Thursday, September 4, 2008

When Times are Tough, How Do You Keep Workers Focused and Engaged?

While no one would dispute the fact that workers are stressed because of continuing layoffs, stagnant wages and rising consumer prices, the pressure may be compounded for the people in charge of keeping workers enthusiastic and motivated -- managers.

I recently interviewed Michael Stallard, CEO of E Pluribus Partners in Greenwich, Conn., and he told me that at times like this, managers have to be even more vigilant about staying close -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- to their staff.

That's because employees can become unfocused and unproductive when times are so uncertain and challenging.

“Stress sort of short-circuits the brain,” Stallard says.

Still, Stallard says managers have some tools to help bring teams together, such as making sure all workers "feel like they’re connected.”

That means that managers need to make sure they keep an open-door policy" and assure workers they’re available to talk about any anxieties they may be experiencing. At the same time, Stallard says managers should actively work at finding ways to get employees out of the office, which can be ground zero for work stress.

“Go to lunch with your employees. Go for a walk with them. Spend time with them one-on-one, and let them express their feelings,” he says. “And make sure that when they are at work, you give them some tasks that they enjoy doing.”

Stallard advises managers trying to energize and engage employees during these tough economic times to:

• Stay focused. Employees should be reminded that they have an obligation to their other team members, and that means everyone must pull his or her weight and work toward targeted goals. Remind them how important their work is for everyone on the team, he says.
• Keep the panic at bay. “Let them know that if they’re feeling especially anxious, they should come and talk to you,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure they know they can talk about whatever they’re going through.”
• Use social media. Some employees may be more comfortable communicating through e-mail or social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter. “Face-to-face contact is always the best, but more managers have employees on different continents or in different cities. Social media is a great way to stay connected with your team and keep them engaged.”
• Remember to laugh. “Humor is a great reliever of stress,” he says. “Try and find ways to have some fun with your employees.”

But what if the worst thing happens – and a manager must lay off workers?

“The first time I had to lay someone off it made me physically sick,” Stallard says. “You have an obligation to be respectful, and show empathy. That’s critical. You also need to try and help them as much as you can in finding another job.”

Stallard says he strongly disagrees with employees being immediately escorted from a building upon dismissal from a job, which he calls “humiliating.”

“You should let them finish their day and communicate with the other employees,” he says. “One other thing to think about: The existing employees will remember how you treated those who left.”

Finally, Stallard says the key for managers trying to cope with these challenging times is to practice a management philosophy that treats people with respect and compassion through good times and bad.

“A lot of what goes into keeping people engaged through the tough times is the history of how you have managed,” he says. “It’s almost like you’re building up an emotional bank account.”

What else can managers do to help keep employees engaged and enthusiastic?


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Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this Anita. Each time I hear Michael Stallard's name I think of the phrase "connection culture" and how essential it is that connections are healthy in all workplace cultures, no matter what their subsets of values.

I think you (and Michael) nail it here in the beginning of your article, saying "managers have to be even more vigilant about staying close."

While it may sound counterintuitive at first, challenging times may call for a divide and conquer approach, where executives (for lack of a better word) do separate themselves into managers (who focus on staff and the inner workings of an organization) and leaders (those who focus on the industry, the market, keeping tabs on the influences of outside variables and trending). It is very difficult for one person to keep both balls in the air and achieve that vigilance with one or the other: In challenging times, the needs of each increase.

Often, we managers trip up because we don't inventory and get smart about our own energies, and what is within our realm of possibility, not to mention best effectiveness.

Anita said...

I love the comment about getting smart about your own energies. You make the excellent point that managers need to really ramp up their efforts to meet the diverse needs of employees.
Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

I found Michael's statement that stress short-circuits the brain. Very true!

He pointed out the importance of managers keeping a true open-door policy and allowing workers to share whatever anxieties they might have.

That calls for tremendous trust between management and workers. Not an easy feat.

The suggestions he offered were awesome. When I was in Corporate America, I never had a boss who invited me to go for a walk or take me out to lunch. NEVER. I can only imagine how powerful that would have been in easing whatever anxieties I might have had at the time.

Anonymous said...

Thank you again, Anita, for including my thoughts in you column and blog.

Rosa, you make a excellent point about focusing some people on the business tasks and others on the relationships according to their respective strengths. It seems that wise leadership teams are being intentional about this to make certain everyone feels connected to the team and remains productive despite the difficult business environment.

Rosa, I like your "take five" idea where managers ask employees to be prepared to take five minutes to sit down with their supervisor and share what's on their mind (I learned this reading Rosa's terrific book entitled "Managing Aloha." I would love to hear more from you Rosa about what makes "take five" work well.

Anita said...

I have had managers take me to coffee or lunch before, but it was usually to discuss job performance -- not exactly a stress-releasing activity. I, too, can imagine how wonderful it would be to simply have a manager ask: "So, how are you?" You're right -- it's simple, but very profound.
Thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the "take five" prompting Michael; it is a fairly simple thing that is so effective; the trick is to make it a habit that becomes a given in the workplace culture. What makes it work so well, is the groundrule that the manager (the giver of the daily five minutes) has no agenda but to listen. Complementing that, the groundrule for the receiver is that they speak up and seize their opportunity, and in a positive manner.

I'll add a link to my name with this comment, where I blogged an update called, "What’s the skinny on the Daily 5 Minutes?"

It starts as a manager to employee practice, but once it gets going in a workplace culture the hierarchy is irrelevant, and "givers" are peer-to-peer, or what is truly wonderful, staff become givers to their managers, in essence a time where they are saying, "Okay, I am ready to listen and be open-minded about whatever you want to share with me." Over time, this circle of comfort is created in the relationship; the Daily 5 Minutes has become far more than just a safe zone.

Anita, mahalo for allowing me to share more about this! Thanks again for sharing such an important discussion.

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree with treating departing employees with respect and consideration. I once quit a job and my ex-boss wouldn't even let me finish my last day and say goodbye! It left a bad taste in everyone's mouth and a flurry of other exits followed me.

Anita said...

While I know there are some legal reasons for asking laid off employees to leave the premises right away, a reasonable manager can make sure the employee has time to say goodbye. Not only does that show compassion for that worker, but respect for remaining employees. And, as you noted, how you treat the departing employee has great impact on those who remain.