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Engaging employees without the cost

Bettina Pickering and Amy Finn  
PA Consulting Group Employee Engagement Today
6 April 2009

In difficult economic times the news an organisation has to communicate to employees is often negative, or the facts uncertain. Unwilling to disappoint or unable to provide ‘the answer’, management often fail to communicate with staff sufficiently.

Inevitably, employees fill the resulting communication vacuum with rumour and speculation. Frustration builds and employees disengage, resulting in a drop in customer service, increased stress leading to ill-health in the workplace, and delay in the implementation of efficiency and cost-cutting measures.

In fact, engaging employees during difficult times is more – not less – important. Engaging employees during the tough times can increase commitment, improve creative thinking and issue resolution, and maintain customer service levels. Employee engagement can be achieved at a relatively low cost when coupled with a little creative thinking. 

In this workshop article we provide you with some ideas for engaging employees without breaking the bank. Specifically, we propose five areas of employee engagement that we believe work most effectively during difficult times.

1. Leading by example 

In a tough economic climate employees are likely to look to their leadership team for direction and reassurance – so this is the time that your leaders need to really take control.  Sharing relevant information and responding openly to employee questions will ensure that staff feels involved and included. 

Acting as a role model and demonstrating that openness and honesty, rather than secrecy and cynicism, are the most effective ways of dealing with a difficult situation will also ensure the behaviours that you would like employees to exhibit.

There are a number of straightforward things that leaders can do to ensure that employees remain engaged, motivated and productive during difficult times:

  • Face to face briefings or Q&A sessions are a great, low-cost way of ensuring that employees are informed, on-message and feel that their managers are responding to them.  Briefing sessions give employees an opportunity to ask the questions that really worry them – and managers an opportunity to rebuff rumours.

One public sector body held regular ‘town hall’ meetings during a period of important change.  These sessions only lasted for 5-10 minutes, but gave everyone involved an opportunity to hear news and ask questions. 

  • Maintain an open-door policy.  During tough times, employees are likely to seek regular information about the organisation, their job, and the future. Halting communications because the messages are not positive or clear has a detrimental effect on the employee–employer relationship. In contrast, maintaining an open-door policy indicates that leaders are being honest and open.

A service organisation keen to ensure that every member of staff had their say set up an “Ask the boss” blog on their intranet.  Employees could email the Chief Executive with questions, suggestions or ideas for improvement.  This generated a number of significant business improvements, all identified by staff at grass roots level.

2. Putting the customer first

A tough business environment can lead to staff feeling disengaged and de-motivated.  The last thing your business needs is for these attitudes to manifest themselves in relationship with customers.

With companies slashing prices in order to attract new business, customer loyalty will be stretched to its limits and the smallest slip-up from an employee could result in the loss of a customer or a key sale.

Now, more than ever, your customer relationships are vital.  HR has a key role to play in reminding managers and employees that a tough business environment makes customer service even more important.  Some easy ways to remind employees of the importance of customer service include:

  • Improving individual and team performance should be the focus of employees’ day-to-day activities.  Reviewing key performance objectives (KPOs) to include specific measures of customer service will focus employees’ minds.

A large engineering company discovered significant losses on a number of products in Europe. Adapting the sales staff’s KPOs to include feedback from new and existing customers allowed senior leadership a clear view of performance. In the medium-term this increased overall sales. 

  •  Customer service awards can be a great, low-cost way of challenging employees to improve their customer service efforts.  A monthly certificate or voucher can encourage friendly competition and put core customer service principles at the fore front of employees’ minds.

An insurance company offered a holiday as the prize in their customer service call centre awards. The award was seen as highly prestigious and call centre staff worked throughout the year to acquire service award points.  

  • Use role-play to help employees understand the impact that their attitude, state of mind and behaviour has on customers.  Using actors can make this even more realistic and effective.  A number of organisations in the insurance and retail sector have used this methodology to successfully improve their service culture.  

3. Making the most of your reward package  

It’s well known that reward can act as a key motivator for employees; and now is a great time to review and refresh your benefits package to ensure that it is delivering optimum value to your employees. 

  • Are you clear about which of the benefits you offer are valued by your employees and which are not?  It may be that your flexible benefits scheme has expanded over the years and you now have a number of benefits with low levels of take-up which are taking time and energy to administer.  Take the opportunity to focus your reward package to ensure it delivers maximum value, and remove elements which are resource intensive but low on impact.

An insurance company discovered through benefits analysis that very few employees took up three voluntary benefits provided by the organisation. By removing these benefits from the total reward package they were able to focus on, and improve the other benefits offered and save costs.

