What is employee voice, and why you should start listening now

What is employee voice and why you should start listening now
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Your clients are frustrated with your customer support, and they’ve started logging complaints about the wait times.

You have two options: Blame your employees’ customer service skills, or ask what’s going wrong and use employee experience principles to figure out a solution.

If you take the first option, your employees don’t get a chance to explain what’s happening – or to help you correct it. They’ll resent you for not trusting them, their engagement will drop, and your customers will carry on waiting.

But take the second option and show initiative, and your employees will tell you that their support management software is slow and outdated.

They’ll show you a competing product they want to try instead to do their best work. And they’ll appreciate you for seeking out their input.

When you listen to your employees’ voices, you tap into a valuable source of information about how your firm works.

In this guide, we explore employee voice, why it matters, employee voice examples, and how you can pay closer attention.

What is employee voice?

Employee voice is the ability of employees to express opinions, concerns, and suggestions at work.

Employees have a voice when they can speak up and trust that their managers listen to what they have to say.

Company culture strongly drives employee voice and organizational performance in the workplace. Companies with a high level of trust are much more likely to have employees willing to come forward with their perspectives.

On the other hand, if your company doesn’t encourage employee voice and employees fear pushback or reprisal for speaking up, they’re less likely to offer their insights. 

The importance of employee voice for employers

Employers stand to reap real benefits by paying attention to employee voice.

Here are the critical ways employee voice and engagement help companies yield better results and increase their bottom line.

The benefits of employee voice for employers

The benefits of employee voice for employers, at a glance

The benefit

How it helps

Drives innovation

Encourages employees to come forward with suggestions for internal improvement

Boosts engagement, productivity, and retention

Creates a work environment where employees feel appreciated and want to give their best

Improves customer service

Builds employee engagement and bolsters a company’s public reputation

Encourages knowledge sharing and trust in the workplace

Prevents silos and encourages collaboration between teams

Identifies training needs

Helps employers to stay on top of upskilling and reskilling

Provides a cheap early warning sign for issues

Protects company culture by drawing on employees’ first-hand awareness of problems at work

Drives innovation

Your employees are the people who carry out your firm’s mission from day to day. That puts them in a position to offer unique insights into the efficiency and effectiveness of your company’s workflow.

The workers who know your processes intimately certainly have ideas that could improve how your business functions. If you’re prepared to listen to them, you could find a one-in-a-million strategy to help you build a better company.

That kind of innovation is priceless and all it costs you is your attention. 

Boosts engagement, productivity, and retention

Only 21% of employees feel engaged at work. That’s a problem for employers because engaged employees are much more likely to work productively.

Engagement also has a direct impact on employee retention. An IBM report suggests that 90% of workers are more likely to stay with a business that accepts and responds to feedback.[1]

Engagement has a direct impact on employee retention

If you show your employees that you respect them by listening to their input, they’re more likely to show up to work feeling engaged.

That engagement results in a more productive workplace that’s better equipped to retain its best talent.

Improves customer service

It’s a common saying that the customer is always right – but it isn’t always that simple. When applied too broadly, the phrase allows customers to bully and abuse your employees. It also undermines your workers’ first-hand knowledge and experience in their roles.

By taking your employees and their expertise more seriously, you can deliver an even better customer experience. 

Employee engagement and customer satisfaction aren’t mutually exclusive. Engaged employees deliver better work and better customer service.

Businesses with highly engaged staff achieve 10% higher customer ratings and 18% higher sales.

Plus, by having a two-way dialogue with your employees, you can identify better strategies for keeping customers happy and delivering optimal results.

Remember, your employees have direct contact with your customers, so they have insight into what customers want.

Encourages knowledge sharing and trust in the workplace

Qualtrics ranks the following factors as the top five drivers of employee engagement:[2]

  1. Trust in leadership (77%)

  2. Relationship with supervisor (74%)

  3. Organizational culture (73%)

  4. Belief in the business (67%)

  5. Opportunities for career progression (66%)

Trust in leadership is the number one factor. But according to a study by BetterUp, 38% of employees don’t trust the people they work with. 

Low levels of trust in the workplace can lead to a silo mentality that limits collaboration and damages a firm’s efficiency.

