There’s a lot of chatter about how the employer-employee relationship will change post-COVID. HRM asked an expert what it might look like.
COVID-19 has turned the working world upside down.
In Australia, employee opinions about work are changing, most notably in their feelings about where they work. Many don’t want to return to a physical workplace. For some, it’s about safety, but many others seem to prefer remote work and they’re not really interested in giving that up.
But how much say are those employees actually getting over their work? What has COVID-19 done to the employee voice? Are they bolder, or has it had the opposite effect?
Employee voice is about including employees in organisational decision making. As HRM has written previously, employee voice can take different forms – it can include giving employees more autonomy over their own work, collaborating with them on company changes, and so on. Researchers have found that engaging employees this way can improve employee performance and reduce turnover.
Andrew R. Timming FCAHR, associate professor of human resources management at the University of Western Australia, has spent years studying the impact of the employee voice.
As Australia continues to come out of lockdown, HRM spoke to Timming about the state of employee voice. Many have argued employees will have more say in the new world order, but Timming disagrees.
“COVID-19 has very likely reduced voice opportunities for employees”, he says.
Timming says there are two main reasons for this: physical distancing and a weakened economy.
To the first point, Timming says that social distancing not only separated workers from the workplace, it separated them from each other. Employee voice tends to be stronger and more effective when colleagues can talk and collaborate with each other directly.
Though many organisations have found ways to keep staff connected through various kinds of communication apps and software, due to the quick shift to remote work most of these are paid for by the company and monitored by managers. So all employee conversations have the feeling of being mediated by the organisation.
Research has shown employees benefit from being able to complain to each other, it can help break down silos and allow employees to bond over a common problem. If the problem is work-related, employees who only communicate through organisational technology are much less likely to feel comfortable talking about it. It would be like complaining about work outside your manager’s office and praying they don’t open the door.
Timming thinks the separation from their cohort is likely restricting the employee voice as employees are split up from each other and feeling more isolated.
“A Zoom meeting can only capture so much. It is not a perfect replacement for face-to-face interaction.”
Although Union representation has been in decline for some time, worker coalitions are still important for employees to be heard in the workplace. Though some organisations might be wary of it, preventing employees from talking about larger issues (unfair wages or unsafe working environments, for example) can have harmful outcomes.
Conflict avoidance can lead to stress-related illness and higher turnover, research shows. And companies that dissuade people from speaking up can have systemic issues with harassment and toxic cultures that risk a public backlash.
The separation and inability to talk openly and air grievances with other employees can also contribute to workers feeling isolated, as they are more likely to feel they are the only ones suffering.
A weakened economy
“COVID-19 has badly damaged the economy. In a weak job market, employers enjoy more power and leverage over their workforce. They don’t need to listen to employees to retain them as they would in a good economy,” says Timming.
A 2016 study published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management looked at the flip side of employee voice: employee silence. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found workers were much less likely to speak up in times of economic instability out of the fear of repercussion. Moreover, staff weren’t just less likely to discuss issues relating to their day-to-day work but had less incentive to speak up on societal issues or workplace changes in general.
When staff are silenced like this they are likely to feel like they have less control over their job which, terrifyingly, can lead to poor physical health, higher levels of stress and even death. If the lack of control comes a fear of speaking up in unstable economic times it’s possible employees have higher feelings of job insecurity, which we know can increase neuroticism and actually change our personalities. Research into this issue found long term job insecurity can impact work relationships and make employees less productive.
Given this, if workers are concerned, are they more likely to turn to formal unions to prevent such disastrous outcomes? Timming doesn’t think so.
“Industrial relations researchers have been arguing for 40 years that union membership will grow. It hasn’t. In fact, it has contracted in most industrialized countries of the world. I do not expect any surge in union membership anytime soon.”
It’s likely Australia is in for a bumpy ride the next few months (and maybe years) as it navigates higher unemployment and thousands of businesses still unable to open due to COVID-19.
If Timming is right and employee voice is reduced as a result then it could fall on HR to help bridge the gap between employees and leaders and ensure everyone is getting a chance to be heard.
What’s your take on the matter? What does the future look like for employer-employee relations? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Keeping employees engaged remotely can be difficult. Thankfully AHRI’s Creating an Engaged Workplace can help you overcome these difficulties.