In the wake of a an economic downturn which has left those spared from layoffs either working daunting hours under stress or not busy enough to feel secure, firms need to foster community feeling and sense of purpose as well as facilitate positive communication. Morale and productivity, inevitably linked, need more attention. A fall 2001 survey by market research firm Knowledge Systems and Research found that only 34% of those polled rated management "good" or "excellent" on recognition of the value of remaining personnel after layoffs and only 37% thought much of their honesty in the process.
There are opportunities to rebuild the loyalty that has been damaged over the years. Here are some steps that will aid both, aligning firm culture with the needs of the times.
PROVIDE FORUMS FOR REGULAR COMMUNICATION
Rumors proliferate more than usual in uncertain times, and most rumors are worse than reality, sapping energy, providing distractions and stress. The firm can eliminate much of the negative energy and nervousness by providing open forums for communicating news and answering questions about direction, transitions, problems, threats and opportunities. Perhaps you can call it "The Loop."
Make sure firm leaders and managers use the forum to communicate rather than rely on memos or intermediaries and that they encourage rather than cut off dialogue. While many firm managers have never been in this crucial leadership role before and have to feel their way through it, the more open the better.
HOST LOW-KEY EVENTS
Rather than being driven primarily by achievement and recognition as tended to be true in more secure times, many people are more focused on basic needs such as safety and connections with others. Whether to exchange news, meet new hires, invite a client, or involve families, in these insecure times, people are welcoming opportunities to gather together and to feel like a "community." As Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Paula Vogel said in a New York Times essay, "In times of crisis, our instinct is to gather in circles around the fire, to witness and share common stories." When those opportunities are denied, people may become resentful. These gatherings or events can be planned on a rotating basis by each department (if not by the practice groups, at least by the administrative departments: marketing, recruiting, professional development, information technology, etc.). In some firms, they may even compete with each other to see who can hold the best event.
This is a low cost strategy requiring only soft drinks and snacks. (People feel positive toward an organization that provides some food for the stomach as well as for thought.)
UTILIZE AND PROMOTE PERSONAL SKILLS
Most people welcome a chance to demonstrate skills and talents that don't normally get highlighted in the normal course of their work. Particularly for people whose workload may be slow, that may be an opportunity for them to use their talents for the firm, for example, write, work on a seminar or client event. Recognize their talents and allow them to feel they are making a contribution. These activities assist in client development as well as give the individuals a sense of purpose.
If people want to do pro bono work or volunteer activities, it should be encouraged as long as they get their billable work or other responsibilities done. In addition to the direct contribution they make to society and causes and the gratification they get from it, further development of substantive talents and management skills will pay off in professional growth and new contacts.
BE SENSITIVE TO CONCERNS OF BALANCE AND SECURITY
People at all levels may be reconsidering the degree of priority they have given previously to work over time with family and friends. There is greater awareness of one's own mortality and lack of control over events on the part of professionals who tend to want to be very much in control.
Be open to suggestions for flexibility and greater life/work balance. Flexibility in hours and work locations can actually work to a firm's economic advantage while enabling individuals to design a work life style that satisfies their needs. Many people would gladly reduce their compensation in exchange for correspondingly reduced hours. Keep everyone involved, sharing information and feeling like they are contributing to solutions. Management's show of understanding will increase loyalty and credibility and motivate people to greater commitment and results at work.
Sensitivity to people's emotional state and search for an anchor (a security blanket) will help with clients too, who are experiencing the same thoughts and emotions. Reach out to them in a more human way as partners in the larger scheme of things, taking more time to relate to them as people and serve as a life resource. It will enhance working relationships.
Each of these strategies builds a cohesive culture that benefits an organization for the long-term. In uncertain times, buffeted by economic, political and physical insecurities, these steps are not a luxury but rather a necessity.
Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the president and founder of Practice Development Counsel, a New York-based business development and organizational effectiveness consulting and coaching firm working with professional firms, and its AuthenticWorkssm division. Practice Development Counsel works with firms on strategic marketing planning, client relationship building, work/life excellence, collaborative culture, implementing flexibility, workplace conflict resolution and consensus-building. Phyllis is the author of The Rainmaking Machine (West Group) and The Marketers Handbook of Tips & Checklists (Andrews Professional Books). You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org . Visit our web site at www.pdcounsel.com.