As this month's historic election confirmed, a significant portion of our population has concluded that the same way we've always done business just isn't cutting it these days. Organizational leaders are seeking new solutions, too. They are asking how to keep America's companies functional and competitive, how to do it with fewer resources, and how to thrive when the economic pendulum swings upward again. In the information age, solutions to these challenges can be found at the crossroads of engagement and resilience.
Engagement in the Information Age
Organizations create value for their customers differently from the way they have in the past. Before the maturation of the information age, our economy was heavily based on manufacturing. When cyclical downturns occurred, it made sense to cut costs, streamline processes and adjust the nuts and bolts of operations in order to ride out the tough times. Though these belt-tightening strategies are still recession-proofing mainstays, information age organizations must focus more on the human factor than ever before.
The very foundation of business has shifted. Performance consultant Jay Forte (2008) says that "the success of this [intellectual or service] economy ... rests in the minds and hearts of our employees." It is workers who create and maintain rewarding relationships with customers; it is employees whose ideas and efforts drive business results. Consequently, Forte declares, value for organizations derives from "the connectedness and performance of the employee." An employee's level of engagement and quality of work are therefore critical to efficiency and productivity.
Multiple research studies point out the bottom-line benefits of engaged employees. "Employee engagement increased employee retention and productivity," said a nearly unanimous 99% of HR and finance leaders surveyed in 2008 by Globoforce. Ninety-seven percent of more than 266 respondents agreed that retention and productivity positively affect organizational performance (Globoforce, 2008). Current-year research by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) found that firms that were high performers in reported revenue growth, market share, profitability and customer satisfaction also boasted high levels of employee engagement, with 42% of workers considered to be highly engaged. Lower market performers reported that only 22% of their employees were considered to be highly engaged (i4cp, 2008).
During challenging times, employees who contribute effort beyond the parameters of their jobs can enable organizations to maximize the resources they have available. In addition, engaged workers can create competitive advantage by pushing the kind of innovation and creativity that drives new value development. This innovation can help to propel organizations ahead of the competition when market conditions improve.
Focus on engagement as a strategy during turbulent economic periods is additionally appealing because promoting it can be relatively low in cost. It takes little monetary investment for a senior leader to walk through a workplace and speak to employees, to hold staff meetings regularly, or to encourage line managers to communicate often with their workers. Indeed, such personal means of communication tend to be the most effective during stressful times. "Great leaders rally their followers by providing a clear direction, by providing a picture of what [the future] will look like when they have faced the challenges together and come through it together," pointed out an October 2008 online article on engagement techniques (Farmery, 2008).
Building Resilience to Support Engagement
Maintaining employee engagement is challenging at the best of times - even more so in this dark economic climate. If organizations are to realize the full benefit of engaged workers, then leaders also must adopt a complementary strategy, that of developing resilience.
Employers must work to "maximize [the] workforce's level of resilience," explains international performance expert David Lee. Lee observes that people can't work to the best of their ability if they fear uncertainty and the changes that are occurring almost daily in today's markets. The key to achieving win/win outcomes for workers and organizations is augmenting engagement tactics with training in change management. "Help your employees build ... the belief that [they] can effectively face a challenge" by providing "the tools, resources and training they need to excel," says Lee (2008). In addition, slower business cycles are the ideal times to focus on worker training, as offering learning opportunities is a further enhancement to engagement.
A September 2008 BusinessWeek article suggests that U.S. firms already appear to be meeting the year's economic downturn with more flexibility than during the recession of 2001. More widespread use of part-time workers is part of that flexibility, as is the greater care many businesses are taking when it comes to hiring talent (Cooper, 2008). Experts advocate the use of pre-employment testing to identify candidates who are likely to manage change effectively. Recruitment specialist Dr. Janice Presser declares that such individuals "will transmit not only less fear to others, but also less chaos ... and less disengagement" (Presser, 2007).
The notion of resilience isn't new, but our turbulent times underscore the need to build organizations capable of meeting change with adaptability. That includes a base of engaged and resilient workers who see opportunities in shifting circumstances. In 2006, i4cp - then the Human Resource Institute - did a study on agility and resilience in the business world. The conclusions of that research ring true today more than ever: "Change will always be challenging ... discouraging, even frightening," but "business growth with sustained high performance requires relentless, well-executed change" (Human Resource Institute, 2006, pp. 2, 18). Two years later it seems apparent that engaged, resilient employees may be just the strategy today's organizations need.
Documents used in the preparation of this TrendWatcher include the following:
- BlessingWhite. (2008). The state of employee engagement 2008. Retrieved from blessingwhite.com
- Cooper, J. (2008, September 1). Productivity is easing the pain. BusinessWeek, 6.
- Farmery, A. (2008, October 9). 3 tips on employee engagement during a recession. Retrieved from theengagingbrand.typepad.com
- Forte, J. (2008, September). Cut waste and build value: A proactive approach to surviving the recession. SuperVision, 69(9).
- Globoforce. (2008, June). Engaging the global workforce: Bridging the gap between finance and talent management. Retrieved from globoforce.com
- Human Resource Institute. (2006). 2006 agility and resiliency survey results. Retrieved from i4cp.com
- Institute for Corporate Productivity. (2008). Survey results: Workforce engagement. Retrieved from i4cp.com
- Jacobs, D. (2008, May 1). Rethinking talent management in an economic downturn. Retrieved from humanresourcesmagazine.com
- Lee, D. (2008). How to recession proof your workforce. Retrieved from humannatureatwork.com
- Matthews, V. (2008, April). Employee engagement: Looking up. Retrieved from personneltoday.com
- Peacock, L. (2008, October 7). Staff suggest ways to boost engagement during economic downturn. Retrieved from personneltoday.com
- Presser, J. (2007, April). Assessing and managing fear of change. Retrieved from shrm.org