Employee voice is everywhere – but businesses aren’t listening, experts warn

Engagement must go beyond one-off surveys and foster culture of continuous feedback, CIPD event is told

Organisations need to be better listeners and prioritise employee experience if they are to see business results through better engagement, attendees at the CIPD Employee Engagement conference heard.

Speaking at the event in London yesterday, Sarah Guerra, director of diversity and inclusion at King’s College London, said many organisations already had “intelligent information” on employee feedback but were not using it effectively.

“It’s not that the information isn’t there, it’s that we’re not tuned in,” she said.

“We force people into formal processes, but every expression of dissatisfaction is a complaint. There’s so much intelligent information in every organisation that’s not leveraged. It’s not about what a survey says. It’s what employees feel on a day-to-day basis, what they’re talking about. That’s employee voice.” 

Guerra added that efforts to boost employee engagement needed to encourage an “always-on” culture of continuous feedback. Formal methods of gauging employee opinion, such as annual surveys, would only contribute to organisational success if they were conducted within a wider culture of feedback and response.

She gave the example of a manager who began every meeting with 10 minutes dedicated to asking staff a question such as: ‘What was the last thing that inspired you?’. Guerra said this demonstrated: “I’m interested and you being here is important.”

Gillian Felton, employee experience consultant at GFS Consulting, said engagement boiled down to treating employees like adults. “The annual survey still has a place as long as it’s part of a suite of conversations,” she said.

“It only has legs if it’s not just a box-ticking activity and we’re not just paying lip service. Set the expectation that the people have a role in making things right. It’s not [just] the preserve of the senior management team, it’s a collective responsibility. We’re all adults and it’s not rocket science – treat them that way.” 

Felton added that engagement was about getting feedback in real time instead of yearly snapshots. “What if I’m having a bad day and you survey me? A week later, I might be fully on it and feeling great,” she said. “Some days I’ll feel rubbish, others I’ll love my job and can’t get enough of it.” 

Debra Corey, author and global head of engagement at Reward Gateway, said transparency and trust were crucial factors in enabling the much-needed culture change.

“Default to transparency. You’re never going to get trust unless you tell the truth. Open and honest communication really is the foundation of everything we do when it comes to engagement. This is critical to trust and we need to get this right,” she said.

Corey also recommended that when developing policies, HR should consider the “99.9 per cent” who were unlikely to abuse them, arguing it was disengaging for such people to be hit with “legal mumbo jumbo”.

“Build engagement back into policy. Keep the legal mumbo jumbo in the background. Give employees something that’s going to engage them, not turn them right off,” she said.

Ryan Tahmassebi, business psychologist and director of people science at Hive, said it was time ‘employee engagement’ was replaced with ‘employee experience’, arguing engagement and customer experience were inextricably linked.

He said: “If we get the employee experience right, we get a much more successful and productive business. People deserve to have a good day at work, no matter where that is or what they’re doing. But fundamentally, as organisations, we’re not doing a good job of that. 

“We’ve almost brainwashed people into thinking good work is getting things done, getting through the day without any barriers. Health and wellbeing has to take a much larger place in creating better workplace cultures and our idea of what ‘engagement’ is.”