The Acas Podcast
The Acas Podcast
Oct 9, 2020
Employee voice: on mute or mission critical?
Play • 30 min

In this episode, we take a big-picture look at employee voice: why it matters now and what we need to do to strengthen it. As workplaces grapple with unprecedented change, what role should voice play in helping us to navigate the present and future challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic?


We’re joined by Neil Carberry, Chief Executive of the REC, Paul Nowak, Deputy General Secretary of the TUC and Gill Dix, Head of Policy at Acas to discuss:


-         What good voice really looks like

-         What mechanisms workplaces need to harness it

-         And what happens when they do - or don't


Episode resources:


Policy paper: Building back – making working lives better

Policy paper: Consultation – a voice lost in a crowd


Tailored support for your workplace:


We offer tailored support for workplaces facing specific challenges. Call us on 0300 123 1150, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm or fill in our enquiry form.


Transcript


Sarah Guthrie

Welcome to The Acas Podcast. Today we are looking at the big picture and panning out to look at employee voice. What is it? What role can it play in making our workplaces better? And how can it play that in building back better after and during Coronavirus? So it's big picture, meaty discussion for those interested in shaping the world of work. I'm here with Gil Dix who is Head of Policy at Acas and we're joined today by special guests Paul Nowak, who is Deputy General Secretary of the TUC and Neil Carberry, who is chief executive of the REC. Neil and Paul have both been really heavily involved in shaping the world of work through their organizations, but also as their role as Acas council members. So it's great to have you here with us today to have this discussion.


Paul Nowak

Hi Sarah 


Neil Carberry

Hi Sarah


Sarah  

So to kick us off, employee voice. Gill, I wondered if you could start off by describing what it is that we're talking about when we use words like employee voice?


Gill Dix

Yes, Sarah, thanks. And it's good to be here on the podcast. Yeah, I agree. The idea of employee voice is a slightly abstract term. It's actually quite a simple, essentially, a simple idea. It's about workers basically being able to have their say at work. But here comes the tricky bit, that having this say has to be part of a dialogue, I think. And that's really what makes for good employee voice. Now that can be sort of through organized voice. And we generally tend to term that collective voice and most commonly talk about the trade union movement, or through staff associations. And the focus is really on the impact of that voice on most or all of the workers in that workplace. But then we also talk about voice being very much an individual right or an individual entitlement, where people just are able to have their say at work, can talk to their managers, can raise their concerns, and really importantly, can share their ideas as well. I think with Paul and Neil today, it's going to be good to talk most about what we might think of as collective voice. But clearly the two issues do go hand in hand. Yeah, just a few more words, really, from me before we hear from others, but I was reading an article just the other night, which referred to voice as being mission critical at the moment. And I thought that was interesting. And I think I know what they're talking about, as we live through, rather than emerge from probably the COVID pandemic, there's a massive shake up in our social and working life. And I think worker voice is critical at the moment in creating balance and calm and continuity, but ultimately, in finding a resolution to how we regained where we were, and improve where we were maybe. I mean, for my mind, voice is and always has been mission critical. But I get what they're saying when they think it's mission critical now, the authors of that paper, I suppose the question is, are we fit for purpose with voice at that point? I know that you know, if you're up back to MacLeod and Clark's work on engagement, voice was one of the leavers but was probably the one in, certainly in research that we commissioned, that was the one that was lagging most in its establishment. We hear about voice shallowing out and consultation arrangements being difficult to maintain at a high level. But nonetheless, we are where we are. And I think it'd be really interesting to hear from others, where they think the state of employee voice is.


Sarah  

So with that question, Paul, where do you see voice showing up at the moment? And how do you think that it can show up better at the moment?


