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Written by: Cindy Lynn Roche, CPHR

Working with a team who will be losing the job they’ve done for the past X number of years, who may or may not have a place with the company after a certain date, I wanted to tackle the idea of how to manage engagement in times like these. Knowing that the downturn in Alberta’s economy that idea expanded to include the more typical cutbacks to hours like reductions in overtime, as well as layoffs.

Whether by direct impact or trickle effect, many organizations across Alberta have either had to cut or are considering cutting labour costs – for workplaces that have been or may be or will be ‘downsizing’, engagement can become a challenge… When a group of employees know with some certainty that the future is bleak, keeping them engaged and contributing effectively requires a different kind of effort.

Losing colleagues and friends from the day to day routine or feeling the uncertainty of an unknown future, some people will grieve and others may be fearful or angry. Productivity may suffer, moods may suffer, stress levels will likely increase and in some environments sabotage is a risk. The inclination to jump ship for another opportunity at the soonest may be high – although that may be offset to some degree by the fact there aren’t a lot of job options available, lack of opportunities may create discouragement or even resentment.

I was surprised to learn that results of the Gallup group’s engagement research results following the 2008/2009 recession revealed that engagement remained in the same as, and in some categories then rose beyond, the range it had held over the previous decade (Gallup, Business Journal, 2010). Using the Gallup Q12 engagement questions, findings in July 2008 and January 2009, revealed that employees across organizations were generally as well or more engagement than in healthier economic times. 

According to Gallup, the typical distribution of employees across the engagement continuum is that approximately 30% remain actively engaged, while 17-18% are actively disengaged and the remaining percentage of employees are classified as not-engaged (the difference in the last two being that those who are not engaged have checked out but are still getting the work done).

The messages that leaders share with employees go a long way to setting a tone in the workplace. Openness about the big picture and commitments to communication, builds trust which will support the determined collaboration to keep the ship afloat. Even if the news isn’t “good news”, having facts to work with will quell some of the anxiety and can quiet the rumour mill. Knowing what’s going on also helps minimize stress and worry among employees, and

Setting clear expectations during economic downturns, particularly when teams are managing with fewer people, can reduce confusion about roles and responsibilities. Knowing what is expected and who is doing what work helps individuals and teams to continue functioning effectively in order to achieve objectives. By focusing on the work that needs to be completed and being clear about who needs to do what, especially if some of the team isn’t there to help, managers can provide a road map to employees that will ensure everyone has a purpose and knows how their part of the big picture matters. That concept of the big picture can and should be extended to establish a connection to the company’s mission and vision which will also help to keep employees engaged and reinforce that sense of purpose in their work which makes it more meaningful.

In addition to clear messages with employees about the company’s big picture and what’s expected of them, managers can endeavour to keep people engaged by recognizing and acknowledging staff on a regular basis. Saying “thank you” and “well done” only take moments in a day, but these will go a long way to making individuals feel appreciated and valued for their contributions. When people have the feeling that what they’re doing matters and makes a difference, they will keep trying and doing. Thanks is not a magic elixir to keeping engagement up but it matters to us at our basest levels and hearing it reinforces our self-worth, and provides momentum to keep doing what we’re tasked with achieving.

With the knowledge that engagement doesn’t shift much in bad times compared to good, there may be a sense that making efforts to keep employees engaged doesn’t matter in a downturn. To that I will challenge that engagement affects an organization’s ability to keep and attract employees, and by providing an environment where people want to work the organization can ensure its reputation as an employer of choice – it’s a small world, how people are treated, how they feel about the work they do for you, how well they see others being treated, will influence perceptions and eventually help you bring people back when you need them if you can’t keep them through the downturn. 

To return to the idea of a workplace where hope is low because the work is drying up and nobody knows what’s next, keeping people engaged is not impossible but does take a more conscious effort from organizations and managers. If you make people feel that they matter and their work matters, they are more likely to maintain their momentum and view the organization in a positive way, which will influence where they’ll be when the economy picks up again.

In the case of the team I’m working with, the leadership team and human resources are working at the organizational level to keep people working. At the level of operations, front-line managers are in the best position to motivate, recognize and support employees through uncertain times. On both the employer and employee sides, there is an awareness that the immediate future looks bleak but hope and determination to that something may the situation around remains strong. Whatever the outcome, reputations after the dust settles will be a factor in rebuilding – for employers in calling back or attracting talent, for employees in whether they will be hired based on what they’ve done in the past.