Motivating your workforce in uncertain times

The following article by Fiona Morrison appeared in the Press & Journal on 16 May 2016.


Much has been written about the impact that the fall in price of oil has had on employment levels in Aberdeen as companies adjust to the dramatic change in market conditions by cutting costs. There has been some good news in the form of the £12 million Transition Training Fund established by the First Minister to enable those affected to transition into other roles. However for those still in jobs, these are uncertain times. Against this backdrop it is vital that businesses don’t forget about one of their greatest assets – their current employees.

Employees in Aberdeen and the north-east are working harder than ever and, in many cases, doing so for less money. Some will be trying to come to terms with colleagues having been made redundant and may also be worried about their own job security. In this climate, employee morale can decline rapidly. Not only does low morale affect employee productivity and engagement, but it can also increase the likelihood of talented workers walking out the door as soon as the market picks up. So how can employers engage, motivate and incentivise their workforce at a time when throwing money at the situation simply isn’t an option?

Treating employees fairly during periods of change and, in particular, being seen to do the right thing by individuals who are leaving the business is paramount. Employees must have confidence that their employer will treat them fairly in the future if they are to be engaged in the business now.  For employers who, for example, are planning redundancy exercises or to change terms and conditions of employment, it is important that the processes they follow are fair and legally compliant.  

Open and transparent communication with employees can be extremely powerful and effective. There is often a tendency to try to shield employees from the challenges faced by a business. However, providing regular information about how the company is faring and what the future may look like helps employees to feel involved and prepares them for any future changes. Q&A sessions with the senior management team can also give employees a voice and make them feel that their concerns are being listened to. 

Linked to this is engaging the workforce in decision-making processes. If employees are not invited to contribute their thoughts and ideas, it is all too easy for them to feel like their views do not matter. Some of the most successful exercises we have seen recently to change terms and conditions of employment have involved asking the workforce to vote on the company’s proposals. As a result, employees were empowered by the fact that they had a genuine say on the changes that would be implemented.  

In many organisations, particularly where the size of the workforce has been cut, there will be opportunities for employees to add to their skill-sets and experience by taking on additional or alternative responsibilities. All such opportunities should be fully exploited wherever possible so as to ensure that employees can continue to learn and develop professionally, notwithstanding the fact that training budgets will likely have been cut.

Managers play an extremely critical role in times like these. Taking the time to praise individual employees on the successful completion of a project and to celebrate team successes is crucial. So too is appropriately managing issues such as intermittent short-term absences or poor performance. These issues may previously have gone undetected when the team was larger, or they may be a symptom of the new challenges that employees are facing. Whatever the cause, managers need to make sure that they quickly identify these issues and take appropriate steps to manage and resolve them fairly. Of course, it goes without saying that managers themselves must be motivated and engaged and have time to dedicate to managing their teams (something that can become more difficult when they are facing increasing pressure to deliver).     

There is no getting away from the fact that current market conditions are difficult for employers as well as employees. However, taking the time to engage, motivate and incentivise current employees is vital for those who wish to boost productivity and maintain staff loyalty. And contrary to popular perception, there are many ways this can be achieved without having to spend a penny.

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