Nita Clarke: Voice and Engagement – Giving your staff a damn good listening to

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communicationNita Clarke the vice chair of the MacLeod Review, co chair of the Employee Engagement Task Force and director of the IPA will be giving the keynote presentation at Symposium Events Employee Engagement conference on the 16th April.

In our 2009 report Engaging for Success, we identified the four key enablers of employee engagement. If you get these things right you will be able to drive up engagement for the benefit of the organisation as a whole.

First, you need a coherent and effective strategic narrative that outlines your purpose, vision and values. Second, you need engaging managers who have the skills and capabilities to support employee engagement in the workforce. Third, you need integrity, ensuring there is no gap between what you say and what you do.

The final enabler we identified was employee voice. This is about ensuring that employees are both encouraged and enabled to have their say, with a variety of opportunities to get heard. We thought that of the four enablers of engagement that we identified, voice was both the least understood yet the most potentially transformational.

The recently released Workplace Employee Relations Study showed that just 62% of employees were satisfied or very satisfied with their ability to influence their work. Under half of employees are satisfied with their involvement in workplace decision-making. It is clear that employees in Britain feel that they are lacking a voice.

We’ve recently finished a significant piece of research into employee voice. The final report looks at the potential impact of employee voice on organisational success, and the things that you need to get right in order to harness the benefits of voice.

We found that employee voice can have a transformational impact; in terms of innovation, decision-making and engagement.

Employees can be a vital source of innovation. They understand the customer and their needs; they tend to know how a product or service can be improved. But all too often, this potential resource is un-tapped. By encouraging employees to have their say, employers can unlock this innovation for the benefit of the business.

Voice is essential for effective decision-making. Employees know what will work, and what won’t. If they have the right information and are trusted, they are well-placed to contribute to strategic decision –making. Changes, even controversial ones, are also more easily implemented when employees have been involved in the decision-making that preceded it.

Finally, as explained above, voice is one of the key enablers of engagement. Organisations that listen to and involve their employees have higher levels of engagement.

But how then do you go about supporting employee voice? All too often employers settle for half-hearted and tokenistic efforts to understand their employees; a staff survey repeated every couple of years whose answers are not acted on; a dusty suggestion box which neither encourages many ideas nor leads to much action. This just won’t cut it.

We found that in order for employee voice to work, you need to look both at your culture, and your structures.

First you need to get the organisational culture right. You must get buy in from senior leaders and the commitment genuinely to listen to staff and act on their views. Employees tend to know when an effort is genuine and when it is merely a token exercise. Staff will only express their views if they feel included in decision-making and able to make a difference. There must also be safety to speak with employees feeling able to express their views without fear of retaliation.

But in addition to setting the right tone with the organisational culture, you need to ensure that you provide the right structures and channels for employees to express their views. We found that voice is most effective where there is a balance between the individual and the collective. Employees need to be able to express views as individuals, through one-to-one meetings or a staff survey for example, but also as a collective, through perhaps whole team meetings, a staff forum or a trade union. We found that the most successful organisations tended to use a variety of channels for communication, allowing their staff to have their say in a number of ways.

We uncovered some excellent examples of where employee voice had really contributed to organisational success.  At BAE Systems they managed to reduce the cost of building each plane by 25% by engaging with their shop-floor staff to harness their expertise in a process known as Working Practice Change. When the business was hit by defence cuts, BAE involved employees – both directly and through their trade union – in developing an innovative mitigation scheme that prevented hundreds of compulsory redundancies. In both cases, accessing employee voice and involving them in decision-making was key.

It is clear that employee voice matters to the health and success of any organisation. We’re currently working with employers to help them understand how voice works in their organisation, and how it can be improved for the benefit of all.

About the Author

Nita Clarke is the Director of the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA), Britain’s leading organisation delivering workplace support for good employment and industrial relations. She was vice-chair of the MacLeod Review on employee engagement and continues to work with David MacLeod on the new national Employee Engagement task force, launched by Prime Minister David Cameron in March 2011.

She was appointed as Vice-President (employee relations) by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development in January 2012, and is a visiting Fellow at Kingston University Business School. She is also a member of the Mutuals Task Force established by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude in 2011.

She was formerly the adviser on trade unions to Prime Minister Tony Blair, working as assistant political secretary in the Political Office at 10 Downing Street from January 2001 to June 2007. Her role included liaison with individual unions and the TUC, developing national policy in areas such as the two-tier workforce and work-life balance, supporting ministers by trouble-shooting in industrial disputes. Nita was a senior official with public services union UNISON from 1992 -2001. She is the author of the report, The way forward: trade unions and the third sector, commissioned by ACEVO.

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