We often talk about engagement in terms of individual employees and how we encourage them to engage with their work. But there’s another form of workforce engagement that is also important for businesses and particularly important for business leaders who take seriously their role as leaders in a wider society–figures with social as well as economic responsibilities toward their employees. This is collective engagement.
Engagement with the workforce as a group can be awkward, but it is an important part of leadership. If done well, it gives employees a stronger voice and sense of agency over the business. It acknowledges their humanity in a shared as well as individual sense. But that collective engagement is changing, so where will it go from here?
Labor unions are the traditional voice of the collective workforce, born out of an era in which employees had few rights and little power. They are built around the concerns of employees, designed to argue for their pay and benefits. Supporting and engaging with unions in your workplace can give employees the sense of agency and of being heard that they seek.
But unions are not without their difficulties. They are conflict driven, geared towards an oppositional relationship with management, and tend towards rigid hierarchies that are alienating for some workers. They still have a future, but may not be the best organizations to engage with.
In recent decades, many employers have sought to engage collectively with their employees by setting up committees and focus groups to seek employee perspectives. There may be a social responsibility committee guiding the business’s charity work, a social committee that arranges outings and celebrations, maybe even a committee to engage with employee representatives on impending changes in the business.
This way of airing a collective voice suits business leaders. They set up the systems, and so retain control of what is discussed. But while these committees can help to empower employees and engage with a wider range of issues than traditional unions, they can become artificial and toothless. If the employer is setting the agenda and the venue for discussion then employees may not feel that they can voice their real concerns.
Workplace committees have allowed a more positive dialogue to emerge between businesses and employees as collective groups, but it is all on business leaders’ terms, and by assuming that the business is the core of employees’ identities it does little to acknowledge the real identities and concerns.
So how can socially responsible leaders do better?
Seth Godin has written extensively on our modern identity as part of networks or tribes of individuals with shared interests. These tribes cross national and business boundaries and show that our identities often have little to do with where we work.
But organizations representing these tribes may be the ones to engage with if we want to give employees a collective voice. Instead of seeking to engage with organizations based around the scale and interests of your business, like unions in the same sector or in-house committees, engage in a flexible, shifting way with organizations representing your employees’ wider identities and interests.
If considering how to improve disability awareness in the workplace, engage with disability rights organizations that some of your employees are already part of. If you have a lot of sports fans then engage with organizations representing local supporters to help with social functions. You’ll never succeed in engaging every employee in each act of dialogue, but then unions and committees never did. At least this way you will engage with something they care about.
Consider your employees’ interests beyond the workplace, their identities beyond your business. Engage with their collectives on their own terms, and that engagement will become more meaningful.
Businesses face global issues stretching beyond their boundaries. Why not engage with representative organizations in the same way?