How can you engage employees in a downturn?

by 31 Mar 2009

As tension and anxiety builds among many employees amidst growing numbers of redundancies, Sarah O’Carroll asks this issue’s executive panel about how to engage the staff you keep in a downturn

Wendy McInnes, regional director – Employee Research NWC Opinion Research

Employees tend to be averse to change within their organisation, regardless of an economic downturn, business diversification or restructur ing. Individuals react to change differently, so predicting, understanding, planning and cus tomising the right business response is critical to success in tough times.

When staff members are satisfied with com munication from management, they are also more likely to be positive about change and more trusting – a vital component of engagement.

Ongoing communication, recognition and reward will help keep staff engaged during a downturn. This might include you:

• Explaining the company plan, goals and di rection

• Seeking employee ideas and involvement in the business plan

• Investing time and effort in helping employ ees to make sense of the way forward

• Deconstructing any issues, complaints or assumptions

• Offering time off after peak periods for staff who have experienced higher workloads due to redundancies

• Maintaining a budget for bonuses, if at all possible, or smaller gifts that recognise the efforts of high-performing staff

Recognising and dealing with the psycho logical impact on staff of a downturn through the communication process is important, but it’s also essential to address the practical impact of changes on job roles.

Seek ideas from employees about how to best manage the impact on their job roles – the simple act of asking them will help en gagement levels and the information will be in valuable

Rhicke Jennings, managing director, FedEx Australasia

Employee engagement during difficult economic conditions is arguably more important than in good times. And it can be more productive as well. At FedEx, we have many communication channels both to and from staff, to keep them informed and encourage their input into our business and the way it is run.

In the current conditions, FedEx’s aim is to preserve jobs, and that means looking hard elsewhere to achieve the required financial and operating savings.

The FedEx Supersaver program is one under which everyone in the company looks for and recommends ways to achieve those savings.

The results have been spectacular. One of the top employee engagement issues has been around our waste management practices. With employees’ help in Australia, FedEx is now saving $43,000 annually with new waste management contractors and internal practices.

Employees suggested that we could also look at other suppliers to see if we could achieve savings – which we did, resulting in total savings of more than $170,000 a year in our cleaning and packaging requirements.

FedEx also believes that good employee engagement must involve recognition. We recognise employees making contributions right across our business in three main areas. Firstly, our Bravo Zulu program recognises employees going above and beyond. Secondly, we have our Purple Promise Award for exceptional customer service. And lastly, our Humanitarian Award for contribution to human welfare.

By engaging in these ways, FedEx retains talented staff, raises their morale and delivers great service – even during these very challenging times.

Kellie Tomney, executive manager recruitment & branding strategy, St.George Bank

In my view, it is all about positioning your organisation ahead of the rest, delivering on new business opportunities and being ready for the upturn. I would engage staff in this challenge. Key strategies I would recommend are:

Focusing on creating a sense of purpose and vision. Why should your people give their discretionary effort? What is it adding? It is a great opportunity to re-evaluate.

Look for opportunities for sustainability at all levels. Individually, organisationally, environmentally, globally.

Focus on values of your organisation. We really need to re-emphasise them in times of downturn. Authentic communications. Glossing over the external and company situation and realities is not going to work. Being open and honest about the wider environment, business situation, plans, targets and enlisting people’s support and involvement is vital.

Be clear about where and how people can contribute and make an impact.

Take the pulse more often. Both formally through pulse surveys and informally

Manage restructuring extremely well. Effective management is critical to protect your employer brand principally in the eyes of your customers, talent and shareholders and the community. Ensure it is strategically aligned and not just short-term focused.

I have heard of some great initiatives in some organisations (more frequent roadshows, open meetings where people can observe and ask questions). Use every opportunity to be open to discussion on the purpose, vision, business realities, questions and concerns of your business.