On the other hand, a workplace where employees feel safe to speak up stands to benefit from higher levels of collaboration.

By cultivating a safe environment for workers who speak up, you can foster a culture of trust and collaborative working that boosts engagement and productivity.

Identifies training needs

Skill gaps are increasingly common in the aftermath of the pandemic, thanks to seismic shifts in our work.

According to research from McKinsey, 87% of employers either have a skill gap or expect to have one within the next few years.

Listening to your employees is the most efficient way to identify employee needs and where your business is missing crucial skills.

Because they have a ground-level view of your company’s work, they’re well-equipped to point out where something is missing.

Their feedback can indicate where you need to focus on upskilling or even reskilling your employees.

Provides a cheap early warning sign for issues

Many companies spend huge amounts of money on consultants attempting to fix internal issues.

But if you’re prepared to listen to your employees, you could save that money and overcome organizational challenges before they damage your culture.

Employee voice acts as an early warning system for difficulties that must be addressed quickly. That includes issues like:

  • Bullying in the workplace

  • Issues with policies or processes

  • Problems with management

  • Any challenges to employee morale

If they’re allowed to bed down in your business, these issues can have far-reaching negative consequences. It’s worth listening to your employees now, so you don’t have to spend time and money solving problems later.

The importance of employee voice for employees

The benefits of employee voice for employers

Employee voice is equally crucial for employees. 

Read on to learn why it’s so relevant for your staff to feel heard and acknowledged at work.

The benefits of employee voice for employees, at a glance

The benefit

How it helps

Leads to higher job satisfaction

Boosts engagement and productivity

Improves team morale and cohesion

Keeps morale high and helps teams work more efficiently

Reduces negativity and conflict at work

Limits the impact of absenteeism and turnover

Opens up opportunities for growth and development

Promotes learning and internal mobility

Leads to higher job satisfaction

According to Glassdoor, the top factors driving job satisfaction for employees around the world are:[3]

  1. Company culture and values

  2. The quality of senior leadership

  3. Access to professional development opportunities

A company culture that values employees’ opinions and suggestions is the surest guarantee of satisfied employees. 

Employees who are satisfied at work are more likely to be engaged and productive.

Improves team morale and cohesion

With remote and hybrid models still changing the way we work, it can be hard to build a cohesive work environment in 2023.

Part of the issue is that employees feel less connected to each other – and to leadership – when they don’t share the same physical workspace.

When left unchecked, that lack of cohesion harms employee morale, which can hurt productivity over time.

By listening to your employees when they tell you what they need, you can take steps to build a happier, more effective company culture – despite the impact of remote work.

Reduces negativity and conflict

When employees are empowered to raise issues with business leadership, those issues are less likely to fester and cause conflict or negativity.

That’s important because conflict at work can lead to debilitating outcomes, including:

  • Physical and mental health concerns

  • Absenteeism

  • Decreased productivity

  • Increased turnover

In the worst cases, conflict can even escalate into outright bullying.

Encouraging employees to speak up about problems they face at work enables them to resolve those problems.

They can address any issues quickly, openly, and without conflict.

In its own right, that confidence is a boost to employee morale at work.

Opens up opportunities for growth and development

Employees want opportunities to learn and develop their skills at work. A survey conducted by SurveyMonkey shows that 86% of employees find job training important. The survey also shows that:

  • 59% of workers say that training improves their performance

  • 51% of workers say it improves their confidence

  • 41% of workers say it helps their time management skills

Employees say they have direct benefits from job training

Training needs to target areas relevant to an employee’s work to be efficient.

That’s where employee voice comes in: Employees are best equipped to tell managers where they feel their skills could use improvement.

Providing employees with role-specific skill tests can help all parties to identify and fill skill gaps at work.

The opposite of employee voice: Employee silence

Employee silence is a company culture where employees don’t have a voice.

It arises when companies don’t seek out input from employees – or when they ignore it. Statistics show that employee silence is more prevalent than employee voice.

When the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development surveyed employees, it found that just 25% freely expressed themselves at work.

Another 25% said they often chose not to speak up at work, even when they wanted to. That’s bad news for employers, which could miss out on valuable ways to build a better work environment.

