As we emerge further from lockdown, the workplace will be changing for your employees, and you face a choice about how you engage with them about those changes. Your choice sends a message about the kind of employer you are. Will that choice align with your purpose, values and mission statements?

The law may require you to consult about some significant changes. If you choose to do that only when you have to - grudgingly - meeting minimum statutory requirements, you’ll be compliant. But you won’t be getting the full benefit of employee input and you might be missing a real engagement opportunity with the wider workforce.  

“There is so much change. No one is talking to us. No one is explaining what is going on - or why. Morale is on the floor and we’re working all the hours.”

When it comes to demonstrating your credentials as an employer, there’s a hierarchy of communication:

  1. Announcing – when you just tell people  what’s happening. A step up from the information vacuum created by management silence (a most pernicious destroyer of trust), but severely limited in efficacy if your ideal outcome is loyalty and buy-in to your plans.  
  2. Consulting – sharing your plans at a formative stage, asking people for their thoughts, really listening to what they have to say about them, and providing a considered response.
  3. Negotiating – discussing your proposals with the understanding that nothing will change without employee agreement. Right now, negotiating for agreement around the minutiae of decisions might be too big an ask – businesses need to be able to make commercial decisions (though of course, some changes will require contractual agreement).

So, if you’re balancing pragmatism and efficacy, consultation wins hands down. Often, collective consultation has something of a bad rap – seen as something to be engaged in only under duress. It carries unhelpful connotations of cumbersome statutory frameworks, regulatory formality, minimum timeframes and the menacing threat of a protective award (the employment tribunal penalty if you get it wrong).  

It doesn’t have to be like that. Why not offer collective consultation an amnesty, a rebrand, and even embrace it as just part of what you do as a good employer? Because you want to, and because engaging in meaningful consultation with union or employee representatives in the current climate could pay dividends in terms of wellbeing, trust and engagement.  

Who do you consult with? In absence of union reps, collective consultation will usually be with a forum of employee representatives who have been elected by their colleagues to represent their collective interests to the business. They might be a standing forum or have been elected to deal with a specific situation. Often a forum will have a constitution or terms of reference setting out its purpose and scope.  

What do they do? The most helpful way to think about reps is as thoughtful go-betweens and sounding boards. They receive information about plans from the business, consider it (canvassing views of fellow employees), ask questions, make suggestions, and raise concerns. They often come up with ideas and constructive challenge. Forums are most effective when you treat them as trusted partners in a change process.  

How does it work? Consultation is a process of exchanging views. It doesn’t prevent management making decisions and, when it’s done well, it can mean:

  • You better understand your employees’ perspectives and concerns
  • Staff feel heard and valued, and trust improves
  • Reps, who are of course the people closest to the impact of your plans – and who probably know a lot about what’s happening on the ground - can spot the bear traps and offer you ideas for alternative approaches
  • Where your plans may give rise to friction, the business gets any early warning, can identify the flashpoints and try to address them
  • There’s open channel of two-way communication meaning potentially toxic rumour and gossip can be put to bed

And of course, where required, the legal compliance bit.  

Having trained many employee forum reps, my experience is that they are generally constructive, conscientious, caring people. They don’t represent individual employees’ interests which means you get a more collaborative, balanced perspective, and pick up on themes with broader impact. A collective approach can contribute to consistency across the organisation, breaking down siloes, allaying fears of unfairness and, critically, perceived unfairness. At this moment - when we've all been atomised for so long - they could do more than that too, supporting the re-establishment a sense of community culture that so many crave after isolation.  

If you don’t feel a consultation body is right for you, there are other collective ways to support the next phase – whether that be simple focus groups, leveraging the wealth of experience in your inclusion networks, or establishing inclusion guardians or allies.  

Needless to say, whatever path you take, your communication has to be authentic, driven by a genuine wish to achieve better outcomes. When we emerge, hopefully before too long, into calmer workplace waters, employees will remember the quality of the communication, the resources they were offered, whether their opinions were considered, whether they felt genuinely part of the process.    

Let us know if we can help you with your forum, your consultation, or any of your concerns around emerging into summer of ’21.

If you'd like to learn more about how we're helping organisations make the shift to the hybrid workplace, join us for our webinar on 29 April: Summer of ‘21 and beyond: the human-centred workplace.

You can find more resources and information about how we're helping organisations with the shift to the hybrid workplace here.