Winning strategies Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2009

Executives need to garner increased levels of employee productivity and unabashed business innovation to drive their companies out of the recession. But capturing the hearts, minds and imaginations of workers has never been more difficult. With business plans in flux, budgets slashed and goals no longer attainable, employees are languishing under the weight of uncertainty, workplace stress and shifts in strategic direction. Executives can reap the benefits of an energized work force by capitalizing on engageable moments and creating a culture of continuous engagement.

“It’s difficult to align the efforts of employees with the company’s mission if the plan has become muddled,” says Matthew Kamensky, office practice leader for organizational effectiveness at Watson Wyatt Worldwide. “Leaders who set achievable goals, communicate continuously and capitalize on engageable moments can position their companies to emerge from the current crisis.”

Smart Business spoke with Kamensky about leadership strategies that engender a culture of employee engagement.

What’s the benefit from increased employee engagement?

Our Watson Wyatt research continues to validate the gains from employee engagement. Employees with high engagement work at companies with 26 percent higher revenue per employee and 13 percent higher total returns to shareholders over five years. Our research also shows that highly engaged employees have lower turnover and absentee rates, are more resilient and are better able to deal with the ambiguity of shifting business priorities than their lower-engaged counterparts. Furthermore, executives have a tendency to lean on the most engaged players to drive the company out of recession.

How do recessions impede engagement?

Engagement occurs when employees are committed to help the organization succeed and when they have line of sight — that they understand the business goals, the steps being taken to achieve those goals and how their roles and individual performance impact the goals of the organization. Recessions require constant course corrections, causing employees to lose their compass, so productivity suffers. Also, when goals become unattainable and monetary incentives are reduced, employee morale declines and stress increases, resulting in diminished focus on the business plan.

Which messages are most effective in driving an engaged environment?

Employees don’t expect executives to have all the answers, and it’s better to err by communicating more, rather than less, during challenging times. Engagement is bolstered by frequent executive communications, especially around milestone attainment leading to annual goals. But when milestones are missed and executives are struggling for answers, they are often reluctant to communicate just when it’s needed most.

Provide transparency around the difficult decisions you’ve faced, such as those involving staff reductions. Explain the reasons behind your actions so employees will understand why the moves were necessary. Capitalize on an engageable moment by educating survivors about why their performance is even more vital.

What other techniques bolster engagement?

Review past employee engagement surveys or conduct focus groups to discover employee hot buttons that don’t require increased budgets. Look to understand what drives engagement for the employee groups that have the greatest impact on the business. Recognizing employees for innovative ideas or cost saving tips doesn’t have to be expensive — yet public recognition of achievements offers an engageable moment and creates a culture of continuous engagement.

Look to your existing programs to create engageable moments. Any program or benefit, such as annual performance reviews or the launch of an open enrollment period, can offer an engageable moment if employers take the opportunity to connect those benefits to the value proposition employees receive for their contributions. Opportunities for engageable moments happen all the time; it’s just a matter of recognizing them and leveraging the moment.

What steps can executives take to reduce workplace stress?

Uncertainty, layoffs and pressure for results lead to workplace stress, which, if left unchecked, actually has a paralyzing effect on employees and is the leading cause of turnover. Expanding the company’s circle of core contributors reduces stress and bolsters engagement. Refocus employees on achievable goals that will not only help the company emerge from recession but enhance individual and company growth.

As an example, when layoff rumors persist, employees react by going into survival mode and become inwardly focused. Re-energize your employees around external goals, such as increased customer satisfaction, which is achievable in any economy. And, in the process of working more closely with customers, employees may even discover ideas for new products or services that will help the company emerge from the recession.

Matthew Kamensky is the office practice leader for organizational effectiveness at Watson Wyatt Worldwide. Reach him at (303) 575-9742 or