Over the past 50 years trade union membership in Australia has dropped dramatically, from a peak of 61 per cent in 1961 to just 18 per cent today, with a low of 13 per cent in the private sector.
Without unions, how are employees going to be heard?
This is the question being investigated by a large three-year project funded by the Australian Research Council titled “Employee voice in Australia: The impact of employee participation arrangements on organisational performance, employee engagement and employee wellbeing”.
Researchers at Macquarie University and Griffith University, partnering with employee-survey specialists Voice Project, are investigating the methods, costs and benefits of what is called ‘non-union collective voice’.
Voice can be either pro-active (providing ideas for improving systems and processes, for example, continuous improvement programs and employee surveys) or they can be restorative (solving existing problems, often of a personal or interpersonal nature, for example, grievance processes and mediation).
Responding to employee needs
- What are the costs and challenges in implementing these different methods?
- Do the returns of voice, such as greater engagement and innovation, outweigh the costs?
- What does best practice look like?
In the project, voice is defined as the means to communicate, consult and influence decision-making in organisations. The effectiveness of voice is dependent on more than just formal structures for communication.
It is also driven by the culture organisations have for voice. Are people encouraged to speak up? Are they rewarded or punished for doing so? Do workers feel confident? Are employee opinions regarded as a welcome and useful source of information that result in actual change?
The potential returns
With regard to harnessing “heart”, being able to voice opinions and influence decision-making is one of the strongest drivers of employee engagement.
Drawing upon a database of more than 2000 organisations, Voice Project found that high-voice organisations (defined as those organisations in the top quartile on employee involvement) substantially outperformed low-voice organisations (those in the lowest quartile of involvement) on many work practices.
The benefits have not been lost on policy makers. For example, the UK government has estimated that the equivalent of $40 billion dollars is wasted each year in lost productivity because of their huge deficit in employee engagement.
In response, they established a national employee engagement task force, and launched the ‘Engage for Success’ movement (see www.engageforsuccess.org). After examining the empirical evidence, they emphasised employee voice as one of four primary enablers to improve employee engagement.
With regard to harnessing mind, enabling employee voice may encourage a freer flow of ideas and knowledge from front-line and mid-level staff, resulting in better problem-solving, greater innovation, and more effective safety processes and quality systems.
Case study: ResMed
When employee involvement in decision-making emerged as a key priority for improvement at ResMed, a developer of products for the diagnosis and treatment of sleep-disordered breathing, Andrew Cameron, head of manufacturing in the Patient Interface Unit, took on the challenge.
He asked each employee to come up with one suggestion to improve their workplace that could be implemented within a year. The aim was to “aid in efficiencies, as well as make it an easier and more enjoyable place to work”.
The organisation’s vision and direction were communicated so employees had the structure and information needed for decision-making. Within two weeks all 200 employees had put forward an idea. A team of employees evaluated the ideas, ensuring decisions were communicated back to the employees.
“Within three months we had actually implemented all 200 ideas. It was mind-blowing. We won the COO Continuous Improvement Award.”
The enthusiasm generated among staff resulted in ideas being suggested daily. In six months, their unit achieved savings of $500,000. “It wasn’t so much the money that was motivating, it was about making it an easier and improved place to work.”