Paul  

Well, that's a big question, Sarah. And listen, first of all, you're gonna have to excuse me, if you hear background noise, it's the the rain bouncing off the roof of my shed, because we're obviously doing this remotely. But I mean, I think voice covers a whole range of sins and virtues, doesn't it? I mean, for me, the key thing about voice is, it has to be effective voice. And I suppose you know, it's not enough for people to have a voice. That voice needs to be heard. So it takes different forms in different workplaces, I suppose. It's a truism. But it's, it's important nonetheless, to sort of recognize that, you know, there isn't one size that fits all workplaces, and all sorts of organizations, but I don't care if you're running a corner shop or you're running a multinational company, that idea that you give your staff the opportunity to input into the work that they do, that you listen to their ideas, that you give them a sense that their opinions are valued and rewarded, and that crucially, you act upon that voice, I think is important. Now, so as Gill mentioned, I mean, I suppose from a trade union perspective, that's probably normally articulated Sarah through, you know, formal recognition agreements with employers through collective bargaining arrangements, and that's common across the public and private sector. And there are obviously non union workplaces out there as well where there'll be other types of employee voice but I mean, that's the starting point, from my point of view is about it being effective voice and a voice that's heard, you know, we've all, we've all worked probably in workplaces or for organizations where employee voice is you know, put your ideas in the suggestion box or the digital equivalent. To me that's not effective or meaningful voice.


Neil  

I think it's very easy for firms to think, you know, this is, it's all about this, this kind of slightly ubiquitous acronym MVP, employee value proposition, and if we get the employee value proposition, right, you know, we'll align what we're asking for from the employees, what we've got to achieve in the business and everything will be lovely. And I mean, it's a slightly naive view of how human beings in the workplace work. And people come to work with diverse and goals for what they want to, to achieve, they come to work looking for different bits of meaning. And as an employer, your job is basically to align that effort with the things that the organization needs to achieve. And, and what that means is that to some extent, conflict in workplaces is inevitable. And that's not a bad thing, you know, differing points of view and different challenges are a driver of innovation. They're a driver of change. But as employers, we have to think about, well, how do you channel that potential for conflict into really positive actions that help employees and help the company prosper, if you don't have a process in the business for thinking about voice and how voice happens? The risk is actually that when it arrives, it arrives in quite destructive ways, which is clearly in no one's interest here.


Sarah  

So kind of if we were to summarize what voice is, it's actually put very simply, how do you listen to your people, and as Gill said, create that two way dialogue. And that because workplaces are complex, we have different mechanisms that we can use to do that. And workplaces do that to varying degrees. But if they don't do it, then there's a desire still, for voice to be heard. But it doesn't come up in the most constructive ways and will come up as badly handled conflict.


Neil  

Yeah, that's exactly my point, which is, you know, we've had a, there are a couple of sort of case, examples of where companies have imagined that just because they say things will be a certain way, things will be a certain way. And ultimately, employees will find a way of expressing their views, whether that's dissatisfaction or ideas that need to come out, and whether that is that they move on to somewhere else, which is what you don't want, or whether you get a bigger conflict. There's certainly something there about just encouraging all employees to think about the pipework of how are we hearing what people think, in the business early enough that we're not surprised when we find out in staff surveys, or from trading reps, and early enough that actually we can be in on sorting that out in the normal course of business, rather than having these peaks of conflict, which are not in the interest of anyone in the business.


Gill  

I indulged myself by looking back at the last workplace Employment Relations survey just recently, which if you remember, it was conducted during the period of the last recession. And I think what we're coming, what we're talking about really is what's good voice. And if you look back at the findings from, about what was it that made some companies survive during the last recession, it was a kind of virtuous circle of good voice, not just voice, as Neil was saying, good voice arrangements, that generates trust, that generates good trust, that generates good voice. And it was the companies that invested in, indeed invested in working practices generally, but also those that invested in unions and voice arrangements that actually ended up with the employees with the with the greatest commitment and productivity outcomes. So it really was a key to survival in the last recession. And sadly, we're looking like, well, we are heading in the same direction. So I think they bring it together. The point about voice being absolutely central the business case is made. And then I think the point that Neil is adding to it is it has to be good voice. Which goes back to Paul's point.


