The prospect of economic uncertainty is on employees’ minds. Having weathered the pandemic, the “Great Resignation,” and the ongoing demands of the labor shortage, businesses must now be proactive in their employee engagement strategies and reassure employees about ongoing economic unpredictability. 

But how can companies improve morale when uncertainty is so high?

Produced in collaboration with HR Exchange Network, our new report, “How to Improve Employee Engagement in an Economic Downturn,” provides a clear answer. Drawing on responses from 470 human resources (HR) leaders, survey data shows that the main priority in 2023 for 21% of leaders is employee experience and engagement. Regardless of what economic changes come, an engaged workforce will be critical.

The main priority in 2023 for 21% of HR leaders is employee experience and engagement.

At Workday, we define employee engagement as the extent to which an employee feels connected to their work, their colleagues, and the wider business. If employees feel disconnected, all aspects of the company performance suffer. To that end, we’ve pulled three top-level insights from the report to support business leaders in promoting higher levels of engagement.

How to Improve Engagement During Economic Uncertainty

Ever since the onset of the global pandemic, analysts have been predicting a recession. Despite that, three years later our economic future remains unclear. In the third quarter of 2022, the United States experienced a small amount of gross domestic product (GDP) growth (2.9%) as opposed to consecutive losses. The usual markers of a recession are not playing out.

Many companies are still preparing for the worst, however. Over a fifth of the respondents said that the economic downturn and possible recession would have the greatest impact on HR in 2023. Similarly, the majority agree (31.49%) or strongly agree (7.87%) that their organization is preparing for a recession. 

Needless to say, those gathering storm clouds are causing anxiety and stress among employees. That same survey found that the three biggest challenges in keeping employees engaged were burnout (23.32%), blurring of work and personal life (19.53%), and leadership not engaging employees directly (16.33%). Tackling those concerns directly won’t only result in improved engagement, it will promote a more positive and fruitful culture moving forward. 

1. Personalize the Employee Experience

One of the major factors currently driving employee burnout is the level of uncertainty. There’s uncertainty around the state of the global economy, how the business is performing, and most pertinently, the role that an individual employee plays in the company’s ongoing success. If an employee sees themselves as another cog in a machine, they’re likely to be disengaged. That’s why personalization is essential.

23.32% of HR leaders said the biggest challenge in keeping employees engaged was burnout. 

Personalizing the employee experience doesn’t involve changing company policy every time someone makes a request. Instead, it’s about baking flexibility into your processes from the start, supporting your employees during moments that matter, and providing space for managers and their direct reports to communicate openly. If an employee can be honest about their changing needs and see action taken as a result, they’ll feel more engaged with the company as a whole.

2. Strengthen Your Company Values Through Transparency

The disconnect between employees and their leadership teams is a major factor driving disengagement. The reason is twofold. 

First, if your employees don’t have a good understanding of the direction the company is taking and the reasons driving those business decisions, then it’s hard for them to feel engaged in that process. Second, if they don’t feel that they play any part in supporting the direction the business is taking, engagement is impossible.

It’s easy to be transparent about positive decisions, such as bonuses or company benefit programs, but that same transparency has to extend to more sensitive decisions too, such as redundancies and return-to-office requirements. Directly addressing concerns, providing concrete answers and reasoning, and giving employees space to voice their reactions is imperative to maintaining company-wide engagement. 

3. Build Trust and Psychological Safety

By personalizing your employee’s processes and communicating honestly about business decisions, not only do you build engagement—you build trust. Maintaining employee trust requires businesses to foster employee wellbeing and psychological safety at every level of the company. That confidence and security will be foundational to businesses that succeed in the coming years. 

The disconnect between employees and their leadership teams is a major factor driving disengagement. 

The first step is keeping your employees informed of the employee wellbeing benefits you offer. Providing employee assistance programs only works if employees know how to access them. That same proactivity extends to ensuring your employees have clear parameters supporting a positive work-life balance. It doesn’t matter if managers think of company hours as 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. if employees regularly work until 7:00 p.m.

What’s most important, however, is ensuring that your employees have space to express themselves. An intelligent and continuous listening platform ensures that your employees can voice their concerns confidentially, promoting true psychological safety and creating a two-way dialogue between employees and managers. That level of trust is foundational for consistent and sustained engagement. 

For more insights into the business benefits of regularly surveying your employees and other ways to increase employee engagement, along with recommendations from key members of the Workday team, read the full report

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