How to Engage Employees During a Downturn

Even in troubled economic times, there are things companies can do to set the stage for recovery and energize employees during the process. It all begins with strategy.

1. Develop and communicate a strategy that sets clear priorities.

  • Employees want to know the strategic direction and what they can do to help. It all comes down to that. Employees need to have the line of sight to think, "If I do this well, then my department will accomplish this, and the corporation is that much closer to achieving the strategy."
  • A clear strategy also means less wasted effort on projects or products that will not significantly contribute to the bottom line. One goal of strategic planning should be to keep talent focused and to help guide day-to-day decisions on where to invest time and resources. Many distractions can be avoided by reinforcing the strategic direction to employees on an on-going basis.

2. Develop an efficient organization structure to get results and reduce bureaucracy.

  • Nothing frustrates a top-performer more than having to slow down for multiple signatures, management reviews, or formal processes. Look at the critical functions in your organization to see if the organization structure helps or hinders the process. Identify opportunities to streamline and reduce "drag". For example, you may find it makes more sense to have employees involved in the new product development process report to one manager responsible for getting a specific product out the door, rather than report functionally to engineering, operations, purchasing, and so on.
  • Technology today impacts the way work can be done. The traditional eight-to-five schedule doesn't work for everyone. Look for opportunities to develop unconventional work schedules or work-at-home options for valued employees. Focus on results, not "face-time", and you will reap the rewards in terms of retention and increased morale for employees who need and value these unique solutions.

3. Make people management a top priority.

  • Financial assets are intricately managed as the norm. People assets are rarely measured or managed to deliberately increase return on investment.
  • Develop a talent management system that focuses on increasing the return on individuals. The focus on growth and development is to everyone's benefit. The employee will feel involved and motivated to increase his or her performance; the manager will see where investments should be made by the employee's commitment to enhancing his or her value to the company and performance against agreed upon objectives.

4. Develop a reward program that pays for results.

  • One of the most demoralizing things a company can do is give the same increase to everyone. While some think this causes the least amount of organizational angst, the bottom-tier employees will be most satisfied while your top performers will be looking for the door.
  • In a slow economy, differentiating among performers is more vital than ever. Organizations need to be much better at measuring and rewarding employees when the pool of dollars is smaller so they don't lose critical top talent needed when things pick up.

5. Address failures.

  • No company is right 100% of the time. Maybe your targets were unrealistic and your tactics for getting there off-the-mark. Admit it. Employees understand and respect honesty. As one client puts it, "It's okay to fail here as long as we fail forward." Learn from it, and move on.
  • Investigate reasons for turnover. Understand why the people who leave voluntary, especially your top performers, are exiting. Too often, managers assume people are leaving for better pay or a better opportunity elsewhere. They minimize the role management played in the individual's decision to leave. The truth is when employees leave, they usually leave managers, not companies.
  • The best way to investigate turnover is to contact individuals who have left the organization six months ago or more. They are far more likely to give you an unbiased perspective and willingly tell you the truth to benefit those in the company who are left.
  • If you hear the same problem over and over, make a plan to take corrective action. Employees who see action as a result will be energized that the company is responding to deep-rooted problems.

These strategies cover a lot of ground. A good place to start is a quick assessment of all areas, resulting in a plan that prioritizes improvement areas and delivers measurable results.