Employees are being laid off. Departmental budgets are being cut. Revenue is down and costs are up. Is this the right time to be thinking about employee engagement? If you want to retain valuable employees, if you want to continue to be competitive, if you want to be positioned well for the eventual economic recovery, then the answer is a resounding “yes”…but it’s not easy.

Erin White in the article, How to Motivate Workers in Tough Times, addresses the fundamental question: “How do you keep employees focused, motivated and energetic when everything's lousy?” White interviewed Jim Harter from Gallup about the advice he would give managers regarding employee engagement. Harter argues that employee engagement is important in a bad economy because it makes employees resilient, which helps them get through tough times. Resilient employees have the flexibility to bounce back from bad news and immediately focus on ways to improve the business. Many of Harter's suggestions for increasing employee engagement are things a good manager would do anyway, such as clarifying expectations for employees, helping employees build relationships, giving recognition to employees.

Amal Aziz, CEO of MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, is another one who thinks that employee engagement should continue to be maintained in a downturn. He believes it is a competitive advantage. He said to BusinessWeek,

Employee engagement in times of difficulties and severe economic climate is far more profoundly important now. Employees are willing to give their all when they are well-treated, appreciated. And the ability to unlock that potential is a competitive distinction…It's their decisions, their actions, their attitude that really make the difference. Imagine taking 10,000 employees, and each and every one of them wanting to give more. That's really the difference between [us and] a company that has its employees just punching the clock and trying to get through the day.

However, CEO Aziz has had to balance his investment in employee engagement with cuts he has had to make due to decreasing revenue. Prior to the recession he surveyed his 10,000 employees and found a lack of communication was contributing to low engagement. In response, he implemented pre-shift meetings to get information to all employees. He also expanded MGM Grand University, involving employees in decisions about its programs, and then offering those programs to employees in all 17 properties of MGM MIRAGE, the parent company of MGM Grand. Aziz’s current problem is that he has to reduce expenses substantially which is affecting these employee engagement efforts. For example, he is doing the same employee appreciation events that he was doing before but he has cut event costs in half.

For additional suggestions on how to keep employees engaged in these difficult economic times, see The Workforce Institute’s blog “The Workforce Stimulus Plan”. Their suggestions fall within six categories: 1) leadership; 2) employee involvement; 3) communication; 4) rewards and incentives; 5) talent management and learning; and 6) creative ways to reduce operating expenses.

Out of this list, I think “communication” is the most important. Keep employees informed whether they request the information or not. In difficult economic times, it is more important than ever to push the information out and make sure that everyone in the organization hears the messages. Keeping open lines of communication is good, but don’t wait for questions and concerns; anticipate what employees want to know and get that information to them. And listen, listen, listen. Offer opportunities for individuals and small groups to express their worries and concerns even if there is nothing that can be said at the moment to allay their fears. Tell them what you know about the situation, acknowledge their strong feelings, and show respect for their views. This will go a long way toward building trust and increasing the level of employee engagement.