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03/11/10 Making it Personal

A BBC news report last week announced that the economic downturn has led levels of work-related stress in the UK to soar, and that those who kept jobs during the recession are affected as much as those left jobless.

The report mentions alarming statistics, in each of the last two years, work stress levels have risen by more than 4%, compared to annual rises between 0.1% and 1% from 1992 to 2009.  You can read more of the BBC report here, and whilst I could talk about the fear level, I would rather write about the small steps we can make to ensure employees are not feeling the burden of work on their shoulders and are therefore able to be productive, creative and a valuable asset to your workforce in difficult times.

How well your managers are trained in people skills could have a dramatic effect on the resilience of your team and determine the productivity and bottom line profit of your company.  Alas, as training budgets are squeezed, so too is development of our key people, if we can convince the board that recognising, understanding and dealing with the signs of stress in employees is likely to keep our ships afloat, and make it a happier place to be, we will make for a smoother ride.  Our head of training describes this as ‘learning to dance on the shifting carpet’ rather than feeling it is being pulled from under us.

Managers can make a big difference when communicating by simply shifting to a more personalized approach.  If employees at all levels feel they are being able to contribute to the success of the company, they will feel empowered and more willing to pull together and be positive.  Here are some tips for effective communication:

Avoiding the rumour bug It can lead to low morale and decreased productivity.  Gatherings around the drinks machine and in the toilets can be avoided if line managers recognise they have an opportunity to enhance relationships with their employees by connecting with them on a much more personal level. Traditionally, line managers play a major role in employee engagement.  In a recession, workers rely even more heavily on them for interpretation and support.  Having accessible and visible leaders is critical to maintaining trust among employees. By proactively communicating accurate information, managers can curtail rumours and instil confidence in the truth.  Common modes of communication such as newsletters, mass e-mails, intranet and videos can seem impersonal and impassive, particularly at a time when there is a real possibility that co-workers will lose their jobs, so creating open lines of communication, and providing Managers with the skill to do this are key.

Inform Ensure all Directors and Line managers are equipped with accurate information that they are able to communicate down the line, to both teams and individuals if there is excessive worry, having the picture from your manager helps to curtail the ‘what if’ scenarios we can play out in our heads, even though it is perfectly okay to assume the plan may change, as long as this is communicated, the trust will be kept.   This can highlight the soft skills gap in some members of a leadership team, and this should be addressed with training, how to communicate the restructuring and downsizing, as it can be a big source of stress for many individuals.  The Management team would benefit from further training and facilitation, in the months following the announcements and restructuring, to develop ideas to further boost morale and keep the company on track and increasing profit, The Six Thinking Hats, Creativity and Facilitation can be invaluable here.

Honesty is the best policy Creating a sense of honesty, even when the news is not easy to hear, or communicate, helps everyone feel informed and engaged.  With the correct skill set, Managers are prepared to have difficult conversations with their employees and seniors, and whilst they may not always have the answers, having a clear sense of the business strategy going forward can help everyone understand the process, and in an office with open communication and ideas from the ground up, contribute to ideas to make the company more successful.  Enlist a suggestion box for all members of staff, this will encourage honesty, and give a true picture of the wellbeing of your employees.

Create appropriate channels Assessing modes of communication for effectiveness is always important, even more so in diffiult times.  Shift from broadcast communication to personalized communication, a model that has the advantage of being less costly.  Instead of creating new videos, plan a series of team meetings.  Rather than holding large conferences, schedule interactive workshops and enlist the assistance of a trained facilitator to ensure everyone is heard and the quiet personalities with great ideas can get themselves expressed to!

Forward vision In the months following announcements, leadership teams can be encouraged to update managers every month on changes to create a feeling of momentum. Well run meetings can also provide an opportunity for employees to ask questions and discuss personal implications. By setting up rapid clear well defined lines of communication and cultivating a positive work environment you can maintain the trust of the employees, and enjoy dancing on the shifting carpet.

Shifting Carpet