Employee engagement in tough times

Oct 07 2009 by Marcia Xenitelis Print This Article

One of the things that continues to surprise me is that when times are bad, organizations still spend money on employee engagement surveys. What are they expecting these surveys to tell them? You only need to walk around the office or factory and listen into some tea room discussions to find out that employees are not engaged because they are worried about their jobs.

This leads us to two major issues to consider during tough times. The first is how we inspire confidence and innovation in an organization that appears to be in freeze mode. The second is what you should measure as an indicator of employee engagement.

Let's deal with inspiring confidence and innovation in your organization. This boils down to a change management strategy that focuses on getting employees actively involved at all levels in understanding the business and how their ideas can have a positive impact. Here's an example of what you could do.

  1. Take real business data and share it with groups of employees at all levels that deal with customers in specific sectors.
  2. Ask employees for ideas on improving or innovating just one aspect of your service offering or product line and test in a specific market segment on a small scale, say a sales territory or state.
  3. Then after testing those ideas for a six week period ask employees to examine the business results.
  4. Take those ideas that have shown a substantial improvement in sales and implement either state wide or nationally depending on your organization.
  5. Design a reward and recognition program around the impact of these ideas on the business outcomes and start to energise your workforce.

It really is that simple. Treat employees with respect, stop telling them what to do, listen to what they have to say, put some rigor around the framework for ideas and reward outstanding results. This is how innovation happens and how you can energise an organization to respond quickly to changing market conditions.

Another key is to ensure that whatever change management strategy you design it has specific activities and responsibilities for management. Often we forget that managers are just as concerned during tough times about their job security, but their team members are looking at them for direction and support.

So when we design change strategies, ensure that there are key responsibilities and clearly defined activities for all levels of the organization. But practically what does this mean with our example above? Well you would design specific activities such as;

  1. Managers would identify the real business data and share it with their teamsBR/>
  2. Managers would be responsible for selecting which ideas would be selected for testing in a specific market and they would decide which test market
  3. Managers would obtain the business results at the end of the six week test period and organise briefings with their teams
  4. The hierarchy of managers would then decide which tests produced the best result and decide which to implement and project plan that implementation
  5. Together with human resources the management team would decide on a reward and recognition program and share it with their teams.

So what about employee engagement surveys? I say save your organization the tens of thousands of dollars they cost and invest your time in a well thought out change management strategy like that outlined above. This will ensure a climate where communication is open, ideas are valued and actions are implemented.

All these steps are indicative of a workforce that is focussed, has purpose and feels a greater level of confidence about the future of their organization and therefore their role because they are actively involved in designing the future, not being told what do and when to do it.

If you just change the script from "budget cuts, budget cuts and budget cuts" to "opportunities, growth and involvement", your organization's business results will be your barometer of employee engagement - no survey required.


About The Author

Marcia Xenitelis
Marcia Xenitelis

Marcia Xenitelis experience in the field of employee communication spans 20 years. An international public speaker on the subject, the manuals she has written have been purchased worldwide by Fortune 500 companies, universities and over a thousand companies in her native Australia.

Older Comments


At our organization we decided to reduce costs during this tough time by canceling our annual employee engagement survey. Our organization uses one of the popular employee engagement vendors, and by not using this pricey survey this time around we were able to save a quite a few jobs. During this time, I actually found open communication about department improvements to be more helpful than the survey results. I found more employees offering suggestions through e-mail or stopping by my office, than I ever had on a survey. I believe that the ideas you have posted for promoting engagement are able to open the lines of communication far better than a pricey survey.

Thank you,


Kara Vickrey

A great article and one that we fully support. I am a strong believer in the phrase 'you don't fatten a pig by weighing it' It is about the day to day experience, recognition, support and trust that exists - and that is achieved through involving your people in the business not treating them like an uninformed resource. At eminternalcomms (em(ic)*) we encourage our clients to use techniques such as World Cafe and to support leaders to take a stance that says 'let me tell you want I want to achieve and why - you tell me the best way how'. It appears to work, we get great results (even when we don't pay thousands for measurement)! Keep up the great work.

Jonathon Scott Pall Mall, London

Well stated. How do you increase employee engagement? Communicate and recognize. Be accessible, address concerns openly, and recognize effort frequently and appropriately. There is much fodder for the rumor mill in most organizations today. Pre-empt the rumors by giving regular status updates. Say thank you. Let people know their efforts are valid, worthy, noticed and above all, appreciated.

Great recent research from Watson Wyatt on this available via the Globoblog. Just search communicate and recognize.

Derek Irvine, Globoforce Dublin, Ireland, and Boston, MA

For practical tools and exercises designed to inspire higher employee engagement, rapidly and cost effectively, readers might like to visit:


Thank you.