This organisation is a rapidly growing airline logistics company, developing from a family firm to a multinational organisation. This growth has brought with it some challenges for employee voice, particularly in how to manage a larger and more physically dispersed workforce. To deal with these challenges, it has experimented with innovative solutions to encourage employee voice that have produced some unintended consequences, for example, some staff were inadvertently excluded from voice mechanisms designed to include them. This case study demonstrates the importance of viewing employee voice as an ongoing project of continual development, rather than a one-off initiative.
- rapid growth from a family firm to be part of a global workforce
- divide between warehouse and office
- highly competitive market, working with tight margins and highperformance targets
- introduction of pride values
- voice initiatives to connect with employees
This organisation is a global aerospace and defence supply chain provider that was founded in the 1970s and has since grown rapidly. It has grown rapidly and is now a multi-billion-dollar turnover business working in nearly 20 countries. Employee roles range from picking individual items in the warehouse and sending them out for delivery, to working in the office providing administrative support for customers and the warehouse.
Opportunities and challenges of rapid growth
Growth from a small family-owned business to a large multinational has created many opportunities but also has created a series of challenges in managing a larger and more physically dispersed workforce. The company origins are based on the values of support, familiarity with one another, and trust. As a result of the company’s growth, relationships between shopfloor staff and senior managers have weakened due to reduced opportunities for interaction, personal and informal relationships:
We were a small business where everyone knew everybody, and now we’re growing and growing and growing and growing… They crave that relationship with that senior team.
Private equity and short-term outlook
Being a private equity company impacts the way the organisation is run. Interviewees described how this ownership structure requires the senior managers to report on quarterly financial targets, leading to short-term targets and prioritisation of targets. However, senior managers recognised they have a ‘duty of care’ towards employees, which required a longer-term focus to support manager–employee relationships and promote employee voice as a long-term issue.
Warehouse and office divide
Like many of our case study organisations, there was a clear divide between operational and office-based staff. In this organisation, this was mainly due to the nature of warehouse work being very manual, requiring precision and focus. This leads to operational staff being managed in a more controlled manner. KPIs are tracked hourly, and all mistakes are tracked and traced to the individual. The job itself is demanding as operational staff are required to concentrate for long periods in a pressurised environment. This type of work raises some key challenges impacting employee voice:
- Recruiting and retaining warehouse employees can be challenging. Finding suitable candidates who can work under pressure and with precision can be a challenge.
- Tight management and control can often lead to command-and-control forms of management, resulting in ‘parent and child’ working relationships.
Many initiatives have focused on encouraging warehouse staff to use formal voice channels, but these have often fallen short, either because they do not see them as relevant, or they find it difficult to leave the shop floor and find time to engage with voice initiatives.
Turnover of team leaders
At one of the sites there was a regular rotation of team leaders, which had three key consequences:
- Inconsistent team leaders meant key ingredients for voice missing: Trust, psychological safety and mutual understanding were difficult to build given the rotation model for team leaders.
- Confusing and conflicting management practices: When new line managers arrived, they often made changes which meant that the team had different ideas and inconsistent leadership.
- Unclear performance and development objectives: The team leader may not have been present for the full performance and development review (PDR) cycle, so the goals set at the beginning of the year were not appropriate by the end of the year:
For example, the end of line audit team, I’ve had them for a month. They’re on their third manager… it’s unfair on the team members that they’ve not had that bond, that conversation, and those objectives outlined with their team leader.
Restricted capacity of line managers
Employees often talked about their frustrations with equipment, which restricted their capacity to do their job and meet their KPIs. These operational employees also felt unable or unwilling to raise these issues, given the feeling that line managers had little discretion to implement these changes. This resulted in warehouse employees becoming silent, feeling that even if they did speak up, there would be little benefit.
Tackling the challenges to improve employee voice
- Placing values at the heart of work: New values were introduced to the workforce to communicate organisational values and to help build their workplace culture through the decisions and actions that workers make. These values draw on the family origins of the organisation, seeking to formalise them in the larger organisation.
- Making values visible: A key strategy to disseminate these values is to make them visible. Employees were recognised and celebrated for their work achievements through an award scheme based on these organisational values.
- Value champions: Another strategy has been through the creation of champions across each business unit, who represent the new organisational values and encourage other employees to embody the values within the work that they do.
- Changing organisational processes to encompass the new values: These values are embedded through operational practice and the development of processes for everyday tasks, such as meetings: ‘When you start the [daily briefing] meeting, don’t just dive straight into profit and revenue. Start the meeting with a success story in terms of something great that somebody did that’s recognised.’ This approach reinforces the values and success stories within the organisation and ensures that they are recognised and a positive tone is set for team meetings.
