Rules of engagement: keeping employees turned on in a downturn

I once worked for an underperforming company that cut off plant watering to save a few bucks. As the ferns wilted, so too did employee morale. For me it was a terrific lesson in optics, and how not to engage employees.

Whatever we do in response to an economic downturn will inevitably impact employee engagement. Having a plan in place or at least a litmus test to judge decisions against can help ensure we avoid little gaffs – like killing plants – that can shut employees off. Consider the following rules of engagement when developing your strategies.

Focus on your source of strength: Employees get nervous in uncertainty and crave a bearing point. What’s yours? Your brand? Your values? Your vision? What will be around once the dust settles? Pick that as your centre of gravity and focus all communication around it.

Issue a rallying cry: We all work best when we’re united behind a common goal. Any call to action must be clear, to the point and aligned with your business needs. For example, if cost control is an issue, consider a rallying cry like it’s your money; spend it wisely. Use the language that best suits your culture and is most inspiring to your employees.

Harness your competitive spirit: Employees need to know that their actions are having an impact. Crank up communication on activities linked to your rallying cry, and publicly measure your progress, in your lunchroom or on your intranet. This helps create a sense of ownership and provides an opportunity to reinforce that important “we are the champions” feeling amongst your team. It also provides a built-in way to share good news instead of just gloom from the financial markets. Finally, advanced notice of shortfalls can be handy to mobilize employees should you need more help to cross the finish line.

Keep in contact, consistently: Establish regular, multi-directional communication channels that encourage dialogue across all levels of your organization. Consider town halls, breakfast meetings, message boards, blogs, anonymous question posting sites, advisory groups, committees, whatever works best for your organization. And help your leaders better communicate with employees by preparing clear, consistent and regularly updated messages, and creating opportunities for them to engage with their teams, like walking the floors or one on ones.

Help them help you: Employees have great ideas on how to improve things like productivity, cost efficiency or environmental sustainability, but often don’t know how to get support for them. Encourage idea sharing by opening up communication channels; establish committees, set up a suggestion box (including mechanisms for follow up and ownership), or create a space on your intranet to post success stories. When employees actively contribute, they feel valued by the business and more in control of their future. They also tend to agree with and support their own ideas, which increases your chance for success.

Use a scalpel, not a hatchet: Employees know that tough times call for tough measures, but who wants to work for a company that’s cut all of the enjoyment out of its workplace? It’s fine to eliminate the holiday party because it costs too much, but offer alternatives or better yet, ask employees for ideas. Renting an ice rink and serving hot chocolate is a lot cheaper than a black tie event at a fancy hotel, and shows employees that they’re still working for a fun and vibrant organization.

Walk the talk: If you want your employees to watch their costs, pay closer attention to customer service, or be more innovative, make sure your leaders are doing the same. Nothing is more disengaging than having your budget pinched while the CEO flies business class to a client meeting in Palm Springs.

Treat them like adults: Even if you can’t give them a raise or a bonus, you can give them flexibility. Allowing your colleagues the freedom to do their work and have a life – by leaving early to coach their kid’s soccer game or sit on an advisory committee for example – helps them build skills your company will benefit from, like leadership, and creates a spirit good will that can’t be bought with a raise, a bonus or a golden handcuff.

Employees are your number one resource and a potential path to salvation in times of turmoil. Ignore them and they can slow you down or actively work against you, poisoning others along the way. Engage them and they will provide the best ideas and the arms and legs to help you out of any mess.