These are the thoughts and takeaways from the latest Employee Relations Think Tank (ERTT) held on Tuesday 24th June 2014, hosted by EDF Energy’s Martin Thow (Employee Relations Manager) titled ‘Modernising Employee Relations Engagement Forums’.
The following summary has been prepared to reflect a segment of the discussion held amongst senior HR and Diversity professionals from leading national and international businesses. Specific company details, experiences and examples have been omitted from this summary as all discussions are held under ‘Chatham House Rules’.
Employee engagement forums tend to be a process that many companies have in place but realise that they are not currently using these efficiently or gaining the value they could. It is realised that engagement forums could be beneficial for both company and employees and could create a two way commutative platform which ultimately leads to business evolution, improvements and employee happiness. Forums can expand on findings of surveys and really get down to the why and how. The question is how do you create an effective engagement forum?
What do we want from Employee Relation Forums?
It was clear that a number of companies currently use forums to focus on legalities but the main question is how to use these forums for employee engagement. It is widely recognised that businesses are only as good as their employees and that often the front line have some of the best knowledge in the company. Therefore employees can contribute great amounts to systems and strategy, they just need to be given the opportunity and platform to do this. Ultimately the forums should improve employee performance and internal relationships in the business but also keep the business innovative and effective. Often members of a company can feel that unless you work in the head office you have little chance to contribute ideas that could impact on change. Forums show employees how valued they are and give them that chance to contribute to strategy, no matter where they sit in the business.
Benefits of Employee engagement forums:
Create good rapport between employers and employees.
Evolution, competitiveness and success of company.
Two way communicative relationship- value of employees.
Communication platform for employees to understand current vision, changes and plans for business.
Could lesson appetite for works councils.
How to create effective ER Forums?
- What should the content be?
A problem that many companies are facing with forums is that they are mainly used to discuss maintenance issues such as broken coffee machines etc. Although these issues need to be dealt with, an engagement forum should focus on more meaningful operational and strategic content. It should be the place where employees are given the chance to comment on and potentially change the vision and running of the company.
In order to make sure the forum is covering the right content it is seen as a good idea to set topics for the first forums and ensure employee reps are fully trained so that everyone understands what the structure of these forums should be. However in later forums it may be a good idea to hand over the responsibility of setting the topic list to reps. A suggestion to get reps engaging was to give them set projects and send them off to discover solutions and opinions of employees. This ensures that they always bring useful information for discussion and makes the reps feel valued and trusted by handing over particular projects for them to work on. Polls could also be set up on company intranet systems to ensure forums are covering topics that are relevant to the majority of the workforce. All members of the forum need to be trained to ensure everyone understands things such as jargon or financial reports. This will ensure educated discussions and should give reps a clearer idea of the overall impact of their role in business goals.
As discussed forums can be used to discover employee needs but they can also be used to launch change initiatives and gain reactions on these. Employees will feel valued if they are the first to know about change and forums are the ideal place for these communications and discussions to take place.
- Who should attend?
Nominated employee reps are used to attend the forums on the behalf of the workforce. It is crucial that there is a structured process so that employees know who to go to and when they should communicate. These reps need to be trained sufficiently on what should be discussed in the forum and what the outcomes of these discussions may lead to. They also need to be trained to filter the topics that employees suggest to ensure that forums are operational and strategic. Reps should be assessed regularly to ensure they are representing the workforce correctly but also to incentivise them to do a good job. Regular elections should be held for reps to ensure the workforce is happy with who is representing them. These reps can also be split into work streams in larger businesses so that forums are focused and only have the correct people attending. One larger forum can be held where these work streams come together and summarise issues they have come across and solutions they have found.
There also needs to be relevant members of management attending forums to ensure reps and employees know that the right person, that can implement or start the process for change, is listening. A thought provoking discussion should take place before forums with relevant managers so that they are prepared for employees questions and know exactly how and what should be communicated.
