Employee 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.”
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.”
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.”
Nick Golding is a freelance journalist.