COVID-19 return to work – worrying divide between office and frontline workers


Professor Daniel King – Nottingham Business School

person sitting on chair holding iPad

As people begin to return to work amid the Covid-19 pandemic, new research has revealed the divide between office and frontline workers in feeling able to speak up about their concerns.

Researchers at the Centre for People, Work and Organisational Practice at Nottingham Business School (NBS), in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), explored employee voice in a variety of organisations. They found that people who work on the frontline in operational roles – including manufacturing and construction – were less likely to have access to channels which allow them to speak up about issues and worries.

The study also found that the ‘command and control’ structure of many operational roles often led to a culture of verbal abuse and management structures which did not allow for employees to raise concerns without fear of repercussions.

In contrast, office-based staff were more likely to feel confident to speak out and had communications channels, such as computer systems, which enabled them to access information and communicate to others. Significantly, they were also often managed in ways that made it more likely to elicit voice.

The study was carried out in two parts. Phase one, led by Director of the Centre for People, Work and Organisational Practice, Professor Helen Shipton, questioned more than 2,370 employees across the UK on their experience of speaking up at work.

Professor Daniel King, Professor of Organizational Studies at NBS, led phase two, which examined case study organisations and further highlighted the divide between workplaces. He said: “Our research shows that even before the outbreak of the pandemic, these divisions between office-based and operational staff were significant, particularly regarding employee voice.

“It’s not just technological issues creating barriers – it’s also existing societal divides such as education, language and gender. For example, many people in operational workplaces don’t have English as their first language, how do they receive key information and feed-back? New divides have also been created, which areas of the business are safe? How do people travel to and from work?

“Frontline staff, for most organisations, are mostly likely to be some of the most challenging roles to continue socially distant ways of working and simultaneously are also the ones that are also most likely to not feel about to speak out.”

The findings of the study have highlighted the importance of an effective dialogue between line managers and employees during this time of risk and change. Recommendations from the analysis include managing upwards from line managers to more senior managers, creating time for discussion and collaboration, and ensuring that real concerns are acknowledged.

Professor Helen Shipton commented: “The pandemic has created a number of issues that employees in the past may not have felt comfortable taking to their employer about, such as their personal life, family, finance and health circumstances. Workers are differentially impacted by shutdown, including their psychological and emotional wellbeing, and cannot just expect to go back to normal without being able to raise concerns about their workplace being Covid-secure.

“If the organisation or particular department has had poor levels of employee voice before the crisis these problems cannot be fixed overnight, particularly in command and control cultures, but it is possible to encourage active listening and start to form a culture of collaboration.”

The study was carried out by Professor Helen Shipton, Professor Daniel King and research associates Sarah Smith and Jack Rendall from Nottingham Business School, part of Nottingham Trent University, in conjunction with the CIPD.



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