Paul  

You're absolutely right Gill, I mean we're in a really difficult environment at the moment, aren't we? I mean, so COVID-19 is right at the forefront of everybody's mind. And it's already had a massive impact in workplaces. And you mentioned the sort of previous recession, Gill, the experience there was this is an opportunity to engage the workforce on what can we do, imaginatively, creatively together to make sure our organization and the people who work through, for it get through to the other side. And, you know, Neil was absolutely right about the value in voice not eradicating conflict at work, but helping to channel and to mitigate the impacts of conflict in work. But it's also a real opportunity for employers as well to get ideas from the shop floor, from the people who are doing the job day in, day out, about how we can improve processes, how we can deliver better customer service, how we can do things more efficiently. And I think, you know, that's important for the people I represent as well. Because you know, people go to work and like to feel that they can influence the job that you do. And I don't, I don't care whether you're working in a supermarket, or you're working in a nuclear power station, the idea that you've got ideas, and somebody takes those ideas on board and listens to you, and take you seriously is really important I think. But now more than ever, you know, sort of as we deal with the, you know, the last year, we know, the impact of the pandemic won't be over in six weeks, or probably six months. It, we're all in this for the long term.


Neil  

So I think, you know, I agree with a lot of what Paul and Gill said there, I think what's really important to call out here is that none of this as an employer, as a business is about being nice. It's not, you know, it's not something you do as a staff benefit. This is actually much more about different ways to resolving really difficult things. But that, I think, is the real management challenge for businesses, which is, how do you have the confidence to safely have really difficult conversations with your staff, and finding the structures in which to do that is difficult but absolutely worthwhile. And, you know, in lots of larger businesses, and many smaller businesses that you know, trade unions play a role in that. But even where trade unions are not present or not recognized, that does not imply that that level of kind of input and control over working life that that voice generates isn't wanted by people. I think it's a very powerful driver, especially in, in tough times for employee's engagement with a company.


Gill  

Taking the unions as a start, their job needs to continue, they need to continue to look at pain terms and conditions, but really are we at a point now where where's a lot of issues that need to be totally renegotiated? We've talked about the importance of business survival on how voice, and in all its forms, it's got a role in that. But I was thinking about much bigger issues as well, such as the value and purpose of organizations, then you've got the kind of not marginal at all issue anymore of safety at work, you know, really center stage question of safety, where voice plays a part in that, then through to more specific individual concerns about what is the future of flexibility look like? So I kind of agree that managers and employees have got a massive challenge on their hands as has the union movement and other forms of voice in organizations and, you know, the matrix is bigger. I was thinking, that's both collective and individual issues, it's for those in workplaces and those working remotely, and it's short, medium, and long term objectives. So I think if if we can all work together Acas, the employer bodies, the union movement, I think we've got quite a tall order, but believe that, you know, there is, there is a way that we can promote our joint thinking on this.


Paul  

Unions have always been, you know, had a focus on things like pay terms and conditions. But you know, when I started off as a young union activists, like sort of 30 years ago, I mean, one of the first things I was told was, you know, don't assume you know, what, what really matters to the people that you are representing. And so there's a challenge there for us to make sure that we're helping to give effective voice to the people that we represent on the stuff that really matters to them. And, obviously, pay will be one of those issues, but it may well be about skills, it may be about progression, it may be about that balance between working from home working in the office, and so that those that's a responsibility on those organizations to make sure that we're, we're helping to articulate the issues that really matter to our, to our members. I mean, just to pick up something else that Neil said, I mean, I think he's absolutely right, that you know, employees need to have the confidence to find the mechanisms to help facilitate effective employee voice. And I suppose that what I'd add to that is this stuff doesn't happen by accident. And, you know, it, it doesn't, you know, all the warm words about giving workers effective voice don't, don't really count for anything unless you do put those mechanisms in place. And, as I say, for me central is about unions and collective bargaining. But I think there are other things that we should be collectively thinking about. I mean, as a result of the the Taylor review, the the trigger threshold for the information and consultation arrangements has gone down, you know, could we use that as an opportunity to extend employee voice across British workplaces? And for me, you know, workers on boards, that's it, that's an important part of employee voice. It's not the whole story, but that sort of sense that people from the shop floor can help influence the big strategic decisions and bring their perspective into boardrooms i think is a really interesting idea, something that we're very supportive of, because, yes, we want to influence practice at workplace level as well but you know, in terms of giving British business a bit of a dose of long term thinking and a little bit more transparency and openness and those workers voices in boardrooms will be useful as well.


