New research explores the future of employee voice

The CIPD is testing people’s assumptions about the purpose and impact of voice

Voice is an important aspect of society that requires deep understanding and interest. The UK's EU referendum and the US election in 2016 illustrated the problematic outcomes of alienated/suppressed voices, or voices that are deemed unimportant by existing institutions. These phenomena have implications for the workplace, where new types of fragmented or insecure work are shifting the way we think about voice in the employment relationship. The CIPD’s recent report found that a quarter of gig economy workers say they don’t know where they would go if they wanted to voice a concern about their experience of working in the gig economy.

Given the many missing or neglected voices in the labour market, and in light of major trends (such as technology and diversity of employment relationships) that are changing the nature of voice in the workplace, we need to create a holistic voice agenda that reflects the needs of today’s workforce. For example, many people now use social media at work, but little is known about its impact on employee voice. And we often assume that people don’t speak up because they have nothing to say, but there may be other important motivations that are overlooked. The CIPD is conducting research to explore the future of employee voice, by challenging the current assumptions and building an understanding of what meaningful voice looks like.

One of the CIPD’s principles for better work and working lives is that ‘People matter’ - people and their needs warrant the same thought and consideration as other business outcomes, and people deserve a meaningful voice on matters that affect them. The CIPD believes giving people a meaningful voice is one way of treating them as human beings, rather than as a means to an end. Yet, in practice, employee voice continues to be approached from the instrumental point of view of value in achieving business objectives. CIPD research found that a quarter of practitioners said that the principle ‘people should be able to influence the decisions that affect them’ is one that they never apply in their decision-making, or they merely see it as a ‘nice to have’.

So, the CIPD is going back a step and is testing people’s assumptions about the purpose and impact of voice, before thinking about the implications for organisations. They kicked off this research with an event at The British Library last summer, and are continuing to explore these themes with a range of experts, through blogs and video interviews.

In her interview, Nita Clarke, Director of the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA) explores the purpose and value of employee voice and she asserts that:

‘Listening to your employees will keep you honest. Everybody at work needs to be heard – whatever their contractual relationship is. If you don’t listen to them, you’re walking into a potential minefield and reputational risk today is the real killer for organisations. ’

Richard MacKinnon, Insight Director at the Future Work Centre shares his thoughts on the relationship between voice and trust. He believes:

‘There’s an awful lot of effort, time and money and potentially disruption that goes into asking people what they think, with often little follow up or little evidence to support that it was a good use of those resources. Going forward, we need to think about more creative ways of giving employees voice and not just simply asking them but being receptive to their opinions, views and suggestions before we ask. Of course technology can mediate that and it can be more of a dialogue – more of an ongoing conversation between employer and employee. ‘

In the latest contribution to the CIPD’s employee voice research project, Louise Woodruff of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, makes the important point that:

‘We shouldn’t ignore the role that employee voice can have in really creating the good jobs that can make a real difference to people’s lives… Employee insight can help employers understand the challenges for their low-paid employees, but crucially can also help to improve job design and employee reward.’

Other contributions to the debate include blogs from Elmira Bakhshalian of Martin Reddington Associates, who highlights conversational practice as a mechanism for redressing employee silence; and Céline Schillinger of Sanofi Pasteur, who discusses the importance of creating cultures where people feel able to challenge the status quo.

Ultimately, if people are empowered, engaged and purposeful, they’ll drive progress and this is one of the ideas that’s central to the Future of Work is Human platform, which the CIPD is proud to sponsor. This initiative draws together a diverse range of voices from thought leaders to educators, to share, develop and debate emergent ideas that will help shape a more human future of work. To get involved with the Future of Work is Human initiative, simply register your name to participate.

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