5 ways to keep employees productive before, during and after a layoff

5 ways to keep employees productive before, during and after a layoff

Worker productivity is easily impacted by outside factors – from stress levels and lack of sleep to the economic and political climate. While we, as HR leaders, can’t control what employees do on their own time or the external factors beyond our collective control, we can act to keep productivity high when we know a particular distracting event, like a layoff, may be on the horizon or when we’re in the midst of a challenge such as the current business disruption due to the coronavirus. So, what can employers do to maximize productivity?

When business leaders act with transparency, honesty and openness, their actions help mitigate potential productivity loss.

Here are five steps for keeping employees focused when a layoff is possible or definite, and ideas for actions you can take before and after a layoff occurs to set up your company for future success.

1: be transparent

Many organizations are doing everything they can to hold on to their employees during the pandemic – from furloughs and re-assigning employees to reducing work hours and instituting temporary pay cuts. Maintaining employer brand and minimizing the impacts of talent scarcity when the economy recovers are on the minds of many employers.

Layoffs are usually the last resort for companies, ideally occurring after a concerted effort to curb spending, cut costs in other ways and offer employees alternatives such as voluntary separation or early retirement. In many cases, employers have some time to honestly communicate the financial situation to employees before a layoff takes place, although the economic shockwaves released by the pandemic have shortened that window for some employers, especially small and medium-sized businesses.

Being transparent with employees about business conditions when a layoff is possible is essential. When people are left out of the conversation, they tend to make up their own reality and the rumor mill enabled by social media can undercut HR’s ability to direct the message, maintain calm and promote authenticity, which is so crucial at this time.

Signs that a company is having financial difficulty are easy to sense from within an organization. Any level of insecurity can lead to distraction. Instead of remaining focused on how help the company remain profitable, employees spend time thinking about possible consequences of a layoff and may even start looking for other work in anticipation of losing their jobs. All this worrying can lead to an immediate drop in productivity that may not rebound until up to a year after the actual layoff event takes place, and in the current economy, that rebound could take even longer.

As an HR leader, when you address the elephant in the room – the fact that the current situation is less than ideal – it gives employees the chance to act. If employees understand the company is struggling, they can do their part to reduce expenses. You’d be surprised how much money can be saved at the departmental level. Teams find creative ways to push spending out a few quarters or do more with less. Employees would much rather cut spending than see their colleagues, friends and themselves released from employment.

What’s more, efficacy can be empowering because it gives people a sense of control. Engaging employees in being part of the solution can actually improve the employee experience by helping them feel that they have collective and individual capacity to deliver value by finding ways to be more efficient. It’s especially important now for managers to listen to and consider the ideas their direct reports may have for increasing efficiency and generating new sources of revenue.

Redeploying employees, even temporarily to other roles, can help you address the dichotomy between a slowdown in one area of your business while there are shortages in other areas, and serves as a way to circumvent a layoff or reduce the number of employees affected by one. If there’s one truth borne out by the pandemic, it’s that employees have shown tremendous flexibility in adapting to new roles.

When business leaders take the initiative to communicate openly and honestly before a layoff becomes an unavoidable reality, employees can step up and focus on creating solutions within the company instead of worrying about finding other employment opportunities for themselves.

2: train managers to coach employees

As soon as cost-cutting measures are put into place, managers should receive resiliency training to prepare them to listen to their employees and offer appropriate support. The object of resiliency training is to teach managers how to acknowledge the change while providing relevant information without creating panic. These days, managers are under a tremendous amount of stress themselves and will also need guidance in how to best support their teams.

During this period, managers can play a vital role in encouraging employees to stay focused on what they can control, instead of what’s outside of their control. This subtle change of attitude increases productivity as employees learn to work on creative solutions and their own professional development instead of worrying about what may or may not come to pass in the future. Managers who are transparent and honest about the current business climate will earn the trust of their employees. The right training will prepare managers to be effective coaches for employees in the event of a layoff or involuntary job transition.

3: encourage thoughtful innovation

If you must let go of employees, immediately following a layoff, shift your focus from the business of downsizing to effectively creating a productive workplace that encourages thoughtful innovation. Particular positions may have been eliminated, but the workload hasn’t and may be higher, at least for awhile. Remaining employees and managers will need to find ways to modify processes and redistribute the workload. Involve everyone in the business of finding solutions and acknowledge the impact of the layoffs on teams, workloads, workflows and relationships. The same principle of efficacy applies.

