No leaders or employees want to hear terms like furloughs, layoffs, downsizing, and rationalization. Unfortunately, the economic tumult of COVID-19 has forced those words into the conversation as organizations grapple with painful decisions about temporary or permanent staff reductions. 

What comes next can prove an unexpected challenge: how do you support teams and their employee engagement in the difficult aftermath? How do you help people re-energize and focus on a new course to a brighter future?

Compassion, empathy, and the 4 habits for navigating organizational change

If you’re a leader guiding people through this tough chapter, you’re likely drawing on your deepest reserves of compassion and empathy. As your organization recovers, you’ll want to continue investing energy to understand how employees are feeling. The good news is that four simple habits can help navigate difficult transitions, provide much-needed support for employees, and lay the groundwork for better times ahead. 

The ultimate goal? An organization with strong employee engagement—where people can bring their best selves to work and do their best work. 

Habit 1: Get feedback and insights

Gathering employee feedback is an important part of a modern, people-centric work culture. It’s even more critical if your organization is actively recovering after furloughs or layoffs. 

Fortunately, employee surveys needn’t be laborious and time-consuming to produce meaningful insights. Surveys help leaders and managers take the most effective steps to reinforce trust and engagement. They also help employees feel that they have an important voice in shaping their work and organizational culture.

While no two work cultures are the same, a few fundamental questions tend to have universal utility for understanding employee engagement after layoffs or furloughs. To make the survey easy on everyone, choose questions that can easily be rated on a five-point scale, with 1 being “Strongly Disagree” and 5 being “Strongly Agree,” such as:

  • I have the resources I need to do my job well
  • I feel a sense of belonging at my organization

It’s also smart for the survey to include a field for free-form comments. A good employee engagement survey platform with artificial intelligence can enable tens of thousands of comments to be quickly summarized and categorized into actionable insights. This helps leaders understand pain points and opportunities.

You might wonder: who in your organization should see the survey results? The best answer is all leaders and managers. This allows people-centric organizations to respond to survey insights in more localized ways, addressing what matters most to people by geography, function, personal circumstances, and other variables. 

It’s worth noting that managers matter a great deal. They can use survey insights to inform conversations with their team members and create action plans that truly empower individual employees.

Habit 2: Have conversations

Active communication with teams and in one-on-one chats is the best way to build on Habit 1. Conversations build trust; ensure effective prioritization of work and goals; reveal roadblocks; uncover resource needs; and prompt ongoing action. 

After the sweeping changes of furloughs or layoffs, it’s natural for people to feel heightened anxiety, uncertainty, and a loss of control. Conversations during these times should reinforce your organization’s framework for stability. Talking about values and culture can help reinforce predictability and resilience

But good conversations don’t need to be overworked or labored. It’s often as simple as sharing and listening. A team chat or an individual check-in can start with simple questions, such as: 

  • How are you doing with everything that has been going on?
  • What’s one thing we can do to make things easier for you?

One last note: what you do after a conversation is just as important as the conversation itself. Try to identify at least one action you can take before your next conversation. It could even be something small like adding the next conversation to the calendar. Small actions are more likely to get done and build to larger change. If you’re looking for a simple framework to help build this habit, check out our ACT conversation guide infographic.

Habit 3: Set goals effectively

As your organization begins to refocus after furloughs or layoffs, consider how goals are changing. Will there be modifications to work schedules or priorities? Should you create new policies and procedures to address specific employee needs? Will any work be reassigned or projects cancelled?

Employees typically need extra support to understand how performance expectations have shifted in the new context. More frequent goal-setting conversations with smaller, bite-size objectives will help employees concentrate on critical activities that contribute to their own development and align with the big picture.

You can support employees by asking:

  • What are the most impactful things for you to spend your time on right now? 
  • What goals can be pushed back or transferred?”

What employees don’t need:

  • A lot of documentation
  • Rigidity
  • Complexity

What employees need:

  • Support
  • Focus
  • A feeling of control
  • Connection with colleagues and the organization

Habit 4: Encourage learning and growth

Learning is critical to help people respond to a changing environment with strength and adaptability. Additional responsibilities, shifting business priorities, and new protocols can be challenging, but they also provide opportunities to develop flexibility; to rethink or rebuild skills; and to reflect on what meaningful work looks like.

As a leader, you can help your employees by recognizing that learning may look different for each one of them. Some might want to expand their skills to help the organization in new ways or change paths altogether, while others may need to learn how to practice self-care and balance work and family commitments.

Encourage managers and employees to reflect on challenges and take steps to learn as they adapt. Revisiting learning goals and progress during frequent manager and employee touchpoints (and in everyday work experiences) helps signal the focus on continuous improvement.  

For more tips and toolkits, visit Respond. Recover. Reimagine, a collection of resources for building the new world of work.