How to retain trust and motivate your workforce

It has been a turbulent year for business, and one which has caused some to adapt and evolve to survive uncontrollable market developments. From technology taking over the role of humans in a workforce, to making sweeping redundancies to help balance the books, if change isn’t handled correctly it can have a detrimental effect on the organisational workforce and customers, as well as causing long term, irreversible damage to a business’s reputation.

You only have to open a newspaper to see this in practice today, for example commuters taking to social media to vent their frustration over the latest Southern Rail strikes, with thousands of workers walking out in response to the planned introduction of driver-only operated trains. Its handling of the situation led the company to be slammed by media which labelled it as the ‘worst performing train operator in the country’.

So how can businesses help their workforces to not only cope with change, but also support and encourage it?

Coping with Change

Trust and motivation lies at the heart of every organisation, and when change occurs it naturally creates uncertainty and unrest. To handle this effectively, organisations and leaders need to invest a significant amount of time, energy and resources to overcome resistance from employees who feel threatened, and in most cases scared.

We all look for stability and certainty when going through change, and by providing employees with a clear outline of what is coming, including how they will be affected, it can be handled without any impact on the bottom line.

To cope with change, business leaders need to conduct an honest and thorough evaluation which analyses where the organisation is now – including the internal and external issues, problems or opportunities being faced. This can assist with creating an organisational shared vision for the future, along with a clear plan of how to help the workforce get there.

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Involving the workforce in the development of the organisational change will give them ownership over the solutions, which results in them adopting, maintaining and improving on the changes agreed, becoming advocates within the organisation.

However, to involve employees, business leaders first have to understand how the workforce feel, including respecting their varied perspectives and opinions on the future plans. Whilst this may slow things down, it will increase engagement, trust and motivation throughout the workforce, whilst increasing the likelihood that any changes will be accepted with minimal disruption.

So how can the workforce actually help with organisational change? Primarily they can improve the organisation’s understanding of where it is now as they are often the ones who see potential problems first. They will also have ideas and insights that will help create a better integrated business future, establishing a shared organisational vision.

The organisation benefits in three ways, firstly change becomes easier to implement because the workforce has had a direct hand in designing the solution, secondly decisions are more likely to be supported, and thirdly by involving employees means the organisation can continuously improve, learn and innovate – setting it apart in a competitive marketplace.

Effective communication

When we communicate in a business environment it is often a one-way dialogue, yet with over 60% of people thinking visually there is an arguably a better way to get the point across.

Knowledge can be captured visually (using tools such as infographics) and is often a quicker and more accessible method of capturing and communicating information, and one which facilities and encourages two-way communication – this can even be as simple as capturing comments on Post-it notes and sticking to a communal board.

By investing time into creating a collaborative and inclusive organisational environment, which understands the real business issues being faced by employees, it will soon be clear how to reach and design the future of the organisation.

Living Plans: Getting there together

Continuing on from the positive engagement and communication with the workforce, leaders should collate all the information to produce clear plans for organisational change. Plans range from short (day – week), medium (week – month) to long-term (month – year) from which the workforce can adopt and implement effectively alongside agreed business objectives.

These plans need to become ‘Living Plans’, meaning they are always evolving to suit both internal and external changes – from market trends, to customer needs, to business growth. Living Plans facilitate and encourage communication, ensuring that the workforce are not only advocates of change but that they are also a vital component in helping the organisation to achieve it.

To put this into practice, every office or department can have a wall displaying its Living Plans, allowing for real time developments and quick identification of potential problems. This method ensures that every time someone comes into the office they can clearly see the vision, issues and ideas being discussed, as well as how they fit in to it – the plans are then developed by everyone, every day.

Engaging future ex-employees

At this moment situations such as the Southern Rail strikes, the question has arisen as to how an organisation can engage and build trust with a workforce, which is facing redundancies. With a backdrop of job losses, both morale and motivation is likely at an all time low creating an highly infectious negative working environment.

Organisations such as Southern Rail facing this dilemma need to invest in the personal and professional development of their workforce during this time of organisational change – including those who are leaving the company, making them become more attractive in the labour market. This means helping them to recognise their abilities and transferable skills, and if time, providing them with new opportunities to learn and achieve before moving on.

A effective solution is to provide the workshorce with the practical tools for achieving ownership over their professional development, future and aspirations. This could be as simple as personal development programme, business toolkit or simply a list of objectives. Whilst this might consume valuable resources, it will go a long way in ensuring ex-employees are supporters of the business, as well as reassuring the current workforce.

By investing time into involving the workforce even at the earliest stages of change, an organisation will not only save time, energy and money, but it will also be known as a business which is innovative with a motivated workforce that is valued. Instilling a reputation of workforce collaboration, the business will not only attract the best in talent, but also potentially increase the bottom line. The workforce becomes the most important asset of the organisation, as well as the drivers and leaders of organisational change.

Phil Underwood is a business mentor with over 25 years of experience in the field. He is also the founder and creative director of ArtOf, and author of a new business book, The Art Of Enterprise.

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024