Broken Engagement

By John Hollon

Sep. 18, 2009

Now that Labor Day has passed and the summer is gone, it’s time for an annual fall tradition to begin.

Football? No, although that’s starting too. The fall tradition I’m talking about is one that every business and organization is hunkered down with and fretting over right about now—planning the budget for the coming year. Some started this process long ago, while others are just getting into it now. One company I worked for used to start budgeting for the next year in June—yes, June—and this led to six months of torture. We prepared, adjusted and ultimately changed the budgets over and over again as different levels of corporate executives got involved and put their stamp on things.

But no matter when you start the budgeting process, at the heart of it is forecasting and planning for what you believe will happen to you and your business in the year to come. And what most organizations are forecasting is that 2010 will be largely the same as 2009.

Don’t get me wrong. Businesses desperately want 2010 to be better than 2009, and it probably will be. But no one is willing to stick their neck out and make a big bet that any kind of dramatic improvement is going to take place. So what will it take for us to get out of this economic morass we’re in? Here’s a simple answer that is frighteningly obvious: Invest in your workforce and make it a point to help them to feel more hopeful and confident that things are going to get better next year.

This doesn’t mean I’m advocating that organizations start spending a lot of money, although rolling back the pay freezes and furloughs would be a nice gesture. What I’m talking about is a concerted effort by managers to boost the sagging spirits of workers and help pull them out of the funk they’re in.

I’ve been writing about this a lot recently at my Business of Management blog because all I’m seeing right now is survey after survey showing that the morale of America’s workforce is at low ebb. For instance, the Workforce Institute at Kronos Inc. released a survey last month in which 66 percent of workers said that morale has suffered over the last year and that they are less motivated. Additionally, 64 percent said that there is just too much work and not enough people left to do it. In a similar survey by Adecco Group North America, 77 percent of workers were critical of their organization’s brain trust and weren’t satisfied with the strategy and vision of their company and its leadership.

“What workers are telling us,” says Bernadette Kenny, chief career officer at Adecco Group North America, “is that even during a recession, just having a job does not equate to job satisfaction. Employers need to be conscious of the concerns their staff is managing through on a daily basis and proactively come up with the appropriate solutions to improve retention and reduce the current and future high cost of turnover.”

Yes, all those who have managed to avoid becoming another unemployment statistic should be happy that they’re still working. But that’s not exactly a rallying cry for improving engagement in 2010. Smart managers, as Kenny correctly points out, need to be plugged in to what their staffs are going through and should be looking for solutions to help them get through it.

What is this going to take? I think it’s simpler than most managers think. The message from the workforce seems to be that they don’t know what’s going on until it has already happened, so more communication from the top would help. So would some sense of when the pay freezes and furloughs might end—even if that’s not right around the corner. And a greater recognition (and appreciation) of the sacrifices everyone is making would help build a sense that “We’re all going to get through this together.”

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Businesses everywhere need to truly engage workers and help them get past the bad feelings that so many have about their organizations and their jobs. With a possible economic recovery on the horizon, it is time for America’s business leaders to step up and start helping America’s workforce out of its funk. That’s the single most important thing that can be done to help plan for sustainable success in the new year.

Workforce Management, September 14, 2009, p. 42Subscribe Now!

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