Emerging from the Rubble: Reengaging Employees in a Post-Recession Workplace

Jan 24, 2019

Of all of the changes wrought by the recession, few are as important as those that affect the employer-employee relationship. While the economy was in freefall, companies slashed their workforces, merit pay budgets, bonus pools, training programs, and many other elements that together define the employment relationship. Gone are the days when employers worked hard to be considered the employer of choice by offering incentives to attract and retain employees.

Although the balance of power in the employment relationship has shifted decidedly in the favor of employers, they still need to manage the fallout from some of the moves they made to survive the recession. It is unsurprising that today’s workers, worn down with worry about the impact of the recession on their job security, show low levels of engagement. Watson Wyatt research shows engagement occurs when employees are motivated to help the company succeed (commitment) and know what to do to make it successful (line of sight).

According to Watson Wyatt’s 2009–2010 U.S. Strategic Rewards Report, levels of engagement are down 9 percent among all employees, but down 23% among high-performing employees. This research found more bad news when workers were asked about the line of sight between their efforts and company performance. The number of high-performing workers who said that their performance goals are linked to their company’s strategy and goals was down 20% from 2008 to 2009. The number who said that their supervisors tie rewards to organizational performance was down 37% and the number who said that their performance objectives are motivating was down 24 %.

This erosion in employee engagement is particularly worrisome because it is occurring more among high-performing employees. High-performing and high-potential employees will be the keys to any company’s recovery, whether it be in sales, finance, engineering or customer-facing positions. When the job market fully recovers and high performers feel more confident about the future, they will have the most options and opportunities to leave the company.

Many employers recognize the need to take action. As signs of recovery have emerged,  employers are conducting employee surveys and focus groups in an effort to understand employee mindsets and identify ways to motivate these individuals and increase productivity. If an organization is to thrive during the recovery and beyond, it will need the combined efforts and enthusiasm of its workforce. What follows are some ways companies can begin the process of reengaging their employees.

Develop the Narrative

 Employee engagement begins with a clear vision of where an organization is headed, how it will get there, and what role employees will play in that future success. Companies cannot afford to look too far into the future, because there are few strong indicators of what that future will hold. Instead of five-year strategic plans, organizations, for the time being at least, need to focus on developing a clear six-month roadmap for growth with the understanding that the company will revise and update that plan as conditions change.

Once executives have developed that plan, they must communicate it to middle managers to ensure that managers focus on the right things when they in turn communicate the plan to employees. Because employees are likely to have questions about specific issues, particularly compensation, benefits, and training opportunities, companies should carefully consider how to craft messages about those issues.

Set Up Managers for Success

The recession’s upheaval has left many middle managers longing for steady ground. Like other employees, managers face a lack of certainty regarding their own job security and concerns about additional downsizing. On the job, many managers are unclear about changing company strategy, where they should focus their efforts, the resources available to them, and whether reduced or eliminated programs will be reinstated. The situation is ripe for paralysis or mistakes among managers who don’t know what to do or who fear doing the wrong thing.

Targeted communications can help managers succeed in this environment. Managers need to understand the company’s strategic goals and direction completely if they are to do their jobs well. Strong communication tools, such as manager newsletters, manager-only areas on the company’s intranet site, or manager phone emails or emails, can help managers achieve this understanding. The goal is to keep managers in the loop about what is expected of them, what they should know, and what they should focus on.

Managers also require ongoing communication and performance feedback. The company’s performance management process can help them be more confident that their goals are aligned and current with the company’s strategy and direction. If managers themselves don't have the right focus, then those below them won't either. Therefore, senior management should not wait until year-end to make sure that their middle managers get feedback.

Before embarking on pay discussions or performance reviews with their own direct reports, managers should have access to talking points to help frame these discussions. These talking points will help managers explain company, divisional or departmental goals for the new fiscal year, the reasoning behind them, and the employee’s role in achieving those goals. Follow-up training, including role playing, can help managers get comfortable with these talking points and with the challenges of communicating in difficult times. Watson Wyatt research shows that high employee engagement results from weekly communication with senior management and monthly performance feedback from supervisors.

Focus on High Performers

Organizations that want to increase employee engagement should be prepared to pay special attention to their highest-performing and highest-potential employees. These individuals will play critical roles in the company's recovery and growth. However, their engagement levels have fallen significantly during the recession, which may predispose them to leave when external opportunities arise or when they are targeted and poached by external recruiters. Even if these employees stay with the company, low levels of engagement mean that their motivation levels have declined, which may translate into lower productivity and customer focus.

The good news is that companies can take several positive steps now to reengage these high-performing and high-potential employees. Ongoing communication, opportunities to work on special projects and on project teams, training and development, and lunches with senior leaders are just some of the ways to do so. Even if the total rewards pool remains small, ensuring that high performers get meaningful base pay increases and bonus payouts is more important than making sure everyone in the company gets something. In short, companies need to take care of their top performers.

As the company prepares for the future, high-performers and high-potential employees should play key roles in new initiatives. Stretch assignments and projects not only help these individuals grow and develop but also give them the opportunity to be directly involved in the rebuilding of the organization. High performers and high potentials can demonstrate their value, gain valuable new experience, and get recognition for their efforts in taking on these assignments, whether they involve taking a fresh look at competitors or the market, identifying opportunities to enhance customer satisfaction, or enhancing work processes. At the same time, companies should continue any programs or efforts designed to identify and nurture high-potential employees. It is more important than ever for companies to know and focus attention on these “keepers” in the employee population.

Create New Engageable Moments

If companies are to reengage their employees, they need to identify more opportunities to do so. The online dissemination of company information, HR self-service, cutbacks in training, company-sponsored events, and the like have combined to reduce the number of engageable moments between individual employees and company representatives. Increased spans of control and growing workloads have exacerbated this by reducing engageable moments between managers and their employees. Although most companies try hard to engage employees during the recruiting and onboarding process, few follow up with frequent engageable moments after that point. Engageable moments are the opportunities or touch points where an organization can connect with or engage its employees to build employees’ loyalty and commitment to the organization.

Given the tumult of the past year, companies need to reach out to reengage employees or run the risk of disengaged employees negatively affecting company performance. Taking a page from customer-focused industries, like hospitality, companies can engineer the entire employee experience to build satisfaction and loyalty. The process starts by looking at the company's people processes from an employee perspective.

If everything is done online, from training and benefits enrollment to upward and downward communications, companies should consider opportunities to create new engageable moments with employees. Many of the traditional ways to engage employees are still valid and have little to no cost. Managers can walk around and talk to employees. Executives can eat with employees in the cafeteria. The company can hold lunch-and-learn meetings (even if employees have to bring their own lunches to save money), face-to-face or electronic town hall meetings/Q&A sessions and employee surveys and small group feedback sessions. None of these things is new, high-tech, or costly, but each  demonstrates to employees that the company values their contributions.

Recognition of individuals and groups of employees also does not have to be costly. When a company can't give pay increases or bonuses, things like employee photos on the intranet site, articles in company newsletters, free lunches, and small spot bonuses can highlight achievements and let employees know the company recognizes their efforts.

Summing Up
Organizations must do everything they can to reengage their employees in the business and to give them reasons to work toward the company’s success. Any company with an engaged workforce that is committed to the company and understands how individual employees can influence the company’s overall performance will have a significant competitive advantage. In this environment, that can mean the difference between a company that thrives and a company that continues to struggle long after the recession is history.