This organisation has focused on improving the information provided to employees. For example, rather than providing lots of financial data, the organisation shares information that is interesting and relevant to employees. It has also introduced the social networking software Yammer, which provides employees with an online space where they can discuss work-related issues and organise non-work-related events. However, an unintended consequence has been the increased division and exclusion of warehouse employees, who often have less access to the online systems.
Valuing employees through a reward system
This organisation implemented an online reward system where people can nominate and recognise their colleagues who have gone above and beyond expectations. The system provides monetary rewards for notable achievements and contributes to a culture of appreciation among employees. However, for those that do not have constant online access, such as warehouse staff, it is harder for them to register their nomination on the system, highlighting feelings of inequality for this group of workers. This may also affect the types of task that get rewarded; for example, smaller tasks are rewarded more often by office staff because of their ease of access.
Improving employee voice channels
There has been a considerable focus and effort to improve key voice channels:
- Developing management practices and proactive leadership: This involved training line managers to take a more collaborative management approach and create opportunities for dialogue with senior managers. Line managers are actively encouraged to engage in learning and attend workshops and other development activities. These activities aim to help line managers develop their skills, knowledge and understanding of the people side of their role. ‘How do they give feedback? How did they deal with difficult conversations? How do they present the information, how did they listen, how did they develop? How did they coach? All those sorts of things are really important.’
- Improving the staff survey and feedback process: Considering the frequency of survey, the format and content should be more reflective of current events. In particular, they are working on developing clearer tracking of who is responsible for the actions that arise from the survey and communicating more clearly the outcomes that they achieve as a result.
- Developing the employee voice forum: One of the significant changes, driven by the union, has been the transformation of the employee engagement forum. This led to a transformation of the previous workers council, which was seen as ineffective, to an employee engagement forum where staff representatives could raise issues directly with members of senior-level staff.
Employees directly involved in the forums perceived them as highly effective and participatory. They describe key impacts they have had around negotiating Christmas shutdown dates, the refit of the warehouses or representing employees to management, as well as putting on fun events to engage with the wider workforce, including those harder to reach in the warehouse. However, those outside this group were more cautious about its impact.
One of the central challenges has been recruiting participants from the warehouse. Many employees from the warehouse seemed mostly unaware of the forum. There was also a concern from some stakeholders that the employee engagement forum only dealt with surface-level issues such as vending machines or aspects of the car park, instead of attempting to influence strategic decisions. For some employees, not hearing back about suggestions they had put to the employee engagement forum was an incentive to disengage from the process entirely, highlighting the importance of feeding back and following up on suggestions.
Changing senior management practices
Senior management visibility
One of the strategies that senior managers used was increased visibility – walking around the warehouse, talking to people by name, and engaging with them in a more informal and personal way to build employee and senior leader relationships. The organisation saw this as particularly important with warehouse employees, who are unable, or choose not, to use the formal voice channels. Increasing the presence and visibility of senior leaders to staff is at the heart of this approach. ‘Our leaders are willing to be accessible and get themselves out there, in front of the audience, in front of the employees. I see examples, beautiful examples, where our senior leaders do that very well.’
Another strategy to encourage more informal interaction was the development of a breakfast club. Employees whose birthday falls within any given month are invited to have breakfast and coffee with senior leaders. This provides an informal setting to get to know one another while also creating a relaxed environment to put forward suggestions or discuss ideas:
We have breakfast and coffee and we just talk… it’s just another forum where people can raise issues in an environment where they feel they’re relaxed… and some of the key initiatives that we have launched actually… come from the breakfast club, which is really refreshing to see.
Some employees said they found the sessions useful to enable them to communicate more freely. ‘You’re allowed to speak about life… me personally… I feel like I speak quite openly and honestly, in that session.’ However, some employees were unaware of its existence, who attended or the purpose and aims of holding these breakfast clubs. This demonstrates the need for clear communication of such initiatives, to engage as many employees across the workforce as possible.
Organisational voice – improvement-focused
Within this organisation, there was an emphasis on innovation and improvement, and therefore opportunities for organisational voice. Some of the senior managers were seeking to encourage improvement-focused employee voice. In particular, they used strategies from lean management such as Kaizen, Six Sigma and suggestions in team meetings:
For me, that’s employee voice… if they see something that’s going wrong in their area or they can see a better way of doing it, give them the empowerment and the tools to be able to change and improve it.
The organisation has also created management data improvement boards which allow people to understand their team’s performance and contribute towards business improvement during meetings.
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