Is WA’s workforce bruised and damaged?

Is WA’s workforce bruised and damaged?

I have been speaking with a number of companies recently and hearing the same theme – the WA economy is finally coming out of a major down-turn, but with the scars to prove it.

One Engineering company I recently spoke to has been in “survival mode” for the past five years.  They have gone from a workforce of over 50 permanent engineers, plus a significant admin and back office team, to a core workforce of just 10 engineers.  They have also outsourced or done without Financial Planning, Human Resources, Marketing and IT support. 

At last the green shoots are starting to show and they have some solid contracts, plus some exciting opportunities in the offing.  But they are asking themselves: are they in good enough shape to maximise the opportunities?

We talked some more and it became clear that their workforce, and the management team, has become used to operating in a state of fear.  Even though they haven’t made anyone redundant for two years, the threat is still hanging over the workforce. I asked what they are doing to communicate with their workforce, and they acknowledged that communication has become almost non-existent.

They got tired of only giving bad news, so they stopped communicating altogether.

Some of the good practices that they had in the past such as team talks, social events and performance reviews have gone by the wayside as they focussed on getting jobs out the door for their remaining clients at the lowest cost.

There is a well documented syndrome known as survivor syndrome which affects the employees who are left in the organisation.  The remaining employees feel anger and grief about losing their co-workers, and guilt that they were the one chosen to stay.  Management credibility is damaged, as the notion of loyalty feels like a one-way street – it feels like your job can end and your life be turned upside down at the drop of a hat.

Just this month an iconic restaurant in Perth (famous for its garlic prawns) closed its doors for the last time.  It’s reported that staff were told after the lunch service that their jobs were finished, and they were paid up all their entitlements. 

We can only imagine what that would feel like for a long-term loyal employee.  Yes, they will have been given notice and redundancy pay, but work is much more than just collecting the pay packet.  It’s often our sense of worth, our social network and literally the reason we get up in the morning.

Neuro-science has studied the parts of the brain that are triggered by certain events.  Our amygdala is our primitive brain that works when we are in survival mode – literally flight, fight or freeze.  When we are living in a constant state of fear and anxiety our brain is flooded with cortisol and it closes down the frontal cortex – the part of the brain which is associated with thinking, decision making and planning. 

Not great when the WA economy is starting to pick up and we need our workforce to be positive, engaged and creative.

So, back to the Engineering Company.  They have asked me to help them address their culture and get back their mojo – both for the management team and for the employees. 

I am going to work with them on a model of Employee Engagement I call creating a MAGIC workplace.  Magic stands for

  • Meaning
  • Autonomy
  • Growth
  • Impact
  • Connection

The first stage is to get the management team to reconnect with its Meaning and their positive outlook for the future, and then plan how this will be communicated to employees. 

Opening up the communication channels so employees genuinely feel they are working in partnership with the company to create the future will stimulate the frontal cortex – the more creative part of their brains.  It’s essential that the company takes steps to build an environment which is safe and re-builds trust and credibility.  Of course no company can guarantee the future for all its staff, but they must create a culture which is built on a strong purpose and encourages learning, contribution and collaboration so employees feel safe to re-engage.

Allowing some autonomy in how each employee goes about their job encourages creativity and collaboration.  This company used to have a culture of self-managed work teams which worked well.  This has fallen by the wayside in the downturn. By reintroducing the concept of team it will help to encourage responsibility and accountability.

One of the company directors was reflecting that in the past they used to have a thriving Grad program which was well respected.  Again this was shelved when they went into survival mode.  The program had given them great results as some of their Grads went on to be their best engineers and managers.  Building career growth back in to the organisation will be a positive signal that the company is investing again in employee’s development.

Every employee wants to understand the impact they are having on the company’s vision and objectives.  One of the practices this company stopped even before the downturn was performance development reviews.  In their words, these had turned into a one-way street where employees had their hands out for more money, threatening to chase the dollar on mine sites.  No one wants the return to the unsustainable boom days which over-inflated wages and bred a culture of arrogance in the workforce.  I have recommended a much more balanced approach to individual development which enables employees to co-create their goals and take responsibility for achieving them.

Finally employees need to feel some connection in their workplace.  Not everyone will want to be best buddies with all their colleague, however it’s our role as employers to enable the connections to happen, for employees to experience fun at work and at play. This helps to rebuild the sense of trust and openness which allows the magic to happen.

So, is WA’s workforce bruised and damaged? 

I would say yes.  But with some care and attention bruises will heal.  The memory will still be there, and maybe that’s not a bad thing – if collectively we can learn to create a more sustainable economy and avoid the boom and bust mentality.

If you would like to find out more about how to create a MAGIC workplace, I would love to hear from you.

Jayne Griffiths is the owner and People Innovator at Indigo Shift

 Indigo Shift works with business owners, managers and employees to create a MAGIC workplace – where people want to come to work, to go the extra mile for customers and their co-workers, and help the organisation reach its goals.