Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had yet another painful headline: “Slump Prods Firms to Seek New Compact with Workers”. The essence of the article was that (surprise!) companies are cutting health benefits to save money, freezing retirement contributions or omitting retirement benefits. Most workers have no say in these new “compacts” with their employers although there are some companies that put the cost cutting challenge to their ranks and let them weigh in on the painful decision of whether to cut staff or cut compensation.
I always think of the managers who have to prop up the walking wounded in the workplace during these rocky times. What are the best practices to maintain employee engagement and productivity in such challenging environments?
The first most important approach is a new level of honesty. Instead of the old “manager as spin-meister” managers should blow off the cobwebs of mystery about what’s going on in the company to whatever degree they can. “The best organizations are engaging in truth-telling. This has the possibility of creating a new generation of businesses that will be able to engage their people due to the trust they have built during tough times,” says Gayle Gregory, Workplace Evolution Co-Founder. This includes sharing what you know about immediate and near-term plans of the company. The unknown is far more anxiety-producing for employees than even an unpleasant but somewhat “known” future.
This truth-telling should extend to being “real” with direct reports. Though as a manager you need to maintain a positive attitude, it’s OK to say you too are feeling the loss of colleagues who’ve been let go and you too are feeling bandied about by the waves of change. Demonstrating empathy without asking for sympathy is one way to stay connected to and supportive of your team.
If you’re connected and respected, you can provide some fun breaks and good old fashioned praise for extra hard work without being viewed as manipulative. Injecting some humor can switch people’s mental state…at least temporarily.
Last, stay visible and in communication to respond to people’s concerns, provide whatever resources you can and help them to prioritize projects that may be piling up after cutbacks.