Employee consultation and collaboration during the Covid-19 pandemic

Since the beginning of the pandemic, companies have been expected to put their people first. Laura King considers the roles of collaboration and consultation when developing Covid-19 policies and procedures.

In May last year (2020) Deloitte Digital conducted a survey of more than 2000 adults on their attitudes to spending during the first lockdown. It found that 20% of customers had stopped buying goods or using services from companies or brands that had failed to prioritise front-line staff or protect their workers during the pandemic.

This expectation that companies would do their bit was replicated in another flash poll, this time conducted by Edelman. In its 2020 Trust Barometer Special Report: Workplace Trust and the Coronavirus, 78% of the respondents across 10 countries expected businesses to protect their employees from infection and ensure Covid-19 did not spread into the community. More than 60% did not think that their country would make it through the pandemic if brands did not play their part. In the UK, trust in organisational safety protocol stood at about at 40%: some 43% thought that businesses were doing well or very well at implementing safety measures to protect workers and customers, and 41% thought that workplaces were safe.

Fast-forward six months and the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer showed that, in the UK at least, businesses still have some catching up to do. Although, worldwide, corporations are currently the only institutions (compared against NGOs, media and government) that are considered both ethical and competent, and overall trust in corporations is high, trust in UK employers has dropped 6% over the last year. Compared to its global peers, the only country where trust in employers had dropped further was China. Most countries (18 out of the 27 included in the survey) saw trust levels stable or rising.

Building trust

Clearly, both employees and the public in general have high expectations of businesses, but there are indications that people are losing faith in industry to “do the right thing”. With lockdown beginning to ease in the UK, organisations are again at a critical juncture in deciding how to re-establish working practices, hopefully providing an opportunity to build trust in the process.

When considering pandemic-related workplace policies, the foundations of building trust include being value-led, open and honest, and focusing on solutions that put employees and their communities at the heart of decision-making. To encourage companies to adopt a robust approach, in the middle of last year the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) set three tests for any return to work: is it essential, is it safe, and is it mutually agreed?

Covid-19 has shown how quickly and flexibly organisations can adapt to changes and meet the first two tests by setting up risk assessments and assessing how work can continue to happen. The third test of mutual agreement is often harder to meet, but it is this test that is critical if a company is to establish trust.

Most would agree that it is not unreasonable for policy and procedure to have been drafted quickly in response to the pandemic. Many of these policies will have been written with the best intentions, but only when tested by employees would it become clear if they work as intended. Meeting this third test inevitably requires that the organisation listens to employee’s concerns and adapts to any feedback given.

An even better option, in order to create policies that are mutually agreed, is to include staff as a trusted partner through a process of collaboration or co-creation. This has a number of benefits.

  • It generates more ideas, much like co-creative processes designed to improve customer experience.

  • It creates a human-centred approach, supporting behaviour change by understanding the “why”.

  • Staff are more likely to “own” the policy and it breaks down the “them” and “us” mentality, leading to meaningful change.

How to share power

There are various ways of looking at who holds the power in any decision-making process. In many “top-down” approaches, decisions are made by managers and then these are communicated to others. So, for example, a policy is decided on and then the requirements of the policy are dictated to the workforce.

In a slightly improved version of the top-down approach, staff and stakeholders are included in the process, but it is simply an add-on and does not fundamentally change who gets to make the final decision. In these cases, employees may have a chance to discuss the policy or suggest changes after the event, but ultimately the power to make the final choice is still held by managers. Although this may seem like a more open-minded way of involving others, ultimately the policy is still decided by a select few.

These top-heavy approaches often lead to a lacklustre acceptance of change. Keeping decision-making within tight control also means that many invaluable insights, or ideas that employees would be happy to champion, are lost: often they were never on the table to begin with.

Engagement, when it is most fully realised, is where the power is shared and where everyone —- experts, managers and staff from all parts of the organisation — collaborate towards a final consensus. This kind of engagement is much more likely to result in decisions that are widely accepted and adopted.

When collaborating in such a way, there is undoubtedly a concern that it could lead to a situation where control is lost, nothing is agreed or where the final decision is not appropriate. However, this is based on an assumption that collaboration actually means “compromise”.

Collaboration, instead, should be thought of as a way of identifying mutually beneficial outcomes. For example, staff want to be safe so that they do not fall ill with Covid-19 and infect their family; a company also wants its employees to stay well from both an operational and ethical point of view.

Once common ground has been established and priorities are clear, it is much easier to start to work collaboratively towards solutions that meet that aim. However, any collaborative effort requires that all stakeholders are open to hearing what others have to say and do not make the assumption that they already know the answer. This means actively listening, sharing information and expertise, and acknowledging the needs of the other party.

Being open can be difficult, and can lead to individuals or groups adopting defensive positions. One way to move forward can be to look at successes, eg by asking what is working well with current Covid-19 policies? This can move discussions into a more positive space by recognising existing “wins” and people’s efforts.

Often, collaborative work can require third party facilitators to design and run workshops, especially given the need for social distancing. However, with training, they can be carried out internally so long as the people running the sessions are not involved in the decision-making, and are able to act as neutral facilitators.

Next steps

It is helpful to consider the following questions.

  • Are there areas where the organisation is able to collaborate with staff to co-create policies that meet mutually beneficial outcomes?

  • Do staff agree with the policies they are asked to comply with and are there high levels of adherence?

  • Do employees have an option to provide feedback and are their concerns listened to?

  • How is feedback acted on?