As companies navigate the challenges of the back-to-work transition and increasingly struggle to attract and retain talent, one area that’s come into the spotlight is employee voice. But recent research from my firm Workplace Intelligence and The Workforce Institute at UKG reveals a troublesome gap between the current state of employee voice and employer action that—if left unresolved—will disengage workers, fuel turnover, and hinder business performance.
But what exactly is employee voice, and why does it matter? Simply put, employee voice is the means by which people communicate their ideas, views, and concerns to their employer and influence matters that affect them at work. When team members don’t feel heard, they simply do as they’re told and don’t bother to suggest ideas or changes that might help the business or make their workplace better.
For businesses, the bottom-line benefits of amplifying employee voice are clear. Workers who feel heard are more engaged and productive, and they have higher levels of well-being and a greater sense of purpose at work. These outcomes translate into more innovation, less absenteeism, and improved company performance.
At first glance, the overall state of employee voice seems positive: according to our survey, 81% of workers say they feel heard. However, a closer look at the data reveals that the vast majority (86%) of employees feel people at their organization are not heard fairly or equally—and nearly half (47%) say that underrepresented voices remain undervalued by employers. Let’s examine why companies need to listen to their workforce now more than ever, where they’re missing the mark on this, and which employees risk getting left behind as companies march forward toward our new normal.
Supporting an effective return-to-work transition
At many organizations the return-to-work transition is already well underway, but not all back-to-work strategies were created equally. In fact, my company's research with UKG found that fewer than 1 in 3 employees said they were able to voice their opinions or ideas on post-COVID-19 workplace policies, work arrangements, and employee support (e.g., reducing burnout).
Companies that neglected to take staff feedback into account while crafting their strategy may struggle to retain talent, at a time when workforce retention is key—job postings have now reached their highest level on record dating back to 2000. Employees whose voices were ignored may be dissatisfied with their working arrangements, their concerns about burnout may remain unresolved, and they may feel anxious about workplace policies (e.g., mask or vaccine requirements). And any of these factors could decrease their productivity and engagement or cause them to seek employment elsewhere.
Even at companies that were diligent about seeking out worker input, it’s critical to regularly check-in with employees about how they think the back-to-work transition is going—what’s working, what’s not working, and how is their mental health faring during this challenging time? We’re all charting a new course right now, and the best leaders will be adaptable and willing to make adjustments quickly if needed.
The good news is that for most organizations, it’s not too late to build employee input into their return-to-work strategies. Policies can always be changed, new practices can be put in place, and greater support (but more importantly the right support) can be offered to workers. First, however, companies need to create an environment where people can freely express their opinions and have the mechanisms to do so—and many aren’t doing so.
Promoting fairness in the hybrid workplace
As organizations begin to craft their hybrid workplace strategies, one concern that’s already emerged is whether remote workers will be treated the same as those who go into an office. Will they feel included and connected to their team? Will they be visible among their colleagues and superiors, and recognized for their efforts? And will their voices be equally heard?
There’s no getting around the fact that it’s far easier for office workers to express their views and opinions with management, whether through casual conversations or impromptu meetings. For remote employees, bringing up an important issue might require them to send a formal email or request a 1:1 meeting with their supervisor, something many people might shy away from. And for virtual staff, it may be nearly impossible for managers to pick up on their subtle feedback clues like body language or discomfort during a team discussion.
With this in mind, companies need to put mechanisms in place to gather feedback from all of their team members, regardless of their work location. This could be as simple as having managers schedule more frequent check-ins with their remote employees, incorporating online tools like pulse surveys or forums, or rewarding team members who provide feedback. However, not only do leaders need to boost the voice of their remote team members, they also need to prioritize their input equally compared to their office counterparts.
Helping organizations retain talent—especially Gen Z
According to research from McKinsey, nearly two-thirds of U.S. employees say that COVID-19 caused them to reflect on their purpose in life, and nearly half are reconsidering the kind of work they do because of the pandemic. And because 70% of employees say their sense of purpose is defined by their work, it’s more important than ever that companies align themselves with a meaningful vision and mission.
Workers also expect their organizations to be more open to input and feedback on the issues that matter most to them. In fact, embracing employee feedback may mean the difference between retaining a high performer and recruiting someone to fill their vacancy. According my company’s study with UKG, nearly two-thirds (63%) of people feel their voice has been ignored in some way by their manager or employer, and a third (34%) would rather quit or switch teams than voice their true concerns with management.
This devastating impact on retention may be even more significant among employees between the ages of 18-24, or Gen Z: just 16% of these young workers say they can freely express their views and suggestions with their manager, compared to 67% of older staff members. And companies should take note that this group’s expectations around change are high: 71% of Gen Z expect their employer to listen and act on employee feedback more, one year from now.
There’s a clear opportunity for companies to better understand employee views—especially incoming generations—so that these up-and-comers are more engaged and more likely to stay with their employer. For many organizations, the time is ripe for a much-needed cultural change to ensure that workers at all levels and all ages have a voice, not just senior or more tenured employees.
Ensuring that essential workers and caregivers continue to be seen
During the pandemic, essential workers served an invaluable role in sustaining the global labor market and fostering economic recovery. Although they received some recognition for their efforts, our research found that they remain one of the least heard groups in the workplace: 1 in 4 essential workers don’t feel heard at work, and just 1 in 3 feel they can freely express their views and suggestions with their manager.
Employees with caregiving responsibilities didn’t fare much better. While many employers offered new benefits and programs to support them, a recent Willis Towers Watson survey found that fewer than 3 in 10 companies believe their caregiving programs have been effective at supporting workers during the pandemic. So it’s no surprise that despite employers' best efforts, many caregivers still see room for improvement: 69% feel their voice has been ignored by their manager or employer, and 58% want to be more heard one year from now.
Employers have two options: they can either help carry the momentum forward for these undervalued employee groups, or they can allow the voices of these workers to continue to go unheard. In my opinion, the answer is obvious. Essential workers are the backbone of many businesses, and they’re often the first point of contact with customers. Yet their roles are typically difficult, physically demanding, and underappreciated.
And caregivers (who are predominantly women) serve an immeasurably critical role in society, yet many of them find it impossible to balance the demands of work with their caregiving responsibilities. Supporting both of these populations—starting with ensuring their voices are heard—is not only the right thing to do, it’s also an important way to stand out to the best talent in a crowded job market.
It’s not too late to prioritize employee voice
There’s never been a more critical time to listen to your people. And no matter where your business is in its back-to-work transition, it’s not too late to take a hard look at whether everyone at your company is being heard equally, and whether their feedback is leading to change. Odds are that there are ways your organization could improve its process around listening to its workers, and the benefits of doing so are clear. Leaders who commit to amplifying the voice of the employee in tomorrow’s workplace will not only protect and grow their bottom line, they’ll also equip themselves with a much deeper understanding of the unique needs and expectations of their workforce. And that’s good for everyone.