Communication Can Help Motivate During Troubled Times

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Dec 23, 2008
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Keeping employees who are inundated with a constant stream of gloomy economic news engaged fully in thei​r work might seem like a difficult task at times, but it’s never been more important, experts say. Effective communication can help.

According to the online survey firm Modern Survey, 21 percent of U.S. workers were actively disengaged as of August 2008, an increase of 4 percentage points from August 2007. The survey gathered responses from 1,000 U.S.-based adults on whether they take pride in their company, believe that they have a promising future there, would recommend their employer as a great place to work, go “above and beyond” their normal job duties and intend to stay with their company.

The results of the Modern Survey Engagement Index show erosion in favorability in all five areas, with organizational pride showing the largest (and most statistically significant) decline, dropping from 78 percent favorable in 2007 to 71 percent in 2008.

Moreover, only about half of respondents said they are willing to put in extra effort to help their company succeed and intend to stay with their company for a long time.

Some suggest that results like these should spur employers into action.

“As economic conditions worsen, you'll be counting more and more on your employees to put forth their best efforts and to pull your organization through,” said Don MacPherson, president of Modern Survey, in a press release. “Unless you pay special attention to the engagement of your workforce, and to maintaining the type of work environment in which employee engagement flourishes, fewer and fewer of your employees will be willing to ‘give their all’ to help your company succeed.”

“Given what's happened since August to further fuel workers' anxieties about the economy and about their own futures, smart leaders will be paying special attention to these basic needs of their workforce over the coming months,” added Bruce Campbell, a senior consultant at Modern Survey.

But data released in October 2008 by the public relations firm Weber Shandwick suggest that employees are not receiving the information they want about the impact of the global financial crisis on their organizations. The survey of 514 employed U.S. workers revealed that the majority of respondents (71 percent) wanted more leadership communication, but most (54 percent) had heard nothing from leaders.

The survey found that 70 percent of respondents expected that current economic and financial problems would have a negative impact on the company they work for over the course of the next year. Of those, 26 percent believed that their company would have to lay off employees, and 62 percent said their company would have trouble meeting its goals.

“At a time when working Americans are concerned about their personal finances, their jobs and the overall economy, employees are looking for credible, candid information, and right now too few business leaders are filling the information void that exists,” said Harris Diamond, CEO of Weber Shandwick, in a press release.

“By stepping up and communicating more with their employees, company leaders will enhance their company's standing, consolidate their position of trust in challenging times and head off any inaccurate rumors or fears that are all too common in fast-moving crises such as these,” Diamond added.

“In an age of greater transparency where employees play a vitally important role in shaping a company's reputation both in good times and in bad, their views have an impact that goes far beyond the office or shop floor,” said Micho Spring, chairperson of Weber Shandwick's U.S. corporate practice. “Many companies have highlighted the need to invest in employee communications, and the questions raised by the financial crisis confirm how now, more than ever, employees need to be equipped with information from senior voices in their companies.”

This is particularly true for organizations experiencing layoffs. Such employers might find that the survivors are disenchanted, demotivated, and disengaged—characteristics that can drag down the fiscal health of the entire company.

According to data from the Kenexa WorkTrends database released Dec. 9, 2008, employee engagement is lower for employees whose organizations have conducted layoffs in the past 12 months than it is for those working in organizations without layoffs.

A lack of employee confidence is one factor in lower engagement scores. According to Kenexa, only 43 percent of employees at companies with layoffs report confidence in the future of their company, compared to 61 percent of employees at companies with no layoffs.

In order to engage layoff survivors, Kenexa says, organizations need to:

  • Build confidence in the organization and leaders.
  • Instill optimism for the future.
  • Care for employees by managing stress and work/life balance, ensuring safety, offering adequate pay and supporting their community.
  • Train survivors to keep the business running and serving customers.

“After the chaos of downsizing, it is imperative that leaders work hard to reinstill confidence in the viability of the organization, as well as set up support systems for work stress,” said Jack Wiley, executive director of Kenexa Research Institute, in a press release. “The aftermath of layoffs is messy, but unwavering leadership can heal their organization more quickly by equipping employees to do more with less in their attempts to meet and exceed customer needs.”

Rick Lepsinger, president of OnPoint Consulting, agrees. He suggests that leaders:

  • Create a sense of purpose. Engagement and retention improve when people understand how they connect to the big picture and how they make a difference.
  • Provide meaningful work. Allowing people to do what they do best and to make a significant contribution is crucial to engagement and retention.
  • Solicit ideas. Involvement in decisions gives people a sense of control in uncertain times, shows them their opinions matter, and improves decision acceptance.
  • Let people know where they stand. Setting tough but realistic goals is motivating even in a difficult environment. “Clear goals are only part of the equation,” warns Lepsinger. “People need regular feedback so they know when they are on track and recognition when they achieve key milestones.”
  • Enhance trust and communication. Trust is built when leaders improve credibility by being candid, demonstrate reliability by ensuring that their actions are consistent with business objectives and values, and are accessible. “The more people feel you are focused on them, rather than on yourself,” says Lepsinger, “the more they trust you.”

But actions like these aren’t just about making employees feel better, experts say. Engaged employees are essential for achieving business results.

In a paper released Dec. 18, 2008, Allegiance, Inc., a feedback management software provider, says the positive feelings employees have about their jobs and employers influence the level of service they give to customers. These positive experiences spill over to customers, who become advocates for the company’s products and services.

“In our research, we have found that increasing employee engagement had a direct effect on customer engagement, which leads to increased sales and profits,” said Gary Rhoads, loyalty and engagement expert at Allegiance and author of the paper, in a press release. “Companies are missing a huge opportunity by not focusing on employees as a way to increase customer loyalty and engagement. This is especially critical in a slowing economy.”

The paper identifies job enhancers that, combined with the absence of stressful barriers, are effective at creating employees who are likely to be engaged emotionally. It is this emotional connection—the desire to do what is best for the organization—that spills over to customers, creating emotionally engaged customers. Critical job enhancers include:

  • Having a positive impact on the lives of customers and team members.
  • Having opportunities for learning important new skills.
  • Having the ability to offer suggestions.
  • Completing whole jobs from start to finish.
  • Receiving feedback about the results of efforts.
  • Feeling free to perform the work the way they believe is best.

“Engaged employees contribute to the bottom line. As their engagement is reflected in their service to customers, they are helping to create more loyal customers,” added Adam Edmunds, CEO of Allegiance. “And we know that highly engaged customers buy more products, refer potential customers to a company, stay longer and give more feedback, which, in turn, gives companies the opportunity to address issues and concerns and preserve potentially lost revenue.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online writer/editor for SHRM.

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