Sarah  

Taking up what you're saying about mechanisms there, I'm just wondering for someone listening to this podcast, who's heard all of your passionate and, and really good arguments for why we should prioritize voice, what are the mechanisms that they could put in place themselves in their workplace that would really help create good voice?


Paul  

Oh, well, maybe I'll start off: recognize a union. You'll be surprised to hear me saying that [laughter] But, but there's actually a serious point underneath that, which is actually, I think, for employers, and for, certainly the new generation of HR managers coming through, I would, I would encourage them not to be afraid of unions and not to be afraid of engaging with unions. Now ultimately, the decision about whether or not people are represented by union has to rest with the workers themselves. But for me, you know, all too often, I come across employees who don't have a huge amount of experience of dealing with the unions and, and see us through the prism of the of the press, or see us through the political prism that you know, because the only stories you read about unions and the mainstream press are about strikes and about the Labour Party. And that really doesn't, in any way reflect the job that we do day in day out to represent the sort of five and a half million, 6 million people that we represent, so I would encourage employers to have an open mind about engaging with unions.


Sarah  

Because the kind of link with employee voice there is because unions can help you listen to your people well, in a constructive way early on, which can save problems down the line.


Paul  

Absolutely. But also, I have literally had the conversations with employers and they said, Well, we don't need a union, because we're a good employer. And the idea that like a good employers and unions are somehow mutually exclusive to me just doesn't stack up. I mean, you can see some of the most successful organizations in the country that have strong robust relationships with unions, but ultimately positive relationships with the union. So yeah, I'm not an HR director or manager, but I would encourage those people who are not to think about, you know, your staff wanting to be represented by an independent union as somehow a failing on your part or a failure on the part of the organization. It's entirely possible for people to be proud of working for an organization to want that organization to be successful, and also to want an independent union voice


Sarah  

And Neil, from an employer's perspective, how have you seen voice done? 


Neil  

Well, so I think Paul happens on something, which I think is really important there, which is as an employer, you can't control everything in the process of how voice happens. And you have to kind of slightly get comfortable with it. If a trade union is how employees want to be represented, then as, as a business, there's a duty on you to be respectful of that. There are lots of other ways in which voice can happen. And what's important, I think, is that you have a strategy for how it happens and a couple of things I'd draw out there. Firstly, Jill mentioned the last workplace Employment Relations survey. And because she's geeked out on that, I'm going to dive into it as well. And, and point out that what's really interesting is that while there is relatively little reported in that survey of kind of formal structures for voice, actually what people say about their work reflects that there probably is more voice going on than, than perhaps there are formal structures for and I think that's about management cultures, first and foremost, a linking in you know, how does voice, how do we handle voice in our management culture? How do we train our managers to deal with it rather than leaving it to HR I think is important. Then coming to Paul's point, I absolutely, absolutely do think that HR has developed down a quite a sort of HRM school of thought. You've got your award specialist, your your talent acquisition space specialist, your employee, value proposition proposition people...actually company side Employment Relations thinking has been under invested for a while. And you know, the, the the ER guy is usually the person that the chief executive puts his head into his hands when even when they walk into the room. Because they're going to, they're usually there because there's a problem. And actually, it's breaking that culture that matters, is that how are we thinking about ER all of the time, in terms of that moveable feast and of what employers are telling us. What employees are telling us, what the company is trying to achieve, and the ongoing process of trying to get those two things to clear against each other. So it's a much more iterative and line management led process then kind of what we've been used to maybe in some of the HR textbooks for the last few years.


