Invest in Your Staff

Saturday, August 1, 2009 - 09:30

Investing in your staff during hard times is a recipe for success. By Karalyn Brown 

If the economic downturn has taught RedBalloon CEO Naomi Simson one thing, it is that there is a direct correlation between an engaged workforce and the profitability of an organisation. She has put this into practice herself.

As the head of Australia and New Zealand's leading online gift store, Simson says one of the keys to keeping your team motivated throughout a financial crisis is to invest in them. At the heart of this philosophy within her organisation is the 'lunch and learn program', which sees employees hear from interesting commentators ranging from forensic policemen through to movie scriptwriters.

"We bring in speakers every so often and they share their story," Simson says. "These people view the world in a different way and have had different experiences and, therefore, give our people a new insight. It extends them."

Underpinning the success of the program is a sense of management giving something back to the team.

"It's not about what you can get from staff," according to Simson. "It's also about what you can give as an employer."

As the effects of the economic downturn hit the bottom line, many employers may baulk at allocating more money for workers, given that it is hard to measure motivation as a business metric.

However, Simson says it must be a priority if managers want to retain their elite talent.

"At the moment we're in the circumstance where organisations almost think they shouldn't invest in their people because they've had to let some go. Well, the people who are left behind will remember that."

They're worth it
How quickly markets can change. A year ago, generation Y workers were flitting from job to job and many industries were complaining about a skills shortage. Now managers are faced with the prospect of reassuring and motivating staff, many of whom live in fear of being retrenched.

Investing in staff need not be a costly exercise, according to Terry Hawkins, founder of People In Progress, who has trained more than 100,000 people in the business sector in her role as a presenter on human performance. She says managers can encourage others simply by projecting a positive attitude.

"Great leaders and managers make it exciting and challenging and they wear the brunt of the fear," Hawkins says.

Two-way communication with employees is also crucial, according to Hawkins.

"People want to improve and they want feedback. Being able to give them that feedback is a powerful way of challenging people and helping them to develop."

Managers, too, should not be afraid to ask their workers for assistance or advice.

"(Showing such) vulnerability is a powerful leverage with staff," Hawkins says.

With corporate researcher IBIS World forecasting that half-a-million Australians will lose their jobs by July next year as businesses try to combat the recession, Hawkins urges managers to be up-front with employees and equip them with coping strategies. For example, she was called in last year to make presentations on managing personal change to local government employees before a council amalgamation process that ultimately led to restructuring and some job cuts.

"Have the guts to tell them the way it is and then give them the strategies of how to cope... You've got to manage the fallout and not brush it under the carpet."

A team effort
A range of other strategies can help boost staff morale. Providing additional training opportunities for career development is a proven winner, especially during a downturn when some workers may be idle. Incentives, financial or otherwise, for salespeople can provide a win-win scenario whereby both the individual and business can benefit.

Anne Barclay, a Director at business performance consultancy HR Advantage, says it is important to keep workers engaged as part of a planned and proactive process. An emphasis on building or rebuilding strong teams is one way to capture the minds of workers who may have seen some of their colleagues depart the company because of the downturn.

"Change is very derailing for everyone involved… and teams can fragment under those circumstances if there isn't somebody paying attention to morale, someone helping to focus the team and make sure they're still focused on the outcomes they need to achieve."

Conveying positive messages about the business can also act as a circuit-breaker against the constant doom and gloom of a recession, according to Barclay.

"You want to put forward messages around (the theme of) 'we're in tough times but we're making decisions about the long-term viability of the company and we're looking to the future," she says. "People can focus on that and not get too distracted by the other things that are going on."

While setting challenges for employees is important, Barclay warns against setting the bar too high.

"It's very demotivating to feel you've been set goals or challenges that you can't possibly meet. That spirals motivation down."

At RedBalloon, Naomi Simson believes it is up to management to nurture employees and maximise their personal and business development. By helping staff and meeting their needs, the business ultimately wins, too.

"Remember, if you make a contribution to people they are usually pretty willing to contribute back," she says. "There has never been a better time to invest in your people."