Ensuring a two way dialogue
Great claims are made of social media as a tool for employee voice. It’s an open and dynamic channel, very much of the age, and is seen to draw employees into discussions about their work or organisations, giving employees a greater say and giving employers a greater insight into their views.
A particular feature of social media is that it makes communications multidirectional, instead of merely two or even one-way. It means we can communicate with colleagues across the organisation at the same time as feeding ideas ‘up’.
Gated enterprise social networks (ESNs) in particular are becoming common. These are viewed as safe places for online conversations that, increasingly, employees may otherwise hold on platforms like Facebook. The risk of airing dirty laundry in public is seen as acute in many organisations and often underlines a business case for introducing an ESN.
Yet despite the potential to enhance employee voice, the impact at a UK level remains superficial. A 2013 national survey by the CIPD found that, where internal social media platforms exist in an organisation, employees do view managers as slightly more inclined to seek their views, but this difference evaporates when one looks at how responsive managers are to these views or how open they are to being influenced. In essence, social media has given employees a slightly better platform to express their views, but has not influenced the degree to which management is listening.
As the maxim goes, ‘it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it’. The same research found that organisational benefits from social media are more pronounced where managers are more consultative. This time, the difference does carry through to how well managers respond to suggestions and allow employees or their representatives to influence decisions. So to get the most out of ESNs, the culture of the organisation needs to be such that listening to employees is taken seriously.
Aligning social media with strategy
This is in line with case study research (Martin et al 2013, CIPD 2014) that testifies that social media can be an effective part of a strategy for more open and democratic communication, but this cannot be taken for granted. Initially at least, employees' use of ESNs tends to reflect prevalent culture more than challenge it. If the norm is command and control, or covering one’s back, employees will need a good deal of encouragement and reassurance before they do anything on social media that feels like sticking their neck out.
Nonetheless, the medium in itself does encourage many employees to use their voice. Many people find social media an inherently engaging platform, certainly when compared to completing that stalwart of ‘having your say’, the staff survey. As such, social media can be a force against the antipode of employee voice, namely employee silence. It offers a channel that facilitates different types of conversation and draws employees into discussions that they may not otherwise participate in, which is especially apposite for employers concerned that their workforces are not sufficiently represented within existing representation structures.
This is in no way to suggest that social media replaces the need for representation. There is a risk, if it’s seen as the only channel for employee voice, that the independence of that voice is compromised and genuine concerns about the employment relationship are not aired. But as another string to the employment relations bow, it is surely to be welcomed.
To a degree, social media challenges traditional notions of voice. The question of how employees make their views clear to their employers starts to merge with how employees network, exchange ideas and directly influence colleagues. And many of the most energised discussions that take place on ESNs concern improving work practices, resolving operational issues, sharing professional learning or supporting colleagues, as opposed to terms and conditions. So to understand the workings of employee voice and internal communications in a digital world, we need to ask: what do employees really want to influence in their organisations?
Social media is an inherently democratic and potentially powerful communication tool, but it is not a one-stop ‘solution’ for voice. The technology will not transform organisational culture on its own. However, used as part of a drive for better communication between colleagues at all levels in the organisation, it can be expected to contribute not just to employee voice but also to the smooth running of the organisation.