For the last 15 years, employers have had the luxury of focusing on employee engagement, but it's when money gets tight that it really counts, writes Zoe Lyon
It's all well and good for employers to focus on employee engagement in good times - when business is taking care of itself and there's some extra cash to burn. However, when the dark clouds roll in and the job market dries up, employee engagement can quickly fall down the priority list.
Yet it's precisely in these times - when costs are being cut, redundancy rumours abound and morale is down - that employee engagement strategies should come to the fore.
According to Freehills director of people and performance, Gareth Bennett, a downward business cycle can prove the ultimate test of whether an organisation is willing to walk the walk when it comes to employee engagement.
"In successful times - and when you think back we've had more than 15 years of continuous success - it's very easy for organisations to say 'People are our greatest asset'... and you see that in every annual report and AGM," he says. "But when you hit hard times, that's when you're able to measure whether that's really true. Those things can quickly melt away and suddenly people go from being our greatest asset to our greatest cost."
In tough times, Bennett says, employees will be scrutinising their employers very closely, and well-polished jargon-filled emails from senior management aren't going to cut it.
"People have a very, very highly attuned bullsh*t meter," Bennett says. "They see through the hype very quickly. [Employers] talk about having values and integrity and being transparent. But when [employees] see cost cuts being made, while the leaders ... are still paying themselves big bonuses, they quickly become very cynical and disengagement goes up exponentially."
Keeping staff engaged should continue to be a very high priority for employers, Bennett says, because employee disengagement drives down productivity, which puts the organisation in an even worse position to ride out the downturn.
"People start to become far less productive and far less driven to deliver for the firm or the company because their definition of success becomes survival, rather than going out there and innovating and being creative and taking risks," he says. "They feel very vulnerable. They can't see what success looks like at the end of all this."
Alexis Navie, the national human resources manager at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, believes that one of the biggest mistakes senior management can make is failing to effectively communicate to employees what the organisation is doing to manage itself during tougher times.
"The worst thing you could probably do would be not to communicate with your people," she says. "It makes people feel very insecure and quite suspicious about the future. Leaders have to be very, very visible - visible in the verbal as well as in the written communication."
Bennett agrees that strong leadership is crucial, adding that when things turn sour, it can be tempting for leaders to hide in the shadows and avoid difficult questions that employees might have.
"At times like this leaders tend to disappear," he says. "Leaders are great at saying how wonderful they are and 'follow me' in times of success. But when things really get tough, the last thing they want to do is be standing up in front of people, because it's really hard.
"But [what you need is] visible leaders who are prepared to communicate - who are prepared to admit they haven't got all the answers, but who do communicate a consistent long-term strategy and carry people along with them and are prepared to listen. People will feel like they are part of the solution rather than part of the problem."
See Lawyers Weekly next week for a special report on what measures employers can use to keep staff engaged, and how to manage stress in the workplace during difficult times.