No Image Available

Cost-effective employee engagement


Employee engagementEmployee engagement is absolutely crucial during a recession, yet when HR budgets are being cut and the business landscape is becoming ever more competitive, how can HR ensure staff are engaged, motivated and loyal during a downturn? Nick Golding talks to the experts.

As the recession continues to bite, organisations are becoming increasingly reliant on HR departments to come up with strategies that encourage commitment, loyalty and motivation among workers – in other words, maintain good levels of employee engagement. Though sustaining levels of engagement at a time when there is less money to go around is no easy task, HR should be aware that dwindling morality is especially likely when the inevitable blame culture starts to creep in, says Andy Philpot, marketing director at Accor Services.

He explains: “People start to look over their shoulders, and instead of thinking about being creative in their job, they start to think about losing their jobs. When people are worried about their jobs everything becomes someone else’s fault.”

“Uncovering opportunities for staff, no matter how small, during tough times is a positive step that can offer a workforce hope for the future.”

Long-term employee job security is also a challenge for HR during a recession, and engaged employees are ones that feel safe in their role and see a future with their employer. But job security is often an early casualty when inevitable products of a crisis, like redundancies, are prevalent, explains Pat Gilbert, business leader of organisational research for Europe and Middle East at Mercer.

He says: “During a recession there is less of a clear long-term future for staff with the company, and money may have to be saved by cutting back on the training budget, leaving staff with less developmental opportunities.”

Opportunities for staff

But many organisations are not prepared to stand by and watch engagement levels fall away, and uncovering opportunities for staff, no matter how small, during tough times is a positive step that can offer a workforce hope for the future.

With no opportunity or sense of progression, heads go down, insists Wayne Clarke, managing partner of Best Companies Partnership: “Opportunities must be identified during the downturn; without identifying these opportunities there is no hope for employer or employee.”

Under normal circumstances, training would be ideal here but staff training can be expensive, so companies are wisely reviewing their options and searching for more cost-effective alternatives. “If the training budget has been slashed, look to carry out in-house or online training; however it is offered it does maintain a feeling for staff that they are developing within the organisation,” explains Gilbert.

For retailer QVC, where engagement is regularly measured, the recession is not something that is hidden from staff, and it has adopted a clear and visible adult-like communication strategy, which earns the respect of employees and prevents gossiping. HR director at the firm, Frank Robinson, explains: “There is uncertainty at the moment and we can’t bury our heads in the sand. If we are not open you will have people talking around coffee machines and making their own stories up.”

“QVC…has adopted a clear and visible adult-like communication strategy, which earns the respect of employees and prevents gossiping.”

Benefits too can play their part in sustaining levels of engagement, and though they are often perceived as high cost and a tricky investment to justify, a tailored package that suits the needs of staff can be a cost-effective way to hold on to engagement. A retail discount package to help staff with the weekly shop, for instance, or an hour with a financial advisor could be a timely way to help engage.

Deliver the message

But it is the line manager that plays arguably the most important role in this whole engagement process, because although the strategies are put together in the boardroom or in HR, it is the line manager that will deliver the message and be best positioned to identify where and why engagement is waning.

The line manager is generally trusted far more by staff than boardroom members, adds Gilbert: “When staff are looking for a source of information within an organisation the source they most trust is the line manager. Information can’t come from people they have never met in the boardroom.”

Whether it is utilising the line manager, having clear communication channels, adapting a training programme or a mixture of all of these, what is clear is that doing nothing is not an option.

Those who think staff that were once engaged at work will continue to feel the same away amid redundancies, budget cuts and gloomy headlines, are mistaken, says Clarke: “I think the one thing that you could get wrong is to do nothing. Don’t think that during a recession you don’t have to up your game around engagement because you absolutely must.”

Top tips on engagement during a downturn

  • Open communication: You cannot hide a recession from staff, if you are open and honest staff will respect the organisation and not be tempted to gossip and speculate.
  • Utilise managers: Line managers are trusted on a higher level than the boardroom, so any strategy must be delivered through them.
  • Create opportunities: Even if the training budget has gone, you must offer staff hope of progression, otherwise the organisation comes to a standstill.
  • Benefits: Tailor a package that staff will appreciate; pull out the ones that are never used and replace them with something current and useful, such as a retail discount package.

  • Nick Golding is a freelance journalist.