Sarah  

So rather than almost delegating voice to specific people or specific departments, trying to think about everybody who's involved in hearing opinions from staff and how you can equip them to hear those opinions and act in in a way that strengthens employee voice in a good way rather than an unconstructive way.


Neil  

I think that's right. If you think about it, think things through, if you're thinking about a big reconstruction round of redundancies, and it's the first time that anyone has ever asked to the employees about anything, then it's going to be rightly treated with a certain amount of caution by by the workforce, whereas if people are used to in the culture of the business, in our weekly meetings with managers, with their own managers getting a sense that they are being listened to, then I think the big stuff becomes easier to do as well.


Sarah  

Yeah, uh huh. So practicing and equipping on the small things.


Paul  

I think Neil's points about doing this, not just at times of crisis, or times when there are problems, but building it into the day to day work of an organization is really important. And I always have this sort of very strong memory of going to a well unionized engineering plant in the northeast of England, where there was a strong joint trade union, virtually everybody in union membership as you, as you would expect. And we sat down, we had a presentation from the senior member of staff at that at the plans about the company's sort of strategic plans over the next five years. And then what when we spoke to the shop steward, the reps on the ground, and said, Well, do you have these sorts of discussions on a regular basis, they said that, that this is literally the first time we've ever sat down and had a presentation about, you know, the future of the organization. Now, they were having, they would be talking about pay constantly, they'd be talking about terms and conditions. But in terms of thinking about the big stuff that you know, where do we see the future of this organization? What does that mean for staff? What might it mean for our skills mix? There'd never been that sort of regular dialogue between the union and, and staff, and the management. And that, to me, it's just like, that's craziness. Because what a missed opportunity, to actually get staff to understand why a company might be taking the decisions, they're actually taking why they're asking to work in certain ways. I mean, this is the sort of stuff that I think, you know, I like think that the people we represent, they're all grown ups, they're not daft. And they can, they can see through the BS pretty clearly. And that, and that just, you know, sort of treating people like they're grownups and bringing them into the conversation. And as Neil said, making sure that that that is not something that Oh, God, we've got to make redundancies, now we'll talk to you. I mean you should be building that sort of culture, right, right, throughout the day to the work of an organization, I think. 


Gill  

I definitely think that, that that point is one that Acas operational senior advisors would echo, which is that voice should be there for the good and the bad times. And in fact, if you can smooth out and oil the wheels, when a crisis comes up, if you've got your institutional arrangement in place, then you're cooking on gas, really, that, you know, you're not having to create from scratch, that's definitely a message that I've heard.


Sarah  

We started off talking about how this is mission critical. And I think it's fair to say that everybody understands more than ever the need to bring people along with you in a workplace. But a lot of people are trying to bring their workplace along with them or listen to their workplaces remotely. And I'm just wondering what your reactions are to that, how do we create good voice in a context where this is, as we are doing currently remotely?


Neil  

I think partially, that's about not giving ourselves a free pass. So as many people will be quick to remind you, not all workplaces are closed. So there plenty of workplaces, which are open where the the mechanisms might be more disaggregated than normal. I mean, clearly, you're not going to get the workforce together in one big room at the moment. But equally, I think employers have found that, you know, things like staff meetings on zoom are often actually rather better for some of this stuff. Because you have to think about structuring and thinking about how you present what the company's got to say and thinking about how you take feedback, you know, in, in my own experience, just with the team at the REC, I think it's been a powerful tool for engagement just through this period to to increase the volume of discussion that we've been doing with the, with the staff. So I don't think it's impossible. It's different. I don't think it's fundamentally and more difficult to achieve.