  •  Alternatively, you may have a number of reward elements which are haphazardly communicated to employees and thus de-valued in terms of the overall package.  Ensure that your benefits package is communicated in an integrated way will improve employee understanding of its true value while maximising impact. 

A public sector body recently realised that many employees had no understanding of the value of their total reward package - in particular their pension and holiday allocation.  They are currently considering implementing a total reward statement to improve employee awareness and strengthen the value of the overall package.

  • There may be opportunities to expand your benefits package by introducing tax-free benefits such as the Cycle2Work scheme, or discounts at local shops.  Many local suppliers will provide small discounts or special offers for employees, and these voluntary benefits can have a much larger perceived value to the employee.

Discounts at local shops are offered by a large proportion of German and Danish companies. For example, a major transport company provided employees with cards which provided a 20% discount on food and beverages at train stations.  While the card is free of charge to the organisation, the daily benefits to staff are considerable.

Although salary increases and bonus pools may be reduced in size, there are still a number of creative ways for an organisation to optimise the value of its total reward package and ensure it can be used as a strategic tool to retain, motivate and engage employees.

4. Making technology and communications tools work for you

Many organisations could learn useful lessons from free and highly successful social media and networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and skype.  Below we set out some ideas for technology and engagement media that have been available for some time, and as a result are affordable and quick to deploy: 

  • Net meeting technology has matured to the extent that attendees can interact with the meeting, upload and introduce their own material and view other attendees.  This can be a great way to keep employees up to date with information, or encourage cross-geography discussion and debate.

A global energy company recently used this cost-effective approach very successfully for a global workshop by setting up a “second life” forum in which attendees could interact. 

  •  Discussion boards, blogs and wikis can also be used for non-urgent items and networking. They provide a cost-effective way of collecting feedback on current work and promoting ideas within the company.  For most organisations, the technology – or notice board space – will already be available, but a culture change may be required to encourage employees to use the tools available.

A communications technology organisation extended their current intranet phone book to allow staff to post personal profiles, discussion threads and work-related issues. This led to a number of research staff linking up across geographies to solve design problems - saving time and cost in bringing new products to market.

Many organisations could reap employee engagement benefits through increased use of social media technologies. However, to avoid potential legal issues around data protection, we recommend setting clear rules and boundaries for the use of these social media within the organisational context.

5. Consolidating employee loyalty through team building

Hard times in business can lead to a downward spiral in engagement as employees harbour concerns for their jobs and the future of the organisation.  This presents a good opportunity for the leadership team to motivate and energise staff.  Team building activities not only support engagement, improve morale and increase loyalty; they also encourage employees to maintain productivity in spite of difficult circumstances:

  • There are a number of volunteer and charity organisations that actively seek organisations to provide them with a day of support.  This type of team building effort can enhance your organisation’s corporate responsibility efforts, provide an opportunity for employees to work together to achieve something productive and give employees a different perspective -  often leading to small but effective changes in the workplace.

It is important to include both management and staff in these activities to truly build a sense of team spirit – otherwise the shared sense of working towards the same goal will not be achieved.

  • If getting out of the office is difficult for your employees, there are internal team building exercises that can deliver similar results.  Consider involving employees in group meetings to brainstorm ideas – for example on how the organisation could cut costs, or improve processes.

One service sector organisation asked their teams to consider “if you could change one thing that would make you more effective today, what would it be?”  Their ideas were discussed each Monday morning at the team briefing, and eventually led to significant cost savings for the organisation. 

  • Be creative about team based activities – just getting employees talking can be a great start, and activities don’t have to be work-oriented.  Team sports or Thai Chi sessions could work well for your organisation.

An engineering organisation decided to hold afternoon tea every Friday – aiming to bring staff together. This informal get-together turned into the most valuable meeting of the week as staff - spurred on by tea and cakes - brainstormed solutions, shared key issues and agreed on how to meet next week’s challenges.

Not all of these ideas will work for your organisation, so it is important to pick activities that fit your culture, values and policy framework.  Although team building is often one of the first things to be scrutinised in a challenging economic climate, we believe that the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term resource requirements, particularly where lower-cost options can be explored.


We believe that in times of recession it is even more important to engage your employees.  While all organisations are likely to be focusing on cost control, there are a number of low cost methods of enhancing morale and maintaining productivity, which can be used to successfully navigate through these difficult times.

 Bettina Pickering is a Managing Consultant and Amy Finn is a Principal Consultant with PA Consulting Group's People and Organisational Change practice.

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