Nearly all business leaders now fear an economic downturn. According to a recent survey of CEOs by the Conference Board, a whopping 98% expect a recession in the U.S. in the next 12 to 18 months. By one technical definition — two consecutive quarters of gross domestic product decline — it’s already arrived.
Whether it’s here or on the way, the downward slope of the economic cycle can be a drag on many businesses. And a decline in sales can be tough on employee morale, and the decline in employee morale can lead to a further decline in sales.
Lynne Oldham, who was the chief people officer at Zoom in 2020 and now holds the same title at New York City-based banking and investing app Stash, says she learned firsthand the importance of employee engagement during the pandemic and following economic downturn. “While that event fueled tremendous growth for the company, the uncertainty of the moment could’ve taken a toll on the employee experience if we hadn’t made the decision to lean harder into culture and employee engagement than ever before,” she says.
How can leaders navigate the possibility of dark days ahead, while still grappling with the Great Resignation and quiet-quitting trend disengaging employees? Executives should establish a strategy to retain, motivate, and inspire employees before a downturn hits. Here are three strategies to help get you started.
1. Foster more engagement with managers
On the front lines of employee engagement are managers, especially mid-level managers. “What we know from the research is that people feel more connection and more engagement the more conversation and the more connection they have with their manager,” says Kate Brown, vice president of culture and engagement at S&P Global.
Increasing employee engagements with their managers starts with taking a look at the company’s performance management process. “We talked about performance management, and we wanted to make sure that there were weekly check-ins happening between a leader and their team members,” she says. “It could be as simple as 15 minutes, and it is three questions: How are you? What are your priorities this week? And how can I help?”
One-on-one check-ins have become a staple of employee management in many companies, but focusing on well-being first is critical to engagement and employee experiences, especially when it’s harder to meet goals and in tough times.
These check-ins open the door for further conversations that can keep employees even more engaged. “There are certainly more discussion points that happen monthly, but we find keeping people on their goals with these quick check-ins, they make sure that everybody’s empowered to do their work,” Brown says.
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2. Communicate clearly and transparently
Devoting time and resources to communication has helped improve employee engagement in tough times for Stash. “Regular clear and transparent communication (especially in tough times) is key to having team members feel valued, trusted, informed, and included,” Oldham tells us by email. “Communication voids leave room for negativity and poor morale and ultimately productivity suffers further.”
Weekly all-hands meetings help keep the company’s 500 employees on the same page, especially considering the company’s remote-first policy. Measuring employee engagement through survey tools like Culture Amp, along with more frequent pulse checks, has helped the company make sure efforts are working.
Communicating through middle managers has been especially helpful. “We have most definitely amped up comms paying particular attention to ensuring the line leaders are in the know,” Oldham says. “Employees need to hear and feel communications from every level of the organization, so preparing managers with what they need to know and having them participate in dialogues up and down the line is critical.”
Both successes and failures need to be shared with employees, especially in times when goals are harder to meet than they usually would be. Stash offers a “KUDOS” Slack channel as a space to recognize those who have gone above and beyond. “We encourage our teams to share and celebrate success,” she says.
But it can’t just be good news. You have to be open about what’s not working, too. “As our company evolves, we’re also continuing to emphasize the equal importance of transparency when one falls short, or flat out fails,” Oldham continues. “These moments are also worth embracing, as they always offer opportunities to learn, grow, and potentially exceed expectations in the future.”
3. Foster a great employee experience
When times get tough, employees need more support and stability at work. “Simply put, when employees are anxious, they are uninspired and less engaged,” Oldham says.
She’s seen this firsthand in her current and previous roles, including when she was with Zoom at the start of the pandemic. “We saw a clear ROI of focusing on employee happiness, clear and consistent internal communications, and an unwavering focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she says. One major investment was in expanding employee resource groups. It helped people not only feel seen and heard at work, but also increased employee engagement, as measured by employee surveys and engagement at all-hands meetings. “We could gauge by the questions, volume of questions, and topics of how our employees were feeling,” Oldham says.
Brown agrees that investing in the employee experience has also been a solution to increasing engagement. It can make a huge difference in the way employees see their company and, ultimately, their work. “I think a great experience has a lot of pieces. It’s onboarding, learning, culture, benefits, performance development, and connecting with the company,” she says. “They’re important in a good market. I think what you see is that when things are not going so well, this is where we need to put even more attention.”