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When Donna Roberts joined the human resources team at DeHavilland Aircraft of Canada last year, she, unlike many other white-collar employees, actually worked on-site at the company’s headquarters in Toronto. But most of her team—and the employees who rely on the HR department—were still found in virtual meetings.

But odd things have happened. “Some people don’t want to be on camera,” explains Roberts, who moved to Canada from the U.K. “I’m working with people and I don’t even know what they look like, which is strange for me.”

Our pandemic-enforced transition to virtual work has been about much more than the quirks of navigating online meetings. This shift has also disrupted employee-engagement programs designed to enable workers to express themselves. It’s now harder for them to offer ideas for new products and marketing campaigns or provide input about internal policies.

Some HR experts refer to this broad category of corporate feedback as “employee voice.” And it can be a “catalyst for organizational change,” says Kyle Brykman, an assistant professor of management at the University of Windsor’s Odette School of Business. Research in the U.K. has shown that enabling effective employee voice contributes to better motivation, productivity and reduced absenteeism. But there are hurdles, too. “As you can imagine,” he says, “most people are pretty reluctant to speak up when they want to initiate some sort of change.”

In a new study, Brykman and Jana Raver, an organizational behaviour expert at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business, showed that employees who provided constructive feedback—while also being careful not to inundate their managers—helped their firms innovate. They also tended to be rewarded at promotion time.

But the world of wall-to-wall Zoom calls may have increased wariness around offering well-intentioned advice to unreceptive managers. “I actually see virtual work as an opportunity that we can have more voice,” Brykman notes, “but in some of those new mediums, it is so much easier to hide.”

When everyone was in the office, “it was easier to get people to feed off of each other’s energy,” says Karl Martin, CEO and founder of Nymiband, a Toronto tech firm. “On Zoom, that one plus one equals three doesn’t seem to be present. Further, because of audio lags and just the nature of the technology, people seem more tentative about speaking up, so the conversations aren’t as flowing.”

This kind of back-sliding is concerning.

Authoritarian, my-way-or-the-highway leadership is definitely no longer in style, but many organizations and executives still have difficulty actually listening to feedback from rank-and-file employees, women and racialized minorities. “It’s always more difficult for information to go up the hierarchy than down the hierarchy,” observes Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen, author of “Talking From 9 to 5” and other studies on how office politics affect women. “That would be the same on Zoom.”

To ensure that employees do share feedback in virtual meetings, Brykman recommends common-sense measures like check-ins, time limits for speakers, smaller groups, clear agendas and even rotating the role of meeting chair. “My biggest piece of advice is for the leader to speak last,” he adds, “so that everybody else gets their opinions out. By doing that, you’re less likely to influence their ideas and make them feel pressured to go along with you.”

Tannen also says that because virtual meetings haven’t actually made shy employees more outspoken, it’s important for managers to organize one-on-one sessions “to make sure people say what’s on their minds. Asking for feedback is important because a lot of people won’t volunteer it.”

On the other side of the employee-employer relationship, Liane Mercier, a senior HR consultant with Salopek Associates, has seen individuals in leadership positions become less prone to imposing their view because of the shift to virtual management. “I’ve observed leaders who had a tendency to take over the meeting just get tired because they can’t keep up that level of energy,” she says, describing the emergence of the more humane manager as “a silver lining.”

After a year-plus of remote work, many companies have muddled up new measures, and, not surprisingly, a small industry of consultants, online tips and “idea management” software platforms has sprung up to provide assistance for a fee. What remains to be seen, however, is whether these gerry-rigged versions of employee engagement are truly substitutes for the more robust approaches—town halls, break-out sessions, retreats—that have developed in recent years.

Brykman also offers this caution. When the pandemic ends, or at least recedes enough for people to go back to the office, a new approach to employee engagement might be required to fit the hybrid model that will likely take hold in many organizations, allowing some employees to continue to work remotely. “I see the hybrid as a really good idea in general,” he says, adding, “People who are at home might not be able to be as loud as the people who are actually present, and it could create unintentional pressure to show up.”

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