Rules of Engagement: Doing More with Less

The current economic recession has imposed strict limitations and a renewed sense of accountability on companies in nearly every business sector. Apartment industry leaders are striving to achieve their targets even though their resources have been reduced. This new fiscal discipline has impacts across the company, but employment-related budget items can be hit particularly hard. From a human capital perspective, how can an apartment firm do more with less? Employee engagementWhen it comes to the difficult, but sometimes inevitable, decision to freeze salaries, trim benefits or even reduce staff, top executives and front-line managers can lessen the potential damage by keeping basic “employee engagement” principles in mind: to be fully motivated, every staff member must be committed to the company and understand his or her role in achieving corporate success. “Engagement drivers” can also help an employer manage more widespread dissatisfaction that can lead to vulnerability in other ways, such as unionization. Though the apartment industry has not been a traditional union target, the Employee Free Choice Act that was recently introduced in Congress—if it passes—could boost union activities across industries, including our own. Some experts say that employees do not vote for a union so much as they vote against a manager that they see as uncaring or unresponsive. Thus, loyal and engaged employees may be less willing to consider union overtures than employees who are underappreciated.Creative rewardsGiven the challenging economic environment we face today, many employees are thankful to have their jobs. Employees may be more understanding about compensation reductions and additional responsibilities during tough economic times, but the last thing any business can afford to do is to take loyalty for granted. Now more than ever, top performers should be recognized and rewarded—or managers should prepare to do without them. A failure to reward standout employees will not only compromise productivity now; it will also pave the way for employee turnover, especially when the economy improves and more opportunities surface for these “stars.” It goes without saying that recognizing an employee’s contributions can be a challenge when resources are scarce. But best practices suggest that employee rewards for your highest performers should be one of the last budget items to be eliminated. It makes good sense to provide whatever rewards are possible, rather than eliminate them completely, especially when it comes to staff members who are key to the organization’s success now and in the future. Lower budgets for merit increases and bonuses can spur less traditional, but more creative, approaches. For example, a personal thank you from the company’s leaders can do wonders even for high-level, tenured staff.Communication is important beyond showing appreciation. Honest and timely communications about the company’s plans and financial health go a long way toward inspiring the trust and engagement that are essential to loyalty and productivity. Employees need to know that decisions being made are strategic, not just tactical short-term reactions that may betray the company’s core goals and values. Thus, regular messages from organizational leaders are important. And to increase employee engagement, these messages should invite feedback. The apartment industry, because of its decentralized structure as well as the need to address both on-site and corporate employees, requires its leaders to use various messaging formats. Informal meetings, small gatherings, conference calls, and e-mails that target both individual team members and the entire company reinforce the message that your firm values and respects its employees.Thoughtfully developed communications can help employees understand—and even accept—tough messages. Any communication that announces, for example, a salary freeze or bonus elimination should include the reasons behind the decision. This can diffuse anxiety and enlist support for the change. The timing of the message can be as important as the information it provides. It is possible to overdo “doomsday” messages and to announce cuts too far in advance. Be as consistent as you can in your communications. For example, you can compromise trust—and therefore employee engagement and productivity—if you announce numerous cuts as well as new expenditures that seem to conflict with your overall tone of frugality.Paying attention to employee engagement and morale has never been more important. Because an engaged team makes real contributions to the bottom line, building and protecting the loyalty that inspires employees to go the extra mile may protect your company during these difficult times and help it to prosper during the good times that are on the way. Betsy Feigin Befus is vice president, employment policy & counsel for the National Multi Housing Council in Washington, D.C.