You can get employees back on track by helping them set short-term goals and letting them know how their contributions will help the other members of their team. Taking steps toward accomplishment and being part of innovative solutions is good for a person’s emotional state and will do more to improve productivity than only discussing what employees can do for the company.

Encourage employees to continue pursuing their career development and skill-building as a way of aligning their career interests and passions with the evolving needs of the business. Digital transformation has accelerated as a result of what McKinsey refers to as the ‘distance economy.’ Organizations that succeed will need to have agile workforces whose skills can continually and rapidly evolve.

4: have a plan and communicate proactively

As Michelle Riklan wrote for Huffington Post, ‘layoff survivors are often not sure why they made it while their peers didn’t. Sure, they have an inkling; a good performance, a not-so-expensive paycheck and tenure come to mind. But these are nothing but speculations, and until you confirm them, layoff survivors will continue fearing for their future in the company.’

Management and HR must have a plan for reaching out to employees with one-on-one meetings designed to reiterate the messaging of the layoff. During these meetings, managers need to address why the layoffs occurred, remind employees that colleagues have been let go through no fault of their own, acknowledge how hard the situation is on surviving employees and assure employees that there are no more layoffs happening at this time. While these conversations should be reassuring, be careful not to make promises or predictions that may not come to pass. Be honest and kind, but don’t sugarcoat the message. Developing trust is the number one goal at this time.

It’s also essential for managers and HR professionals to remind employees of their importance. People want to know their value, and are inspired and motivated when it’s clear that the work they’re doing is meaningful. HR should have resources in place for employee’s who find the changes particularly challenging. An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a great solution, especially when communicated in a way that helps people understand the confidential nature of the resource. It’s also important to help employees understand what an EAP can do for them – including general counseling, assistance with work/life issues, financial planning conversation and other resources.

Before, during and after a layoff, communicate, communicate, communicate. It’s not enough to have an ’open door’ policy because some employees might not feel comfortable approaching management when a layoff has just occurred. Just because people are silent, doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about the impact of the layoffs or worrying about their own future. In the absence of communication, people will make up their own reality – and that reality is rarely positive. Failing to maintain a dialogue in a timely fashion, or avoiding sharing pertinent details with employees, will derail attempts at a return to normalcy and productivity.

While organizations and managers may want to just move on from a layoff, many employees won’t be ready to put it behind them immediately. This is the time for a proactive approach to employee communication. At a time when so many of us are working remotely, keeping lines of communication open is challenging. Encourage members of management to resist the temptation to isolate themselves.

As part of resiliency training, managers and HR leaders should be directed to remain visible by holding ‘open office’ hours remotely, making themselves available for virtual water-cooler chats and meeting with individual teams – even if via video – to find out how they are doing. Some employees who may be hesitant to speak up in a video meeting might be more comfortable discussing their concerns virtually one-on-one or in small group setting with their manager present.

Whatever your approach, keep in mind that the goal is to listen to employees, show genuine interest in their mental state and look for those people who don’t seem to be as productive or positive as before. Talk to them about what they like about their job and help them to find ways to show some immediate wins. Bear in mind that they may be dealing with additional stresses outside of work.

5: benchmark your progress three months out

Immediately following a reduction in force or a restructuring event, organizations often focus on minimizing the damage to culture and productivity. Although many companies are still experiencing the effects of a reduction in force for more than six months, most don’t have long-term programs in place to address the influence of the layoffs on productivity and employee satisfaction.

Before layoffs occur, plan to revisit employee concerns at the 90-day mark. Consider additional resiliency training for managers and employees. Schedule one-on-one meetings between managers and their team members to check the temperature of employee sentiment and assess who needs additional support. Many impacted employees may still be looking for work and the sting of the increased workload is still being felt by the survivors.

The three-month mark might be a good time to schedule an all-hands meeting to discuss the state of the company and plans for improved financial success. A town-hall style meeting is a good forum to answer questions from employees and to provide transparency into company business plans where appropriate.

Follow-up on whole-company meetings with department meetings to discuss how the contributions of individual departments tie-in to corporate goals and schedule individual meetings with team members to discuss how their efforts affect the success of the team.

The days, weeks and months before and after a layoff are often an emotionally challenging time for everyone at a company. Having a plan and taking specific actions can help mitigate the loss of productivity and instill an increased level of trust for those employees who remain. Open and honest communication creates a more positive environment that encourages employees by demonstrating appreciation for their contributions, providing transparency into the business climate and encouraging personal growth.