Employees who feel silenced are likely to feel disrespected and undervalued and become less engaged. That low engagement could lead to:

  • Damaged morale

  • Limited collaboration

  • Reduced productivity

  • Lower profits

  • A worse customer experience

  • Higher turnover

In the worst case, ignoring employee voice could lead to poor working conditions going unaddressed. These situations often boil over into public scandals that seriously damage a firm’s brand.

For example, Amazon has a reputation for ignoring employees who raise concerns about their work environment.

When the business fired whistleblowers in 2020, one of its vice presidents left his job in protest.

It’s the kind of bad publicity that could destroy a smaller company – all thanks to ignoring employees who speak out at work.

Employee voice in the workplace: 8 different kinds

Employee voice matters – so what can you do to ensure you hear it?

We’ve gathered eight approaches to promoting employee voice in your workplace and advice on how to implement them.

Not every approach applies to every firm, but they offer your business a starting point as it begins to listen to its people.

Listening to your employees at a glance

How to listen

How it helps

Idea boxes and graffiti walls

Enable employees to share input spontaneously from day to day

Digital feedback platforms

Offer a widely accessible platform for anonymized feedback

Regular employee surveys

Enable managers to gather organized feedback from employees at regular intervals

Company forums and open office hours

Give employees direct access to business leaders

A culture of speaking up

Fosters transparency at work and encourages employees to use feedback mechanisms

Direct participation in decisions

Makes sure that business decisions take employee voice into account

Trade union representation

Provides an organized system for employees to make their voices heard

Worker representation on the board of directors

Ensures employee voice reaches the highest levels

1. Idea boxes and graffiti walls

Idea or suggestion boxes are a simple way to collect employee feedback daily.

All you need to do is place a box and some slips of paper in a heavily trafficked area of your office. Employees can write anonymous feedback and leave it in the box for you to review.

You can also use a graffiti wall – similar in principle to an idea box, except feedback is written on a wall (or noticeboard) for anyone to see.

You must commit to a regular schedule of checking the box or wall, or employees could feel that you don’t care about their feedback.

2. Digital feedback platforms

Idea boxes and graffiti walls are ideal for physical office spaces, but they risk excluding hybrid or remote workers from offering feedback.

It’s worth your time to set up a digital feedback platform to ensure that you capture input from all your employees, regardless of how they work.

An anonymized digital platform serves the same purpose as an idea box without requiring a physical location.

HR staff can monitor it regularly for suggestions or comments, just as they would monitor a physical idea box for real-time feedback.

3. Regular employee surveys

Surveys present a group of employees with consistent questions, usually designed to gather standardized feedback.

Whether they take the form of occasional pulses from coaches and managers or lengthier quarterly surveys, they’re an invaluable way to gather data on employee mood.

At TestGorilla, our quarterly employee engagement surveys are part of our strategy for active listening.

Regular standardized feedback helps us watch for trends in employee engagement so we can address any problems quickly.

As a distributed team, it’s valuable for us to make an active effort to monitor employee engagement and wellbeing as closely as possible.

4. Company forums and open office hours

One of the most efficient ways to listen to employees is to host a company forum – an open event where any employees can raise questions with senior leadership.

Or, on a smaller scale, an open-door policy provided by managers enables employees to raise concerns directly with their leaders.

These events don’t have to take place in person. For remote, hybrid, or distributed teams, you can hold open video calls that put employees in direct conversation with managers.

For example, TestGorilla’s C-suite executives host a monthly Ask Me Anything video call meeting.

It’s an opportunity for employees to have open, transparent conversations with senior leaders about anything they want to discuss.

5. A culture of speaking up

The top three elements of a company’s culture that employees value most are:[4]

  1. Feeling respected and heard

  2. Supportive leadership

  3. Leaders who live the company’s core values

Your business can build a highly desirable work environment – and attract top talent as a result – by encouraging a culture of speaking up. 

This kind of culture encourages employees to use the feedback mechanisms available to them, making it easier for employers to hear their voices.

It relies on an environment in which it’s psychologically safe and free of repercussions for employees to raise issues with leadership.

Make speaking up about problems everyone’s responsibility, and take time to appreciate employees who follow through.

6. Direct participation in decisions

Companies with a flat organizational structure aim to minimize the levels of management between leaders and employees.

