You are here

Employee engagement factors: do you have a strategy for the bad times?

Published 30th May 2017 by Investors in People
Employee disengagement: unhappy team at work

Employee engagement strategies should be built on a fundamental belief: that improving the experience of people at work and the way they live their lives ramps up wellbeing and organisational performance.

This doesn’t change when organisations are going through rough periods, so your strategy shouldn’t change. In fact, it becomes more important because there will be new factors at play that negatively impact wellbeing and performance.

That’s not to say that during bad times you might want to re-focus, or be aware of specific factors, but generally solid employee engagement strategies should be sustained throughout the natural peaks and troughs of organisational and individual life.

6 things to be aware of during the ‘bad times’

Bad is a point of view and not everyone is affected the same way

There are organisational bad times (redundancies, lost clients, toxic employees) and personal bad times (bereavement, child care issues, relationship stress). Everyone is affected by these things in different ways. A worker’s financial security, for example, could influence the level of stress they feel towards potential redundancies.

This is why having a separate strategy for the bad times is not a good idea, because what this really means is a senior leader’s perception of when times are bad. Some employees could be left scratching their heads, wondering what the problem is.

Of course, this works the other way too. When senior leadership think things are great, individual employees could be very disengaged. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to shift engagement strategies during the ‘bad times.’ Never assume how someone is feeling.

When people perceive times to be bad, they naturally have lower energy levels, and these drain more quickly due to stress and strain.

This is also why the line manager is so important, because they should understand their team enough to know when each individual is suffering from personal or work-related stress and take action accordingly.

Energy is even more important during the bad times

We’ve talked about the importance of energy creation in your employee engagement strategy, in order to raise resilience.

When people perceive times to be bad, they naturally have lower energy levels, and these drain more quickly due to stress and strain, so focusing on helping your staff sustain and build energy will help them ride out tougher times.

It’s useful to pay attention to Maslow’s hierarchy

Most people are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, presented as a pyramid, with foundational needs at the bottom, moving all the way through to self-actualisation at the top. The important point is that if the needs at one level aren’t being met, people are unable to move further up the pyramid.

During bad times, organisations should make sure they focus on the second level, safety. This includes financial security, health and wellbeing. If people perceive the company to be doing poorly financially, this can threaten their own financial security. Or if an individual has a health scare, they may find it harder to move up to the next level in the pyramid, belonging (because health problems can isolate).

For highly socialised and collaborative organisations, people regressing to the safety level can be problematic because collaboration and collective innovation are fuelled by the belonging level of the pyramid, which includes social safety.

Mindfulness and resilience training can help people to cope, but this shouldn’t be seen as ‘fixing’ the problem.

People’s capacity may dwindle

When times are tough, support should be given to help employees better engage with their current abilities and workload. Why? Because increased stress and distraction raises the passive cognitive load on people's minds. This is especially challenging for knowledge workers, who are left with less mental capacity for work.

Mindfulness and resilience training can help people to cope, but this shouldn’t be seen as ‘fixing’ the problem. An employee’s ability to cope may be reduced until the problem is sorted, so organisations should ensure they focus on getting mission-critical work done first and look to solve underlying root causes rather than symptoms.

Uncertainty breeds distrust; interpersonal processes can be less effective

Potential redundancies, for example, can carve out ingroups and outgroups and threaten people’s sense of belonging. Alternatively, if an employee feels they have been treated unfairly compared to others, they may feel less trusting of senior leaders and the employees they feel have been treated better.

When distrust grows, and people become more insular and ego-centric, interpersonal processes like collaboration and communication can suffer. This is a problem for organisations: we’ve talked before about how the democratising effects of technology have made it important for organisations to seek new competitive advantage, which is why organisations are so focused on driving processes like collaboration and line manager effectiveness.

Because distrust can cause old siloed ways of working to return, organisations need to focus on breaking down barriers and building links between individuals and teams.

Line managers will need additional support

The greater the challenge, the more support people need. When people perceive times to be bad, everything is more challenging, so they need additional support. This puts greater pressure on line managers to up the amount of support they give staff when they a) are likely already maxed out and b) may be affected by the ‘bad times’ themselves.

In a previous post we’ve looked at how the relationship between the line manager and the employee is a significant factor in organisational commitment, wellbeing and productivity, and this is especially true when employees are going through tough times.