One of the more positive consequences of lockdown has been the been the way we have come to re-evaluate certain jobs that, previously, were considered unsuitable for home working. A typical example of such a job is that of a call centre customer service operator. With the use of appropriate technology now available to these workers, many organisations have moved quickly to keep the lines open to their customers and staff have generally responded well to the challenges of not having their colleagues around them. Some of these staff will be eager to get back to working with their teams while others will be thinking seriously about whether they really want to go back to travelling to an office simply to do the job they have performed successfully at home for more than three months.

There is no doubt that organisations will need to think carefully as to whether they adopt policies that apply to everyone regardless of circumstances, or whether they can navigate through a more individual-based means of achieving business needs balanced by peoples’ preferences. This creates another challenge around how organisations listen effectively to both the collective and individual employee voice. In turn, if a particular organisation has a staff forum, it presents an equally difficult challenge to the representatives to balance the same problem. For trade union representatives, handling this particular issue is more straightforward. Union members pay a fee for individual representation for when they feel they might need it and the representatives will feel obliged to involve themselves in peoples’ personal issues if asked to do so.

Staff representatives, however, are not there to do the same job where individual representation is concerned. They are set with the task of receiving strategic information from the organisation and responding with an accurate assessment of the different reactions that will result in any changes, as well as discussing any alternative ways of meeting the objective that has been explained to them. Many people, including me, firmly believe that this plays a critical role in helping staff to become more informed as well as presenting representatives with an opportunity to solve problems jointly. The key issue now is how do staff representatives articulate these collective voices when individual issues might become more prevalent as more and more staff ask to work from home?

It will be important for all staff representatives to clearly set out what they are there to do and what they are not there to do. In matters that involve staff requesting to work from home and being refused, every staff representative will need to understand exactly what the organisation’s policy is and how that policy is being managed. It would be hugely advantageous for organisations to involve their representatives in developing this policy but, even if they are presented with it as information, there needs to be a shared understanding of its objective and how managers are being briefed to carry it out. By understanding its strategic intent, staff representatives will be able to present an accurate temperature check of how it has been implemented, and where improvements might be needed, rather than getting bogged down in individual disagreements. All line managers should be given the opportunity to resolve problems between themselves and their staff with support from the HR team.    

If staff have been granted their request to work from home, other issues might crop up. Staff may start to feel isolated or believe they are not receiving enough information from their line manager and may contact their staff representative for guidance or to complain. In every case the representative will need to refer the person back to their manager, but this information should also be part of a regular anonymous temperature check back to the senior managers who have formulated the policy. As challenging as it may be, however, that temperature check must also include feedback from those staff who are more engaged and productive as a direct result of working from home and are being managed effectively. This balance is critical in order that staff representative do not put forward a disproportionately negative view of how the policy is really working.

Staff representatives will, in most cases, have the means to keep in contact with their constituents on a regular basis. All of those who have been trained by the IPA with have their “Hot Topics” template to ensure they connect with everyone ranging from those who are disengaged to those who are highly motivated and enjoy their job. All perspectives are equally important and must be presented as so. Without knowing where areas of good practice are happening, solutions to problems will be there but not reported. This often results in long and unproductive arguments about a policy that is actually working effectively but is being criticised as unfit for purpose by staff representatives who are only speaking for a small minority.          

The role of a staff representative is never going to be straightforward but, now and in the near future, its importance cannot be over-estimated. To help them navigate these issues, the IPA is writing a guide for staff representatives who have constituents mainly working from home. If you would like to contribute to this guide, your input would be very welcome.

Derek Luckhurst is Training and Development Director at the IPA

[email protected]

07780 697024

If you want any more information on IPA's consultancy or training packages to support employee representatives, please get in touch with Derek to discuss how we could help.