    6 Responses

    1. Recognition or reward?
      Some might say that saying ‘thank-you’ is a nice idea, but in reality can it really boost motivation and loyalty?

      Surely it comes down to what staff really want.

      I suppose critics of the recognition approach would argue that it is not a ‘pat on the back’ that staff want, it is money in the pocket, and certain benefits which offer employees discounts on the weekly shop for instance, are far more useful than a ‘thank-you’. Especially when that ‘thank-you’ is coming from a top-level manager that the employee has never met before.

      The question is, are practical and tangible offerings valued more by staff during a downturn?

    2. What, no Leadership?
      Employee engagement is a complex topic but what surprises me about the article is the lack of emphasis on Leadership. We all know during times of crisis, strong leadership can be THE difference – just look at any crisis in history and names like Churchill spring to mind. Making the senior leadership team highly visible to the ‘troops’ on the front-line is key – in person is best but creative media such as webinars, VT et al can all be used. The Best Companies research shows the highest correlation between engagement of staff with their employer is Leadership based on eight years of studying successful organisations across the UK and reviewing hundreds of thousands of employee opinions.

      Let’s be blunt – you hear a key mesage from your line manager or from the Board, which lifts the soul most?

      So whilst everything is important, leadership is key, so ignore this point at your peril.

      Stuart Thomas

    3. Don’t forget appreciation!
      I’m surprised a very critical type to sustaining engagement is left off list — saying “thank you.” Simple praise and appreciation for effort can go a long way in encouraging employees in this trying time.

      Getting your employees more fully engaged – willing to give additional discretionary effort to get the job done – is more critical now than ever. Strategic recognition shows employees who are recognized precisely what behavior or action of theirs was deserving of recognition and then links that action to a company value demonstrated or organization goal achieved. This shows employees how their direct efforts impact company success – has meaning to the company.

      Using the most positive method of reinforcement – praise – also helps establish your company culture as one of appreciation and not of fear, even during this tough economic environment. By continuing with or implementing a strategic recognition effort, you are clearly showing your employees you appreciate their efforts and care about their well-being. And you are simultaneously boosting morale and increasing productivity.

      See more on this with research from the Engage Group here:

    4. Engagement and motivation are not something that you do to peopl
      There is a common misconception among managers that if they did not actively engage, or motivate, their staff then they would be miserable and unable to perform.
      In fact employees are already motivated and engaged before they start work.
      It is what happens to them at work that demotivates them.
      Instead of looking for ways to motivate people a more effective strategy would be to find out what is the management behaviour that is demotivating the workforce, then stop doing it.

      Peter A Hunter

    5. Communication is Key
      I thought that Nick’s article was very interesting and informative, and I would have to agree that employee communication is key at this moment in time.
      Everybody is worried and concerned about their jobs and also how the business is doing, so what are you scared off, tell the staff were you are at with the business, your successes, how you are going to get through these difficult times, you will be surprised as to the positive feedback you will get.
      Saying nothing creates negativity.
      I have spoken to so many HR Directors in the last two years who want to implement Total Reward Statements to send a positive message to the staff and within 5 minutes its all forgotton and gone flat, why because employees either don’t understand or don’t want to understand what the company is sending through the intranet, or more importanly they would like to know but are to scared to ask out of embarrasment, life is a people business the greatest influence any company can offer its staff is by talking to them, I run a small 12 man/woman business and they are all as well groomed in how well the business is doing, what the present pitfalls are and what we need to do as a team to continue to succeed in the future.
      Total Reward Statements is a fine tool if the employee knows the reason and benefit of it, my suggestion right now to all companies is that having gone through the nightmare of the last year talk to your staff, wether it would be the Directors, Line Management or your Professional Financial Advisers, you will be thought a lot more highly of and it will be your best return of investment for 2009. [email protected]

    6. Community engagement -> staff engagement idea
      Good stuff. Can I share something I have seen an increasing amount on this subject that I think is ingenious and would encourage: Using community engagement initiatives as staff development and engagement.

      After all, voluntary work is inexpensive and develops self worth and company pride as well as skills like leadership and communication.

      This sort of sustainable development stuff is loved by CSR and training awards alike (you can find a list of them here:


      Boost Marketing ( )

    No Image Available

    Get the latest from HRZone.

    Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


    Thank you.