Business Essentials: 'We'll keep staff in the picture but can we do it by video phone?'

Kate Hilpern on how '3' plans to adapt to new rules on employee rights
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The Independent Online

As the April 2005 deadline for compliance with the European Information and Consultation Directive draws near, companies with 150 or more employees face the challenge of working out how best to ensure they meet the new rights of their workers.

As the April 2005 deadline for compliance with the European Information and Consultation Directive draws near, companies with 150 or more employees face the challenge of working out how best to ensure they meet the new rights of their workers.

Apart from being required to keep staff updated on the business's financial position, employers will be expected to inform and consult with them about employment prospects and decisions likely to lead to substantial changes in work organisation or contractual relations, including redundancies and transfers.

"3", the UK's first 3G mobile phone network, owned by the Hong Kong conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa, is one of many businesses wondering how its current communication methods will fit in with the new regulatory regime. "The challenge we face with the directive is how to really engage employees without resorting to 'old school' communications when we're such a fast-paced business," says John Vickerman, the firm's people and property director.

Across the operation, "3" employs around 2,700 staff. Many are in customer service centres or stores, leaving 1,400 people working in the core business of voice, data and video services. All of them, explains Mr Vickerman, currently have access to a range of innovative communication channels.

Indeed, "3" staff are equipped with video mobiles, which has enabled the company to run the world's first all-employee video message from the chief executive, Bob Fuller, who also sets time aside for staff who want to contact him via video calls.

"This has successfully replaced face-to-face meetings in some instances, particularly when there have been large distances involved," says Mr Vickerman. "It's been very popular because people really like hearing things direct from the top."

Other communication channels utilised by "3" include bi-annual employee surveys, instant online opinion polling, "News at 3" weekly email newsletters, voicemail communications on immediate issues, online opinion forums and an on-screen PC ticker tool for instant alerts to all employees or groups of employees.

Meanwhile, roadshows to the various offices are used to promote "3" products and services, business updates, media coverage and to get feedback.

"We haven't introduced these forms of communication in order to try and be innovative," says Mr Vickerman. "We just use modern techniques because they fit into the culture of our business and the age group we employ, which is mainly 25 to 35.

"So when a piece of legislation comes along that seems to have quite traditional communication requirements, we are faced with the dilemma of how to make that work for us with our fast-paced environment."

Periodic meetings, for example, could easily be considered to be outdated at "3". Forums, on the other hand, could work, he believes. In fact, the company is keen to set one up in advance of the compliance deadline. "But again, we want to do it in a way that makes sense for us - immediacy is important in a business that can change from day to day."

According to the Department of Trade and Industry, under the new directive, consultation will normally be carried out via employee representatives, whose role will be defined according to national law and practice. These people will be entitled to meet the employer, present their opinions and receive a reasoned response.

This is another aspect of the directive that "3" is struggling with. "There is little requirement among our employees to have their views represented for them by others," says Mr Vickerman. "A typical 28-year-old at '3' is not shy in telling us if they think we are doing something well or not so well, or they want something they're not getting. There is a lot of confidence around and they don't want people simply passing on messages."


Tom Flanagan, partner, Pinsents (corporate law firm)

"The obligation, under the regulations, to negotiate a new information and consultation [I&C] agreement arises only if enough staff request it. An employer can do nothing until this 'trigger' is pulled, and it is less likely employees will do so if there is already a process in place that suits the company and satisfies its workers, including an effective feedback mechanism.

"The regulations allow for such an agreement as long as it covers all the employees and provides for two-way communication. This allows I&C direct with employees, which is appropriate here, given that the company's workforce is not collectively oriented. It also prescribes no particular method of communication, So '3' could use forums, video conferencing, video telephones etc."

Richard Hume-Rothery, director, European Study Group

"Mr Vickerman is right: it does seem quite traditional. But the Government has constructed the legislation in a creative manner that allows him to give information to employees, and to seek their views on it, in the way that best suits the business he is in. Other requirements are that the arrangements are in writing and are approved by, and cover, all the employees.

"What better organisation could there be than '3' to apply the regulations in a way appropriate to the 21st century? It should write down its plans for information and consultation and then email them to all employees for approval. When they do agree, there is unlikely to be a request, so the law would not apply."

Ali Gill, co-founding director, Getfeedback (provider of specialist technology for gathering and analysing employee opinions)

"It has already used its own innovative communication products to provide information to employees, and '3' should continue to apply exciting technology to solve the problem of gathering opinions from its diverse workforce.

"So as not to slow down its ability to make decisions, which could damage the company's competitiveness, '3' should use feedback innovations such as pulse surveys and interactive online forums.

"Pitching ideas to employees in this direct way will not only speed up the process of consultation but appeal to the individualistic people at '3' in a far more engaging way than lengthy consultation meetings or indirect communication through representatives.

"By using its technology platforms to communicate with employees directly and involve them in business decision making, '3' has a unique opportunity to lead the field in information and consultation and create an employer brand that extends far beyond its products or corporate image.

"This approach will enhance its ability to attract and retain the creative individuals that it needs to be successful."