We have known for several years that positive and proactive communication processes support the development of an organisation and that many have recognised the benefits of involving people in matters affecting their work. A staff forum or works council can be highly effective in achieving both and, although organisations can choose from a wide range of information and consultation mechanisms, the real benefits of these representative bodies are often misunderstood or unknown. A staff forum or works council, when performing at an optimum level will reinforce a shared commitment to work and encourage greater openness, the sharing of ideas and good practice, the early identification of problems and the ability to generate better quality decision-making.

Staff Forums

One of the key roles for this type of forum is to provide management with a regular and accurate “temperature check” of the broad ranges of different staff opinions and perceptions. This is difficult to achieve without a representative body because staff are often unwilling to present their true opinions for a perceived or real fear of possible recrimination. The net result can be a skewed employee voice towards those who speak the loudest or those with a particularly strong point to make. This can lead to a reaction to change amongst staff that surprises the management which a truthful temperature check would have avoided.

It is worth exploring what actually happens in organisations that invest in time and energy to making their staff forum or works council produce mutual benefits for the business and employees alike. Through intelligent and open discussions about strategic issues, these bodies contribute significantly to a more informed workforce whose voice is always worth listening to. There is more to this, however, because that informed voice is also one with a greater perspective on balancing their own individual needs with an appreciation of what an organisation must do to maintain a viable and successful operation.

An increased ability to separate fact from fiction amongst employees not only reduces the effect of the conspiracy theory information fillers, but also helps to create an environment where those employees feel more comfortable about how decisions are made due to an increased knowledge of the dilemmas senior managers must tackle when making difficult decisions. Empathy from employees towards managers may seem an odd concept for many but there is little doubt that it is good for an employee’s well-being to know that tough decisions are not taken lightly, or knee jerked. 


It often goes unnoticed but the effects on the day-to-day running of an organisation can be extremely positive when employees have a greater level of perspective. We hear a great deal about “the noise” coming from employees in organisations that are experiencing high levels of disengagement. The implication in that phrase is that managers find it difficult to identify the important issues that they need to address - as one manager described, “it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees”. The increased level of perspective facilitated by a best practice staff forum or works council provides managers with a clearer sight of the priority issues and an ally in resolving them. 

The challenges ahead for many organisations presented by the current economic situation will be difficult for managers and employees alike. A staff forum or works council will not solve every problem and keep every employee engaged throughout the inevitable changes that will have to be addressed but these bodies, if they are fully supported and trained effectively, will contribute to an organisational culture where change is understood and more broadly accepted. This relies on employees having this greater sense of perspective driven by a clearer understanding of the bigger picture.

In 2019, pre-pandemic, the cost of disengagement in the UK was £340 billion. Disengagement is often rooted in a sense that “change is coming out of nowhere” and a feeling that organisations are not communicating sufficient information to prove that unpopular decisions are taken as a last resort. The establishment of a staff forum or works council is an effective option for organisations who want to address their own costs of disengagement, but many still resist doing this. It is understandable to an extent because the majority of staff forums or works councils tend to get immersed in the “tea and toilets” issues, but this problem can be addressed through training and development. 

Effective Employee Voice

The CIPD have stated that companies with effective voice structures have reported major savings as a result – sometimes amounting to millions of pounds – through improved industrial relations, better decision-making and more workforce involvement in innovation. There is an irony here as it has never been easier for organisations or employees to establish a staff forum or works council.  “Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices” was published in July 2017 and the threshold for triggering a request from employees via the Information & Consultation Regulations was reduced to 2% in April 2020 as a direct result of that report.

Where organisations do argue against their establishment, it is generally driven by a misunderstanding of what their purpose is and what the role of the staff representative is perceived to be. On the other side of the argument, some are established as an alternative to a trade union where, in reality, there is no direct comparison. When this has happened, some organisations have seen disengagement levels increase rather than reduce.

It is understandable that some managers believe that they should be able to run a business without the help of a representative body and why some mistakenly believe that it would become a barrier to their decision-making process. Whereas it is vitally important that organisations should maintain a direct communication channel to their entire workforce, the CIPD note that around 50% of UK employees do not regard this as sufficient. A staff forum or works council should not replace this direct communication but the evidence that these bodies can add significant value to improving engagement is becoming increasingly difficult to argue against.

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