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After the Layoff: How to Keep Employees Engaged

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While most communicators have turned their attention to helping employees return to the workplace safely, there are many who are also dealing with one of the economic impacts of the pandemic: layoffs.

Communication planning for a layoff is a complicated, heart-wrenching effort. When you finally reach announcement day, you’ll likely feel a sense of relief. But there’s still work to do. What happens with the employees who remain? How can we help them manage through the aftermath?

While we often anticipate declines in morale after a layoff, we also have to plan for hits to productivity and retention. This may include:

  • Survivor guilt. You may associate survivor guilt with disasters, but it also applies to layoffs. Perhaps you’ve heard an employee say, “Why my colleague and not me?” Mark Murphy, a senior contributor at Fortune, completed research with employees who remain after a layoff. He found that the guilt and stress following a layoff impacted productivity: 74% believed their productivity dropped and 69% saw a decline in the quality of their organization’s product or service.
  • Disrupted social networks. Before a layoff, employees have established patterns and methods to help them get their work done. After a layoff, many of those networks are gone or broken — another hit to productivity.
  • Voluntary turnover. Working through two years of data, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found a relationship between layoffs and an increase in voluntary departures. Even with a small 1% decrease in the workforce, the researchers saw a 31% increase in employees leaving their jobs voluntarily. A layoff is such a critical moment that it causes employees to stop and consider, “Is this the organization I want to be part of?”

There’s no doubt that layoffs are distracting. Those who remain worry about their jobs and how work will get done now that there are fewer people. The communication that follows needs to rebuild employees’ trust with the organization.

Include these eight post-layoff strategies in your communication plan to keep remaining employees engaged and productive:

1. Fill the immediate information gap. The moment after a layoff is critical. Many questions need to be answered — quickly. Communication during the first few days about the new organization will send an important signal about how the change will be handled. Focus on helping employees understand who left the organization, the impact on teams or departments, and how or when operational issues will be figured out. Provide a high-level timeline covering what’s next.

2. Help employees say goodbye. A recent layoff project reminded me about the importance of closure — especially during these topsy-turvy days of the pandemic. Employees wanted a way to say goodbye. In this case, an internal social page was created to help employees connect. While participation was voluntary, many employees jumped at the opportunity to celebrate their colleagues.

3. Put leaders front and center. Don’t let leaders hide behind closed doors while they figure things out. Keep leaders visible by asking them to focus on the vision, how priorities have changed and new organizational structures. Coach them to play two key roles:

  • Help employees focus. Sharing clear goals, and the plan to achieve them, will help employees prioritize their work.
  • Encourage new ways of working. Employees often want permission to change things, and leaders are in a unique position to help. Encourage leaders to reinvent processes and eliminate activities that aren’t important. Is there a meeting everyone dread.

4. Increase contact with managers. Managers play a pivotal role in ensuring employees remain productive despite the upheaval of a layoff. Your first step: Prepare managers to explain how the changes impact everyday work. Managers will likely need time with their leaders to work out these details. Then coach managers about increasing their interactions, for example:

  • Practice active listening. What are your team members concerned about?
  • Use open-door policies to encourage conversations and problem solving.
  • Ask for feedback about changes.

5. Involve employees in solutions. With fewer resources, groups and teams need to figure out how to get work done. Involve employees in developing solutions. For example, host a workshop to identify challenges, then facilitate follow-up sessions with teams that solve those challenges.

6. Highlight HR practices. While the visibility of leaders and interactions with managers will go a long way to rebuilding trust in the organization, you have another tool: HR programs. Remind employees about the benefits they value, from child care to flextime. And emphasize how the organization works hard to be fair and ethical, such as a complaint process, compliance initiatives and confidential problem solving.

7. Report on progress. Employees need to understand that the layoff is having its intended effect. Share results and be honest about where the organization is getting stuck.

8. Measure. There’s evidence that says when you measure during a change, engagement is higher. Asking signals you care. Use spot surveys and focus groups to ask employees how they’re doing and for their feedback.

Through timely and ongoing communication, supported by leadership and empowered by employee participation, organizations can better manage and navigate through the effects of layoffs.

David Pitre

David Pitre leads Davis & Company’s consulting team, which provides clients with support in employee communication and change management. Since joining the firm in 2005, David has helped leading organizations—such as BlackRock, Dun & Bradstreet, New York Public Library, PepsiCo and The Rockefeller Foundation—reach, engage and motivate their employees. As the firm’s measurement practice leader, he developed Davis & Company’s communication effectiveness model that helps clients demonstrate the value of their work. An experienced speaker on communication issues, David has conducted workshops for The Conference Board, the International Association of Business Communicators, Society for Human Resource Management and the Institute of Communications and Advertising.

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