Financial support and resources available for businesses impacted by COVID-19.

Support for businesses impacted by COVID-19.

How to keep your employees during rough times

Read time: 5 minutes


Many employers view layoffs as an unpleasant, yet inevitable consequence of difficult economic times. But that’s not always the case. A little bit of creative thinking could allow you to stave off cutbacks and quickly pick up the pace once the economy recovers.

And what’s the best way to find those creative ideas?


Talk to your employees

"Nobody is smarter and more observant at seeing the real nitty gritty of a company than its employees" says Mary Karamanos, Senior Vice President, Human Resources at BDC. "They often have creative ideas on how to reduce costs, boost efficiencies, improve sales and marketing and identify new markets for your products and services."

There are two advantages to this approach. First, people are more than ever willing to contribute during times of crisis. Second, employees are more likely to embrace change if they're consulted beforehand. Unilaterally cutting benefits or working hours, for example, will do nothing to boost staff confidence and loyalty in your firm.

Instead, ask your employees what they think and how they want to help. Some may be interested in shorter work weeks for a few months or a partial paid leave to travel, volunteer, go back to school or care for an ailing parent.

"For this to work though, you need to tell employees how much you appreciate them doing this, and how this benefits both them and the organization," says Iain Morris, a partner with Mercer's human capital business. "You also have to stress they will have a job to come back to. Or if they agree to work 10% less hours over six months, that afterward you won't force them to continue at that reduced work level."

Give people a sense of control

Experienced entrepreneurs have learned that keeping an open and honest line of communication with employees will go a long way in helping companies weather economic storms.

At professional services firm Deloitte, for example, a blog has been created where employees can post ideas on how to improve productivity and effectiveness. Kathy Parker, a partner at the firm, says people tend to respond best when they feel they have a sense of control over their destiny.

"It's also a great way to unleash their creativity" she adds.

Whether you have a blog or not, Parker says, it's still important to have regular one-on-one meetings with your team to keep abreast of front-line activities.

"Efforts to create frequent, consistent and concise communications are never beyond the means of a firm of any size," says Parker. "It is particularly important to keep your high potential talent engaged at a time when it might be very easy for them to feel uneasy or uncertain about the company's stability."

Don't take away the coffee!

Having motivated employees is essential for any company looking to increase efficiency and boost productivity. This can be a particular challenge when people are worried about job security, paying for their children's education and saving for retirement.

Morris stresses the importance of being clear and realistic on the company's direction and expectations for the future and what actions your organization is taking to get there.

"If people don't know what the heck is going on, then you get the deer-in-the-headlights behaviour" he says. "But if you're clear about your expectations and set interim goals that are realistically achievable, then your employees will have something to strive for. It becomes very motivating."

Brian Lindenberg, a senior partner with Mercer in Calgary, cautions that companies should also avoid doing away with small perks to save small amounts of money. Cutting out free coffee, for example, may save the company a few bucks each month, but employers will pay an even higher price in lower morale.

Another misstep employers should avoid is expecting other workers to pick up the slack when layoffs do occur, Lindberg says.

"It's essential that you either stop doing this work, or improve the work processes so it can be done more efficiently," Lindenberg says. "If you simply load up your staff with 10% more work for the same pay, you will end up with staff who are less productive and far more stressed."