How to keep employees engaged and productive in a downturn

by 06 May 2009

Ensuring that employees are engaged is crucial to keeping workplace morale and productivity high as the economic downturn continues, a recent report has found.

Highly engaged employees are almost 80 per cent more likely to be top performers, while they also miss 20 per cent fewer days of work and about three-quarters of them exceed expectations in their performance reviews.

The report, which was conducted by Watson Wyatt, also found that highly engaged workers tended to be more resilient to and supportive of organisational change initiatives.

“Keeping workers engaged and productive is always a daunting challenge,” said Debra Horsfield, Toronto practice leader for organisation effectiveness at Watson Wyatt.

“However, it’s even more crucial in this type of economic environment when organisations are striving to do more with less and employees are paying closer attention.”

She said there was no “one-size-fits-all” approach to employee engagement, and segmenting the workforce and tailoring communication, performance management programs and other resources to specific employee groups could be the most effective way to engage workers.

The report suggested that employers can take specific actions to increase engagement and productivity, which include:

Capitalise on “engageable moments”. An engageable moment is a critical juncture for maintaining and building engagement. It may occur during such programs as new hires’ onboarding, performance management and benefits enrollment, or when the organisation goes through particularly challenging economic times. “Highly-engaged employees are more resilient to organisational change, a key factor in today’s turbulent economy,” said Horsfield. “These employees are more likely to identify closely with the company, too. However, not all employees are immediately engaged when they are hired, it is how a company behaves at critical junctures that can elevate an employee’s performance or lower their productivity at work.”

Demonstrate strong leadership and clear direction. When times are difficult, employees want to know about their organisation’s specific plans and progress. Decisive action backed by clearly-articulated rationale can build support for corporate initiatives, particularly when individual performance objectives and rewards are tied to corporate objectives.

Manage organisational change with effective communication. Effective communication from senior management directly connects employees to the purpose of the organisation. This is particularly important in a challenging economy, when employees are anxious to learn the rationale behind decisions. Reviewing communication processes to ensure that information flows vertically as well as horizontally throughout the organisation will be an important step to employee engagement.

Emphasise customer focus. In difficult times, employees are aware that job security is strengthened by satisfied customers. Emphasising customer satisfaction keeps employees from being too internally focused and provides a common direction to move the organisation forward.

Institute and communicate a system of equitable rewards. While it may be necessary to cut back on rewards, organisations need to understand which reward programs are most important to engage their critical employee segments. Changes to rewards need to be communicated in a way that is consistent with delivering on the employment “deal”. When employees indicate that an organisation effectively delivers on the employment deal, they are 23 times as likely to be highly engaged.

Invest in the core. The key to driving productivity gains is increasing engagement among core contributors, who represent about 60 per cent of the typical workforce. Highly engaged employees are already working at or near their peak but are often limited by their less engaged co-workers. Focusing on engaging core contributors can improve both groups’ productivity.


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