Guest post by Jock Purtle
Transitions are a normal part of any business. Whether it’s a leadership change, a shift in strategy or even something more dramatic, such as the sale of the company, things change, and during these times, employees, whether remote or in-house, can often disconnect from their day-to-day responsibilities. It can be hard to stay focused when so much is up in the air.
But just because the business is going under a transition does not mean that the world stops spinning. There are things that need to be done every day to ensure the continued success of the company, and if employees are disengaged, this can be very difficult to do.
Yet, this disconnect is not inevitable. There are ways that you can help make this process smoother and more comfortable for your employees so that they stay focused on the task at hand and don’t get too caught up in the changes ahead. It will, of course, be impossible to completely push the transition to the side, but consider the following tips to help make it easier and to keep the business moving forward during uncertain times.
Four Ways to Keep Employees Engaged During Uncertain Times
1. Communicate early and often
As a part of management, a transition can mean a time of excitement. Perhaps a new leader is coming in who you feel will give the company a new boost, or perhaps you a merging with another company, making you an even bigger player in your industry.
For employees, though, these transitions often signal one thing: uncertainty. Their job security starts to become an issue as they begin to speculate right away what this change will mean for them. This type of self-centered thinking is totally natural—people need to look out for themselves—but it’s also an easy way for them to become disengaged, as they’ll be more concerned about their future than that of the company.
This represents quite a challenge for management, and the best way to deal with this is communication. By telling employees everything you know as soon as you know it, you will be helping to create a sense of unity. If you keep people in the dark, they’re only going to speculate, and speculation leads to rumors and more uncertainty.
A useful way to help reach employees is to set up a recurring meeting where you update them on what is going on. This might be once a week, or once every other, depending on your situation, but the important thing is to hold it no matter what. Even if there is really no news to report, taking the time to check in with people and let them know how things are going, and to ask them how they are dealing with the situation, reminds them that you are thinking about them and doing your best to keep them apprised of the situation.
2. Answer questions
As soon as you announce whatever transition you have planned, people are immediately going to have tons of questions. A good way to deal with this, and to subsequently respond to the uncertainty surrounding the transition, is to set up a formal way for people to submit questions.
But even more importantly is your commitment to answering them honestly. If you don’t know the answer to something, say so, but if you do, make sure to communicate clearly.
The most common question you will get is about layoffs. When people hear about transitions, they immediately think their job is in jeopardy. This is a tricky situation, as you don’t want to hurt anyone, but if it looks like there will be layoffs in certain departments, it is much better to be upfront about it. This way people can prepare themselves and won’t be blindsided by any decision.
You’ll also get a lot of questions about expenses. During a transition, many companies freeze expense accounts to give themselves time to figure stuff out. Make a plan for how you are going to deal with this and then communicate it to people. Again, clarity is key.
One thing you could do is have people submit questions anonymously which you then respond to during your weekly or bi-weekly meeting. The better you do at preventing people from asking their questions and getting them answered at the water cooler, the better. Again, even if you don’t know the answer, this is fine. It’s much better when people know you don’t know rather than them thinking you do and not telling them. This kind of secrecy and uncertainty is not healthy and will cause people to disengage quickly.
3. Lead by example
This is something you should be doing anyway, but it is of particular importance during a transition period. It’s probably a good idea to designate a specific transition team, rather than taking the lead yourself. The reason for this is that it gives you time to focus on your normal tasks.
If all of a sudden you disappear to begin working on the transition, people will follow suit and will disconnect from their jobs. However, if you maintain your normal routine, adding in meetings about the transition to keep yourself updated and to offer guidance, your employees will feel more connected and will likely do a better job of staying focused on their day-to-day activities.
Should you decide to designate a transition team, it would be a good idea to have a representative come to your update meetings so that people can ask them questions directly. Again, the goal here is to be as transparent and open as possible.
4. Don’t make promises you can’t keep
Don’t tell someone their job is safe unless you are 100 percent certain that it is. And don’t try too hard to soften the blow. If someone asks you if there are plans to make changes in the department, and there are, be honest with them.
The truth hurts sometimes, but it is far more helpful than talking around what is going on. Your responsibility is to reduce uncertainty. Even if an employee knows they may be on their way out, but they recognize and understand this, they are more likely to stay engaged. However, an employee that has no idea about their future will easily stray and become uncommitted to the company’s daily activities.
The way in which you manage your employees says a lot about you and your company. These people spend a lot of time and energy trying to make the company a success, so the least you can do is be upfront with them during times of uncertainty. They are professionals, and they understand the risk, but if you treat them with respect and dignity, and you do your best to reduce uncertainty, they will respond by staying connected and dedicated to the work they do on a daily basis.
About the author: Jock is the founder of Digital Exits, an online brokerage service that specializes in the buying/selling and appraisal of online businesses. He helps people sell their businesses, and therefore has witnessed many transitions. From this experience, he has learned first-hand the value of honesty and communication when dealing with employees. In his own businesses, he works hard to keep an open flow of communication with everyone in the company.