Driving Engagement During Tough Times

By Helen Schneiderman

Engaged employees are the key to an organization’s ability to grow and prosper. This is particularly so in today’s economy, where attraction and retention of experienced employees can make the difference between success and failure. But, employee engagement is a two-way relationship: employees have a choice about the level of engagement to offer their employer, and organizations must work to engage their employees by understanding what drives engagement. Ongoing research has identified five key factors that drive engagement:

  • Align – employees know what to do to make the organization successful
  • Enable – employees know how to do their jobs and have the ability to do their jobs
  • Equip – allocation of resources for employees to perform to their highest potential
  • Inspire – individuals are intrinsically motivated to do their jobs and perform well
  • Reward – individuals are extrinsically motivated to do their jobs and perform well

While these factors apply in good times and bad, the way they are actioned changes when external influences impact the organization. By focusing on specific elements of these drivers, organizations can leverage tough times to improve engagement and generate exceptional performance.

To Align

  • Provide clarity about the strategy and direction. Effective communication from leaders aligns employees to the purpose of the organization. This is particularly important in a challenging economy when employees are anxious to learn the rationale behind decisions. Reviewing communication processes to ensure that information flows throughout the organization is an important step to driving employee engagement.
  • Demonstrate strong leadership and clear direction. When times are difficult, employees want to know about their organization’s specific plans. Decisive action backed by clearly articulated rationale can build support for corporate initiatives.
  • Emphasize customer focus. In difficult times, employees are aware that job security is strengthened by satisfied customers. Emphasizing customer satisfaction keeps employees from being too internally focused and provides a common direction.

To Enable

  • Develop frontline managers. Engagement occurs at individual and team levels and is influenced by the actions of the direct manager. However, many front-line managers lack the skills to engage their direct reports. The onus is therefore on the organization to ensure managers have the skills and capabilities they need to manage uncertainty.
  • Emphasize training and development. Utilize the strengths of existing staff by focusing on the development of current talent. Assess those who have skills that could be needed elsewhere in the organization and shift your workforce to other functions as needed.
  • Take advantage of the increased talent pool. Strategically adding to or upgrading your workforce will increase your bench strength when the economic recovery begins, and provides a competitive advantage by enabling the deployment of a more skilled workforce.

To Equip

  • Assess workloads. Downsizing, layoffs and job consolidations cause stress, stress impacts quality and productivity, which ultimately effect organizational performance.
  • Tap into unused resources. Identify available resources to ensure they are maximized. Multi-source feedback, employee evaluations, one-on-ones, and coaching are effective sources for understanding where these resources are hiding.

To Inspire

  • Listen to what they are saying and act on it. Understanding what employees are feeling during uncertain times is crucial to their sense of belonging. Conducting surveys and focus groups or initiating one-on-one discussions will help you understand levels of anxiety and areas of concern.
  • Say “thank you.” A simple, no-cost way of acknowledging extra efforts goes a long way to showing you appreciate what your employees are doing, especially during difficult times.
  • Focus on career growth and development. Having to do more with less provides opportunities for individual growth and advancement. Let employees know when these opportunities arise so they can prepare themselves to step up to the plate.

To Reward

  • Develop and communicate equitable rewards. While it may be necessary to cut back on rewards, organizations need to understand which reward programs are most important to engage their employees. Changes to rewards need to be communicated in a way that is consistent with delivering on the employment “deal.”
  • Recognize and reward high performance. Despite wage freezes, find ways to recognize or reward those who are going above and beyond.
  • Demonstrate a commitment to employee wellbeing. Revisit, revitalize, and promote programs that focus on or enhance employee health, wellbeing and work-life balance.

Any organizational change can be damaging to employee engagement. Organizations need to be mindful of the impact the current conditions and consequential changes are having on morale and performance. Keeping engagement at high levels should be a priority, not only for the short-term survival of an organization, but also for its longer-term health. Otherwise, when conditions improve and labour markets tighten again, there is a risk that many top performing employees will simply leave for better opportunities elsewhere.


Helen Schneiderman, Principal Consultant of Engage Consulting Solutions, has over ten years experience as an HR consultant in the areas of organization effectiveness, compensation, and communication. Helen has worked with clients in all areas of organization measurement, including the design and implementation of employee engagement surveys, translating quantitative results into HR systems that are aligned with strategic goals. Her broad consulting experience includes the design and implementation of performance management and job measurement systems, competency frameworks, and total rewards assessments. Helen holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Witwatersrand (South Africa) and is a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP). Helen stays active in the B.C. human resources community through her involvement in the BC Human Resources Management Association.

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