example, employees might hold back about individual desire for improvements in their work conditions because they commit to a ‘we’re all in this together’ ethos. Prouska & Psychogios suggest that this pro-social approach might still be followed by wider feelings of futility once the realisation sinks in that the crisis may be here to stay. 

There are obvious lessons for the current context of the pandemic, and the (hopefully) post-pandemic period. Predictions are that it will bring further social, economic and political turbulence, such as continued high employee turnover, but the job of harnessing employee voice, even in the depths of crisis, should be prioritised. This task includes enabling voice when the reason for silence is not clear, or is clearly pro-social and altruistic. Any kind of silence means that key organisational intelligence is being missed. 

The evidence suggests that, regardless of the mechanism, it is the underlying organisational culture and values that are key to facilitating or blocking voice, as well as the skill of those managers seeking to encourage and enable it. If managers indicate that their ‘open-door policy’, their all-staff meeting or their online survey is a performance in ‘pseudoparticipation - going through the motions of listening, with little intention of following up, then the outcome of flagging the desire to enable voice can be entrenched employee disengagement and voice withholding.

Conclusion

If people are increasingly recognised as a critical resource for organisations, then people professionals are increasingly recognised as key in enabling employees to flourish and make their best contribution. A key part of this enabling process lies in relation to sustaining employee voice and paying careful attention to silence, which is typically a sign of organisational dysfunction. As the People Profession 2030 report suggests, ‘It’s up to the [people] profession to champion the voice of their people, so that people outcomes are beneficial rather than detrimental to people, as well as the organisation’, also noting that this is an even more crucial task in the context of ‘shifting internal and external factors’. The pandemic context is an example of external (as well as internal) seismic shifts. Trend analysis indicates that organisations predicted to fare best in the long-term following the COVID-19 pandemic are those prioritising employee wellbeing and safety, and voice, as we have seen, is closely related to these organisational characteristics.

Maximising voice will ensure that organisations are operating optimally but will not necessarily make the overall task of management less difficult. Competing asks and opinions will emerge, but as has been suggested, ‘without voice, there can be no enactment of participation’.

In 2019, the Head of HR (Mairi Stewart) and I set out to develop a people strategy from the ground up. We developed a deliberately broad set of questions we wanted answers to, ranging in scope from employees’ first impressions of our organisation through to exit, or thoughts of exit. We asked questions via anonymous, online surveys, but also through focus groups. For the surveys, responders could provide tick-box answers and had the opportunity to write more beside each question. They also had the opportunity to talk about areas not addressed in the questions. 

We provided the opportunity to communicate as an individual, via a one-to-one meeting or on paper. Anonymity was guaranteed for all, and we focused on trust-building from the project’s inception. We diversified organisational representatives and ‘listeners’, by having a range of people undertake the focus groups; where people wanted to undertake one themselves because they did not trust us to be direct listeners, we allowed this, paid for lunch and transcription costs, and added the data to the general dataset for analysis. Survey results were kept secure and a very small group of named individuals saw aggregated results; names were shared with employees before they took part. 

We received over 1,000 completed staff surveys and ran over 30 focus groups, in addition to individual submissions. The initiative produced over a million words in feedback which we analysed over months to produce a detailed, evidence-based action plan. We then asked for feedback on the action plan in a ‘You said, we did’ event, with cakes and hot drinks. We provided quotes and word clouds from the dataset, and created posters showcasing the main themes and how they were identified. Attendees were given pens and Post-it notes so they could submit comments directly onto the posters. Our final action plan version was not only evidence-based, but ‘owned’ by the wider community, actionable, and remains a living document that we can be held accountable against. When an action is implemented, by linking it directly to the people strategy and the action plan, we ensure that this is communicated in ways that mean that staff are confident it has emerged from their feedback.

Recommendations

Enabling voice

  • Make it clear that you are interested in dialogue and not monologue as a mode of organisational communication.

  • Offer a wide range of voice channels. Include anonymous channels and in-person channels.

  • Diverse employees require diverse voice channels:
    • Review these and how they are working regularly. Ask people to take part in reviews.
    • Ensure all staff have an invitation to contribute, publicise widely and do not assume everyone has a smartphone or a home computer.
    • Allocated work time for people to contribute.
    • Consider providing lunch while they contribute.

  • Diverse contexts require diverse voice channels. Consider new ones for serious issues and for crises.

  • Include informal meetings and exchanges as part of the mechanisms for enabling voice.

  • Recognise that individuals and groups will vary in terms of the cost/benefit analysis they will undertake when deciding whether to speak or stay silent: 
    • Understand that behaviour patterns will change over time and across different contexts.
    • If silence has become habitual in certain times, with certain people, and in particular contexts, ask why.

  • Ensure power cues are muted when seeking feedback and opinions:  
    • Understand that those in less secure employment positions will need particular support to speak.

  • Consider the scale of your organisation; if it is small, promised anonymity may be relatively meaningless.

Action and feedback

  • Invest time in the analysis of contributions.
  • Check your understanding and make it clear you are open to more contributions during the analysis phase.
  • Working across the whole organisation ensures that intelligence learned through hearing voice is actionable and actioned in the most efficient and effective manner.
  • Be as transparent as possible about what has been heard, and how the organisation has responded, as well as actions that have been taken or committed to. 
  • Own your decision-making if the organisation decides not to act in response to requests - avoid the Wizard of Oz response to voice, such as referring to the hidden power who has declined to allow the change.

References

1 TETLOCK, P. and GARDNER, D. (2015) Superforecasting: the Art and Science of Prediction. London: Random House Books.

2 VEMURI, S. (2019) Managing Silence in Workplaces. Bingley: Emerald Publishing.


Ruth Woodfield

Ruth Woodfield is Professor of Equalities and Organisation in the School of Management at the University of St Andrews. With Mairi Stewart, Director of HR, she led on the development of the University’s People Strategy and Action Plan that was shortlisted for a Times Higher Education award for Outstanding Contribution to Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (2021).


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