How to breathe life into worker effort

Motivating staff in a downturn

By Amanda Horswill

Executive bonuses are out of fashion after scandalous payments to high-level execs running sickly companies shedding staff.

Everyone is working harder to try to keep their jobs and blood pumping through their business.

Revenue streams are constricting, leaving precious little chance of scoring that long-anticipated pay rise as reward for that extra effort.

So how can employers say “thanks, we appreciate you” to workers without spending the funds better used to keep people in jobs?

The experts recommend leadership, communication, appreciation, opportunity and support.

“Surveys have shown that employees value communication when times are ambiguous or tough,” Australian Institute of Management Queensland and Northern Territory CEO Carolyn Barker says.

“It is such a simple concept but it is not enacted frequently.

“Telling employees about where the company is going, what it is doing to get there, what savings it may need to make and why, time and time again is the best way to keep employees engaged with the company and its vision and the managers that enact that vision.

“When work needs to be redistributed because there are fewer people, then a healthy way to focus on what is important in the business is to create small and cross-functional teams to formulate ways to do the work (any work) better, smarter and more interestingly.

“There are many schools of thought on having fun at work, keeping the right attitude, making boring work experiential and the morale is still as strong in tough economic times as it is in more buoyant times.”

Leadership is key

“Managers who convey doom and gloom and don’t contextualise what is happening to the company at every opportunity breed miscommunication, mistrust and often contempt,” she says.

“How managers respond to these current economic times fall into two categories.

“Firstly, those older managers who have experienced times where there has been high unemployment and/or low consumer confidence and spiralling interest rates have had to manage in tough times before.

“The second group is those Gen X managers, and to some extent the older Gen Y managers, who have never seen times like this so don’t have an experience set from which to draw.

“Regardless, there are a few key rules of racing, these include, go back to the fundamentals, go back to the fundamentals and go back to the fundamentals of the business.

“Never forget the customer and don’t slash marketing and training budgets as a knee-jerk reaction. When staff see that happening, they get nervous and this can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of negativity.

“Good managers don’t need to keep their chins up-they have a wellspring of resilience that helps them bounce back and adjust to whatever circumstances they are encountering. They transmit this energy to their staff.”

The retail industry has copped it pretty hard of late, and Bill Alexion from the National Retailers Association says worry about job security could actually make sales performance worse.

However, the silver lining is that employees are more likely to stick around, and this could be the saving grace for many employers willing to turn down-time into training opportunity.

“Job security is the critical factor in an economic downturn,” Alexion says.
“In a high turnover sector this means that employees will commit to their current employer for longer periods.

“In turn this creates opportunities for employers to upgrade the skills of employees who demonstrate that they want to make a longer-term commitment to the organisation.

“As activity in the store slows the employer has an increased opportunity to divert employees into new learning avenues which generates higher levels of motivation and loyalty to the employer.

“Typically these learning opportunities will focus on the development of more sophisticated selling skills and enhanced levels of customer service.”

Training an employee enhances their self-confidence and sends the message that the employer thinks they have a bright future.

“Better-trained and better-equipped staff are more confident and more motivated,” he says.

Survival guilt can also take its toll on employees left at their desks after corporate restructuring.

Right Management GM Bridget Beattie says woe betide any company that ignores redundancies’ fallout on those workers they decide to keep.

“Restructuring is a complex issue with make-or-break implications for a company,” Beattie says.

“It’s relatively easy to reduce head count but much harder to avoid a consequent slide in productivity, customer loyalty and profits.

“Ultimately, a successful restructure or downsizing depends on the engagement and motivation of those who remain in the team.

“Employee engagement has been a focus for many companies in recent years as they struggled to attract and retain talent. However, as tough times move the focus from retention to restructuring, it’s crucial that these lessons are not forgotten for the sake of short-term cost reduction.

“Often, the financial implications of a poorly run change program may not be realised until 6-18 months down the track.”

She says companies should plan carefully any redundancy program. When it’s done, swap the focus to supporting surviving staff.

“The leadership team needs to be active and visible to employees, and put in place initiatives to re-engage those who remain,” she says.

“People and performance management systems must also be used to monitor the effect of the change, so that management can keep a close eye on progress and respond when it’s needed.”

The Courier-Mail

Related articles you might be interested in reading