One of the main issues discussed was the struggle to get employees, employee reps and managers to take the forums seriously and see them for the value adding tool they could be. All members need to feel their time is not being wasted and therefore content needs to be relevant and focused. A way to gain interest from employees about forums is by really communicating the change that comes about due to their suggestions. It needs to be made clear this really is a place for them to contribute to the operational and strategic systems of the business and that their opinions and ideas are valued. Therefore, whether it is to communicate a new strategy or solution to a current problem or to justify why the change may not be able to be implemented at the moment, every topic needs to gain a clear response from management. It is then vital to ensure this response is communicated to all employees. The question is how do we communicate this effectively?
Communicating Outcomes of Engagement Forums
Many companies focus on analysing and profiling their customers but often do not have the same process for employees. When a company wants to communicate to their employees it is vital they know the best way to do this. For example an older workforce may prefer paper communications whilst younger workforces may be more tech savvy and prefer online or email comms. An understanding of employee motives is also crucial to finding the best format for communications. If communication is not delivered effectively and correctly to the workforce then ultimately they are wasted.
Buy in from the Top
It is crucial to get full backing from the top of the organisation for how valuable and important employee engagement forums are. This then needs to be communicated to translate to the rest of the business. This shows employees that the top of the business really are behind a scheme that means they listen to employee’s opinions and ideas. This can also create a ‘healthy fear’ for management to ensure they attend forums and take them seriously. Engagement from employees should be rewarded by change. If employees bring strategic issues forward they should be rewarded by managers and directors taking these seriously and listening.
It is not only the reps that need training. In order to get everyone on board, directors need to be trained on the benefits of forums too. Once they realise these they are likely to take engagement forums a lot more seriously. It is crucial to communicate that forums are not just to satisfy an HR process but that they can gain really interesting findings that can develop the business for the better.
Trust was a key factor in the success of forums. Employees need to trust that what they are saying will be taken on board and thought about and could lead to change. To gain this trust managers need to be transparent and honest. It is likely that not all issues and ideas raised can be implemented. But the way to handle this and not loose trust is to communicate to employees that the topic was listened to, considered and an explanation was provided as to why changes are not viable at this current time. Expectations need to be managed and communication is essential to discuss outcomes.
The idea of ‘quick fixes’ is a great way to install trust as soon as possible. If there are quick changes that can be made from the result of a forum these should be implemented straight away. This shows employees, while the forum is fresh in their mind, how the company is completely serious about listening and acting on issues and ideas.
A transparent vision for the future needs to be given in forums so that employees can understand why they are being asked about certain aspects of the business and how their response will change these areas.
Trade Unions/ Non Union Reps
A key issue that was discussed in this Think Tank was how to create effective forums that both trade unions and non union reps can contribute to and attend. Depending on the business sector, currently around 50% of employees are represented by Trade Unions and it is crucial that the other 50% are given the chance to voice their opinions and ideas. The question is do companies need to create two separate forums for trade unions and non union reps or create a forum that both are happy to attend and feel they are equal contributors? This may be tricky as often union discussion focuses on pay, holiday etc, whereas, as discussed before, employee engagement forums are supposed to be creating engagement and improving the business processes and strategy.
Evaluation of Effectiveness
It is crucial that the company starts by understanding what they want out of engagement forums and then decide if their current forums are fit for purpose. Forums need to be assessed to ensure they are effective. So much can be gained from engagement forums but if the forum is not effective it is a waste of everyone’s time. Therefore although effectiveness of forums may not be able to be translated in ROI terms, analysis needs to be completed to see what has come from the forums and what this has led to. It is essential everyone understands what the forums are for and how the findings that come from them are inputted into the business.
One suggestion is to create a coordinator role that reports directly to the head of employee relations and is seen by trade unions, non unions reps and management as the in between person to turn to if they feel they are not being represented fairly. This coordinator can report back on the effectiveness of forums allowing for changes to be made to increase engagement value.