Mutiny on the Intranet: Maintain a Healthy Staff During Tough Times

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (30-Jun-2009)

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Companies are rife with rumor when there's hint of drastic change or organizational instability. These rumors—usually taking on the ghostly form of various characters from Dante's Inferno—put a tremendous amount of strain on a company's staff. It can lead to employee fear, frustration, or apathy. This will eventually affect employees' output and productivity, not to mention their own mental well-being.

This is bad news for intranet owners because intranets are so much more than a collection of technologies, tools, and content. Intranets are made up of people who put their knowledge and expertise into the system. And when they're mentally and emotionally taxed, it will carry over to the system. An unhealthy and inefficient intranet team always translates to an unhealthy and inefficient intranet.

Strong and positive employee morale is vital to ensuring intranet content quality, employee collaboration, overall job satisfaction, and ultimately, employee retention. Unfortunately, these tough economic times are forcing companies to cut budgets, put R&D initiatives on hold, and downsize its staff.

There are many little things that can be done to ease the tensions—warranted or not—of a worried staff, but these three are crucial:

Don't keep employees in the dark

Nothing will stir up your staff more than the uneasy anticipation of some impending doom. It's that perceived calm before the storm where senior managers are constantly in closed-door meetings, walking with a bit more urgency in their step, talking in hushed voices, and seemingly avoiding direct contact with their staff.

Rather than treating employees like adults and informing them of the organization's goings-on—real or imagined—they keep employees in the dark for fear of riling them up and causing widespread panic. Silence, however, can be much more dangerous than the truth. The unknown allows the imagination to run wild and conjure up all sorts of ominous situations. But, more often than not, the truth doesn't meet the expectations of gloom and doom aroused by secrecy.

Uncertainty during tough economic times is a part of business life, but keeping employees completely in the dark magnifies the situation. Employees will begin feeling like they're passengers on a runaway train that they have no control over. And seeing as no one is telling them otherwise, employees will hunker down at their desks waiting for the sky to open up and strike them where they sit.

Instead of hiding behind a veil of secrecy, managers should treat employees like professionals and let them know what's happening. It's a manager's job to help their employees separate what's real from what's rumor. Discussing the current state of the intranet or the organization as a whole—even if it's simply to dispel rumors—will help eliminate the tension that can keep employees from doing their jobs properly. Take fear of the unknown out of the equation. Even if the truth is tough to swallow, at least employees will be working with hard facts, not the specter of conjecture which can sometimes do more harm. Managers must make themselves available

Whenever there's a climate of unrest and uncertainty, employees will naturally seek an outlet for their concerns and frustrations. They do this primarily when there's little-to-no reliable source of information. So, rather than having an educated discussion, they vent, they gossip, they curse, and they eventually draw their own conclusions.

Concerned employees lean on friends, colleagues, and spouses for support—pretty much everyone except the person they should be talking to: their boss. But a boss isn't always accessible, or even approachable. Employees might be reluctant to air their concerns with their bosses because they're afraid that something they say will jeopardize their job.

Managers must give their employees an opportunity to ask questions and air their concerns. Managers should never avoid employees in order to escape an uncomfortable discussion. You don't want employees to be mumbling under their breaths while they work for lack of an outlet for their worries. By getting employee feedback, managers can get a good sense of their staff's overall mood and then act accordingly.

Focus on short- and long-term goals

There's nothing to worry about until there's something to worry about.

Employees worry about their jobs, the status of their projects, and the future of the company. Some are justified; others are mere fabrications conjured up on the grapevine. Both, regardless of factuality, can adversely affect employees' performance. They will adopt a "why bother" attitude and use that as an excuse—consciously or subconsciously—for apathy or job avoidance.

Unless there are explicit instructions to suspend certain systems or cease certain operations, it should be business as usual. Of all the things that can prevent an organization from conducting its business, uncertainty shouldn't be one of them. This is the message that must be conveyed to staff. Why put your system and staff in a state of limbo unnecessarily?

Rather than harp on all the question marks, identify and focus on a series of short- and long-term goals for your intranet and its teams. This will help lift the cloud of uncertainty hanging over employees' heads and give them a sense of purpose and direction. These goals can even include a review of your intranet team members' current roles and responsibilities. Perhaps this would be an ideal occasion to implement a job rotation program. This can be a very effective way to challenge and motivate employees. It's worth noting, however, that this must be a collaborative effort among managers and staff, not a unilateral trade from one group to another.

Closing thoughts

Not all businesses are fortunate enough to receive the same juicy bailout money given to those in the financial and auto industries. Most companies are forced to weather the economic storm on their own. Some are doing a better job at this than others. But one thing is for sure: all employees are concerned about the state of their company and their job.

Although managers don't always have the ability to control what happens next, they can do a lot to prevent a wary staff from adding to the problem. This isn't to say that managers have to patronize their staff by painting a rosy picture they know doesn't exist. Employees will be able to see through the fašade anyways. Rather than keeping employees in the dark and hoping they will just do their jobs as usual (which they won't), a manager needs to inform his or her staff about what's going on and involve them in the process of business preservation. "No news" isn't always good news. Like the American author, Edward Abbey, once said, "Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion".

Copyright © 2009 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.