Soon after the Referendum, the IPA sent out a press release stating our thoughts about the accompanying uncertainty for the UK economy that the result would bring and how it would be a difficult time for many UK businesses. We predicted that this sense of uncertainty and anxiety would be shared not only by business leaders, but also by employees in a great many workforces across the country. It would be vitally important to make sure that employees received clear and reassuring communication from their leaders and made to feel properly involved in any important decisions that would be taken about the future of their organisation. We firmly believed then, and still do, that a failure to properly engage with employees during this critical period would have serious repercussions leading to lower productivity, higher turnover and absenteeism and further compound the risks and problems faced by the organisation.

Several key questions have been posed to us following the Brexit vote including:

  • What are people’s concerns relating to the future of their work since the referendum?
  • What communication have they had from their employer since the referendum relating to Brexit and what reassurance has this provided?
  • How confident are workers that their employment is secure, do they feel that their business will benefit or be harmed by Brexit?
  • Do they fear outsourcing abroad?
  • How do workers feel their jobs might change if EU employment laws were to be repealed in the UK?
  • What aspects of Brexit are UK workers most concerned about and what would they like to see the government and business leaders doing more of to reassure them?

It is early days and there is less clarity around what Brexit will actually mean that we might have expected. This may have contributed to the overall uncertainty that we pick up from organisations across all sectors. There is, however, a percentage of UK managers and workers who are certain that the Brexit vote presents huge opportunities for themselves and their organisation. There is a similar percentage that thinks exactly the opposite. This polarisation of opinion tends to obscure the potentially larger percentage of people who are unsure – unsure both in terms of what they think but also unsure about where to find the information to help them to make up their minds.

Amidst such uncertainty, we need to look for as much certainty as possible. What we do know is, regardless of specific circumstances, that UK workers can remain engaged with their organisation even under the most testing conditions. Uncertain times re-enforce the need for a strong strategic narrative and organisations need to tell staff what their plans are – many staff may be under the impression that they do not actually have a plan. A reluctance from managers to share such information is understandable but this is a time for leaders to show strength in planning, communication and – above all – in thorough, decisive strategic decision-making.

This requires knowledgeable and confident leaders supported by skilled line managers – without the latter, the strategic narrative does not translate to operational levels. However, it is equally important that the employee voice is informed enough to contribute to solutions rather than a means of simply highlighting problems. This may seem aspirational but it is worth considering the overall effect on the UK economy and individual organisations if the aspiration is not realised. There is a strong argument that uncertainty amongst workers spreads and grows at an unmanageable rate resulting in reduced confidence in their business, knee-jerk decisions about their future and an unnecessary loss of talent.

Despite this, engaging employees does not appear to be high in most organisations’ priorities. There is a tendency for some leaders to think that workers are not interested in the high-level strategy but this is a view that the IPA has always challenged. Workers are interested when leaders remember to tell them and, despite an inevitable percentage of cynicism that leaders receive when they do so, the vast majority of people feel better for being informed. People do not expect reassurance when none can be given and the cynicism is often disproportionately represented through the various channels for voice.

Uncertain times require a higher level of clarity around all communications whether they are top-down or bottom-up. It is imperative that mangers “tell it like is” and that voice represents the engaged as well as the disengaged. More importantly, this is not a time for leaders to think of employee engagement as something “fluffy” or “nice to have”. It should be their number one priority.

If you are interested in more information about how the IPA could support your organisation in the weeks and months ahead, either through training and consultancy via our “How to deal with the effects of Brexit” programme or through your participation in our research please get in touch via [email protected] or call us on 0207 759 1000.