Direct participation means that employees are involved more closely in the decision-making process that affects the entire business.

Decision-making participation is a direct and impactful way to ensure you hear employees’ voices.

It elevates employees to a position of real responsibility and gives them a sense of ownership over the company’s direction.

But flat structures don’t apply to every business. In particular, larger organizations often struggle to make it work without devolving responsibility to smaller teams. 

7. Trade union representation

Trade union membership is on the increase in the US. In the first six months of fiscal year 2022, the number of union representation petitions filed increased by 57%.

Historically, trade and labor unions have helped workers access higher pay, fairer working hours, better working conditions, and healthcare benefits.

They’re an effective way for employees to raise management concerns through having an employee representative.

Many employers have a challenging relationship with trade unions, claiming that they undermine the employers’ good relations with their workers.

But employees are increasingly conscious that they get better results when they make their voices heard en masse.

If your employees want to unionize, it’s worth your time to consider the benefits of the idea – a union could help to formalize the importance of employee voice within your company.

8. Worker representation on the board

Board-level employee representation (BLER) is rare in the US. It’s much more common in Europe.

In countries like Austria, giving employees a spot on the board is a legal requirement for certain private companies.

BLER could be the ultimate expression of employee voice.

It gives workers input into decision-making at the highest level, so they can raise their concerns and hold their leaders to account.

Of course, employees can sit on the board and still be disregarded by management. But as an expression of a company culture that encourages employees to speak out, BLER is an idea with huge potential.

The key to employee voice: Listen actively and follow up with meaningful actions

However they choose to make their voices heard, employees want to be listened to. 

You must offer a range of channels for employees to offer feedback. In its own right, this helps employees feel that their voices matter to management.

What matters is your willingness to act meaningfully on their suggestions.

Fast food chain Arby’s boldly decided to take employee voice seriously in 2013 when they brought in Paul Brown as chief executive officer.

At the time, the business was struggling to retain market share, and its future was uncertain.

Brown turned the company’s fortunes around by going into restaurants across the US and asking employees one question: “What would you do if you were me?”[5] 

Brown gained employee feedback that guided his strategy as a senior executive. More importantly, he gained employees’ trust by following through on their ideas. 

Today, the food chain is thriving because of employee voice and engagement. 

When employees see you acting on their input, it gives them a sense of ownership over the business and their work. It helps them feel valued and boosts their engagement – unlocking all of the benefits we’ve covered in this guide.

Build a workplace culture that values employee voice

Employee voice is the key to employee engagement.

As the workforce rallies following the upheaval of the pandemic, it’s more important than ever for employees to feel heard, respected, and acknowledged at work.

That means employers must take concrete steps to encourage, hear, and act on the voice of the employee. It’s a gesture of trust in workers – and if it’s offered in good faith, workers return that trust.

With employee voice guiding your strategy, you can lead your company from strength to strength.

Next, learn how you can use skills-based hiring to build a people-centric organization.

And as you develop your hiring strategy, ensure you look for candidates who know how to communicate effectively.

Sources

  1. Rasch, Rena and Feinzig, Sheri. “Amplifying employee voice”. (n.d.). IBM. Retrieved April 18, 2023.https://www.ibm.com/thought-leadership/institute-business-value/report/employeevoice

  2. “How leadership trust improves employee belonging”. (n.d.). Qualtrics. Retrieved April 18, 2023.https://www.qualtrics.com/experience-management/employee/leadership-trust/

  3. Stansell, Amanda. (July 11, 2019). “Which Workplace Factors Drive Employee Satisfaction Around the World?”. Glassdoor. Retrieved April 18, 2023.https://www.glassdoor.com/research/employee-satisfaction-drivers/

  4. Sull, Donald; Sull, Charles. (September 16, 2021). “10 Things Your Corporate Culture Needs to Get Right”. MIT Sloan Management Review. Retrieved April 18, 2023.https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/10-things-your-corporate-culture-needs-to-get-right

  5. Goldstein, Steve. (December 7, 2017). “How the CEO of Arby’s Rescued His Company By Asking This 1 Question”. Inc. Retrieved April 18, 2023.https://www.inc.com/steve-goldstein/arbys-new-ceo-faced-a-major-turnaround-heres-1-question-that-saved-him.html

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