You would have to be living in a cave in some remote corner of the world to be unaware of how the economy has eroded over the past two years. With the overall unemployment rate skyrocketing to 10 percent at a national level, the construction industry has been amongst the hardest hit of all industries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported continued job losses in the month of December, totaling nearly 27,000 in construction alone, bringing unemployment in the construction industry to nearly 20 percent as 2009 came to a close. As a result, the anxiety level of the working family is at an all-time high.

Even though job growth is mostly stagnant and layoffs may still loom overhead, as construction business owners, we still have the responsibility of maintaining a fully engaged workforce to secure our future. This is no small task, and when done successfully, it may be the single-most important thing a leader does to survive a poor economy.

There are a few simple things that can be done to keep your workforce positive and focused on driving productivity and profitability.


 

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
As an industry, keeping the lines of communication open often falls outside our comfort zone. We must be continually communicating with our workforce to maintain employee confidence. Remember, communication is a two-way street.

To effectively communicate, we must take the time to really listen. Perhaps we think that guarding information will eliminate rumors and speculation. Well, as one wise author once said, “You can fool the spectators, but you can’t fool the players.” Update your workforce on the health of the company. Solicit their ideas on how they can help in areas of cost control and eliminating waste. Be open and honest, thus earning employee trust and confidence. In Stephen M. R. Covey’s book, The Speed of Trust, he observes that when trust is high, speed is also high equating to low cost. When trust is low, the speed at which things are done slows and costs rise.
If you have a large workforce, keeping lines of communication open can be challenging. In an effort to improve in this area at our company, we chose to implement a quarterly conference call. This accomplished two key things:
1. We update our workforce on current events, i.e., upcoming work, changes in leadership and changes in policies or procedures.
2. The staff has the attention of our entire leadership team, if only for half an hour. They are able to hear our leaders firsthand and have the opportunity to ask questions. We find this mode of communication to be much more effective and better received by our workforce than an impersonal mass e-mail that may go unread.

Employee Recognition
Do you have your finger on the pulse of your employees’ morale? [GRAPH] In a recent survey of more than 900 employees across several business sectors, results showed that 60 percent of those surveyed reported that they had intentions to pursue new job opportunities in 2010. Just under a quarter of the respondents said they may leave and are currently networking. Six percent stated that they were not likely to leave; however, they have updated their resume. By the way, they’ve updated their resume on your dime using your resources!

To combat these statistics, don’t lose sight of the basics. Remember to reward employees for a job well done. The best recognition programs are often the least expensive. When you see it, say it. Don’t let good work or instances where employees perform “above and beyond” go unnoticed. Make sure your key players know they are indeed key players. Talk to them and keep them involved. If your key employees are engaged, they will set the example for others to follow. Build a positive image of your employees in front of their peers and in front of other leaders. These positive, motivating conversations will go a long way in building morale and employee engagement.

Manage by Walking Around
Stay connected with your workforce. As an HR professional, I have found that there is often a disconnect between what the employee wants out of their career and what the employer thinks the employee wants. This ties in to our two earlier points: communicating with your employees and rewarding them for a job well done. All of this can be accomplished by being visible. Take the time to get to know your employees. Know them by name. What is the name of their spouse? What interests them outside of work? What are they really passionate about? Knowing your workforce cannot be accomplished from the office trailer or from the inside of your pick-up. The old cliché, “actions speak louder than words,” has never been truer than in the employee/employer environment we find ourselves in today. “Walking the talk” and building relationships of trust and instilling confidence equates to real money on the bottom line. It is a statistical fact that high employee engagement results in greater efficiency and overall profitability.

 

Where real leadership comes into play
It is not uncommon in these uncertain times for employees to become distracted, resulting in lost productivity. In some cases, they jump ship, especially if the company they work for has had to undergo layoffs or cuts to wages or benefits. Companies move into survival mode and may overlook the long-term effects to their workforce. Decisions in this environment are often made with a short-term view—“let’s just keep this thing afloat.”

This is where real leadership comes into play. Great leaders never lose sight of the big picture. They balance the need for financial prudence with maintaining a loyal and engaged work force. Great leaders recognize that no matter what happens in the economy, there is always a market for high performers. It may appear that your employees are fine. I mean, where else are they going to go and work in this environment? They will understand that we had to make these decisions…right? After all, it’s a privilege to work here. Making tough financial decisions may be necessary, but keep in mind the economy will turn around. The work will come back, and when it does, your employees will remember how they were treated. That alone will determine their loyalty. Loyal, fully engaged employees will help an organization navigate through the muddy waters of a tough recession.