How to engage employees in the face of economic downturn

Kim Strachan, People Director, explains how companies can have employees’ backs when times are tough: listen, reward and think long term.


The cost of living crisis and economic turbulence has impacted many employees with inflation and prices rising quicker than salaries can keep pace with; their focus has shifted to simply paying the bills.

Employee engagement is key for a business in any climate. In a recession, however, it is imperative to act as an antidote to the difficult external conditions your business is operating within.

Engagement is often used to paper over the cracks that exist within an organization, or worse: as an alternative to paying employees a fair and competitive salary. However, engagement needs to be more than just an initiative. It needs to be authentic and a strategic part of enabling a business to progress and become the type of company it aspires to be.

If done well, a strategic approach to employee engagement helps build long-lasting relationships with employees built on trust and respect. By making employees part of the organization, businesses can create a resilient company culture, ensuring they bounce back quicker and better once economic conditions have improved.

So: how can a business create a happy, engaged, motivated and productive workforce when its resources are limited and employee job security feels threatened?


Continuous listening

An engagement survey issued every six to 12 months is a waste of financial resources at a time when all investments need to be considered. Continuous listening through frequent pulse surveys will provide timely, accurate data along with qualitative feedback which will enable you to establish patterns in feedback and provide a tailored response. Give employees a voice, involve them in the solution, and allow them to shape and lead initiatives.

This should be coupled with frequent and clear feedback, especially in an economic downturn where employee worry is at a peak. Businesses should avoid dissatisfaction by managing expectations and balancing optimism with a realistic view of what is ahead. This should be accompanied by a leadership team who are present, visible and accessible and who want to build open and authentic relationships with employees.


Create meaningful work

Create meaningful work for employees by being truly values-driven, providing a link between your business and a wider purpose, and demonstrating through the business decisions you make daily.

During an economic downturn, employees are less likely to collaborate and work to help colleagues; businesses should provide opportunities for employees to connect and work on other creative projects to generate new ideas, innovate and build bonds with each other while inspiring and motivating them to do their best work.


Reward and recognize

Show appreciation for great work both verbally and through reward programs of all shapes and sizes. Often low-cost rewards (necessary in a downturn) can be equally as effective for boosting morale and motivation. Awards, peer-to-peer recognition programs, and thank yous from senior leaders can have a great effect on employees, as can opportunities for team-focused initiatives, duvet days, or time back.


Look to the future

An economic downturn is an opportunity to invest in employee personal and professional growth, through learning and development initiatives. Investing in employees’ careers during this time demonstrates that you care about their development, whilst signalling that you want to retain them for a long period of time. This will enable you to bounce back from a downturn quicker and with a more engaged and loyal employee community as a result.


Wellbeing and flexibility

Since the pandemic, 53% of employees now prioritize their health and well-being over their work. Whilst benefit schemes containing employee assistance programs, PMI and family policies are key, they can also be costly.

An authentic approach to employee wellbeing requires policies that support employees to be healthy and initiatives that engage employees, such as fun team building and work in the community, to bring teams together. Materials that employees can access for self-driven learning on personal wellbeing, mental health and financial management encourage a culture with employee wellbeing should be at its heart.

An approach to flexibility that is focused not just on remote or hybrid working but on how people work and the level of autonomy they have supports this. A well-defined method to set and track objectives enables businesses and leaders to focus on outcomes not face time, allowing more flexibility to the way people work with no impact on productivity.

Attracting and retaining the right talent continues to be the biggest challenge faced by businesses, regardless of economic conditions. Taking a considered and authentic approach to creating happy, motivated and engaged employees can support your business through a downturn, creating a business ready to bounce back at speed.


As featured in The Drum