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The motivating factor: Keeping employees engaged during an uncertain economy

Posted by Bianca Strzelczyk  January 5, 2009 09:15 AM

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By Elaine Varelas

We are at the cusp of a new year — a time typically filled with hope, promise, and renewal. But many of us are facing this year with trepidation and some anxiety. Will the economic woes that dogged us in 2008 — the plummeting financial markets, and the threat of home foreclosures and job loss — follow us into the new year?

With these concerns weighing on us all every day, it is no wonder that HR managers are finding it difficult to keep employees motivated. Yes, we are all thankful for our jobs, but it is difficult to focus on work with all of these heavy distractions, especially when the money we earn may be losing its value by the day. How can people focus on work if they’re worried about how they’ll pay for gas and groceries this week?

Keeping talent motivated can be challenging in any economy, but is even more so during an economic downturn. In a sluggish economy, company leaders have to do more with less — reduced capital, less cash flow, and often fewer employees. But achieving optimal productivity with fewer resources is only possible if employees are on-board.

The key to prospering in uncertain times is to keep employees engaged. They need to feel a connection to their jobs, their work, their colleagues, their teams, and the organization. It used to be that HR managers were focused on employee satisfaction, but today satisfaction doesn’t guarantee engagement. In fact, satisfied employees can easily become complacent. Engaged employees are invested in the success of the organization, and that can mean the difference between employees who just show up for work, and those who strive for excellence, performance, and achievement in their work.

Employees feel a connection when they know that the organization’s management team is invested in their development. It may seem like a luxury to provide employees with opportunities for learning, growth, and advancement during a recession. After all, this is a time to tighten belts and make cut-backs. But giving employees these opportunities reflects a demonstrable commitment from company leadership. Here are some ways organizations can invest in their employees to help keep them engaged:

Celebrate small successes. If the staff meetings, the company newsletter, and any work-related announcements are all about budget shortfalls and dire fourth quarter predictions, people will suffer from doom and gloom overload—which is not conducive to productivity or morale. Banish the negativity and look for something (anything!) to celebrate—winning a new account, or even just retaining a current one, can be a reason to rejoice. By focusing on the positive, you can help foster a pleasant and welcoming work environment.

Develop leaders. Investing in leadership development reinforces that company management is committed to employees, work teams, and to the overall health of the organization despite the trying economic times. Employees see that management values their contribution to the organization, which will lead to better employee morale, engagement, and output.

There are many different types of leadership development HR managers may want to consider, including supervisory or technology training; training to make clear the organization’s mission or vision or refine the definition of the culture; training for managers to better recognize outstanding performance on their teams; training to help managers learn how to ask for opinions and feedback, or to improve relationships and enhance teams.

Help employees take advantage of the learning experience A colleague of mine contends that the job where he learned the most was at a company in the throes of bankruptcy. It challenged him like no other position because he had to be creative, resourceful, and frugal. Business is not all about prosperity. It is easier to be a star in a robust economy, but it’s still possible when times are tough. What can you teach your employees about weathering an economic downturn? Are you providing opportunities for them to increase their knowledge or experience? Are you nurturing recession stars? How can HR managers take advantage of these learning opportunities to move the organization forward?

It may seem counterintuitive to be spending money during an economic downturn, but supporting employees is the single most important investment organizations can make. And by investing in people when the economy is making them feel vulnerable, organizations can have a concrete impact on recruitment, retention, and employee productivity—three key issues during any kind of economy.

While management cannot alleviate all of their employees’ financial concerns, they can demonstrate employees’ importance and value to the organization. If you’re looking for extraordinary performance during challenging economic times, you need to invest in your employees. While other organizations are cutting back, your employees will be recharging and refining their skills so your organization will be poised to take off in a bad economic climate, or when the economy rebounds (hopefully in 2009!).

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner of Business Development at Keystone Partners, a career management firm headquartered in Boston, and has over 20 years of career development and HR experience. She also serves on the board of directors for Career Partners International, the world's largest career management partnership. E-mail her at .

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Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.