Sarah  

What role do you think voice can play when we're talking about race inequality and discrimination?


Gill  

I think that work - voice - needs to work doubly hard around those excluded groups.


Paul  

I mean, from from my perspective Sarah, I mean, one of the keys to effective voices about redressing the power imbalances that exist in, in workplaces, you know, power imbalances between individual employees and their employer. I mean, that's part of the job of, of unions is to give people a collective voice to redress that fundamental power imbalance. But then there's also a responsibility on unions, for example, to make sure that we're genuinely representative, I think we need to do more, for example, to make sure that we've got more black workers taking on reps roles within unions so that our reps base is genuinely representative, more work to do to put women into senior positions in the trade union movements. So unions absolutely, fundamentally, I think have got a role to play in terms of making sure that the issues and concerns of black workers are effectively articulated and part of our agenda. That's a challenge to us as organizations, but it is also a challenge to the, to the employees that we engage with as well.


Neil  

I think that's right, Paul. And from a business perspective, you know, greater understanding that as businesses, we exist within society, you know, there's a lot of discussion about business and society. You know, there's a lot about social economic diversity, which overlaps in many ways with some of the themes around people coming into the workforce from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, as well, where I think it behooves us as businesses to think about how we, how we open our doors more broadly and think a bit differently about how people might come to us and how they might add value to us. It's not about the best way, it's about finding a good way. And I think more businesses need to challenge themselves to remember a good way is enough. That opens you up to a greater diversity of approaches to how we we tackle things, and perhaps opens your mind to different ways of recruiting and engaging with staff that that will fundamentally underpin culture, a culture in your business that people coming from different backgrounds will want to work in.


Sarah  

Thanks for those thoughts. I wondered if to round off, I could ask for a top tip from each of you on employee voice, your biggest insight into how you can create good voice wherever you are.


Gill  

I mean, for me, it's a relatively discreet area, actually, which is recognizing that representing employees, employee views, and listening to the listening to the views of reps is actually not a necessarily a given skill. There's a bonus, bonafide a skill that people need to be trained in so that the roles are fully recognized and realized for the best for everyone. And so it's quite a marginal comment, really. But nonetheless, I think it's absolutely the heart of what makes for good voice - training for both the managers and the reps.


Paul  

I mean, for me, I mean, as I've mentioned, before, unions have got a key role to play in terms of helping give workers collective voice to redress those power imbalances in workplaces, and I would say to employees that where staff choose to join a union, want to be represented by that union, then respect that choice. But ultimately, trust your workforce. Because, you know, my experience in workplaces in the public and private sector is that people want the organizations that they work for, to be successful, they want their company or their organization to be proud to work for that company or organization and giving people effective voice enables them to feel that sense of pride, that sense of involvement and engagement and I think that's good for any organization.


Neil  

So just to finish off on this, then, quite simply it's managerial culture, not HR policy. Anything that you impose from HR, that feels like kind of an additional loop in the process to getting stuff done will face resistance. Whereas if it's just how you do business, then I think it embeds and you get some upside out of, in terms of engagement from, from involving people voice processes, and there are little things you can do as leaders and businesses to embed that which is, you know, if someone comes to you to plan, or you know, ask where it comes from, ask what the team thinks. You know, send signals that this is how we work. I think a lot of this is about behaviors and in, in the business rather than what we expect from HR.


Sarah  

So training people, both the managers and the reps to do voice well, trust your workforce, respect their choice to join a union and also focus on influencing managerial culture. Well, thank you so much, Paul, Neil and Gill for a fascinating conversation about voice how we strengthen it and why it matters for all workplaces. Now if you've been listening to the APS podcast, you can get to more depth on voice on our website and I've put links to twp policy papers in the episode notes, covering how we build back better from Coronavirus and a deep dive look at consultation. But also we can help. If your workplace is facing issues with voice, then please do call us and I've put the number for that in the episode notes as well. Thanks for listening.





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