8 ways to keep your team happy and productive in an economic downturn

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“When I told my team of eight that they had to take on additional work without extra pay, they protested, and understandably so,” says Elaine*, who manages a small department in a mid-sized marketing company. “Personally, I didn’t think it was fair that my bosses expected us to take on this major research project and not give us extra pay or help. But there was no choice – the company didn’t have the budget for salary increments or extra staff.”

In the weeks after, two of Elaine’s team members resigned from sheer physical and emotional exhaustion. “The extra work stretched our team and resources even further,” she shares. “Our morale really took a hit. We completed the project but our small team really suffered through it. The bosses told us that we had to accept this ‘new normal’.” 


More work, no extra pay – is this the new normal?

As the economy slows and companies find all kinds of ways to slash their expenses, more and more of us find ourselves stretched beyond our limits. Our teams and budgets are getting smaller, but there are still new and bigger projects to take on, more customers to attract, and harder sales targets to meet. 


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As middle managers, it’s our job to get the extra work done. But when our team finds that they have to do more for the same amount of money – or perhaps even less – it can be a challenge keeping them productive, motivated and happy.

“We can’t change or influence the state of the economy, but there are things we can control when the economy seems to be working against us, and that’s what we should be focusing on,” says Paul Heng, executive coach, and founder of Next Career Consulting Group, Asia. “As a manager, you should help your staff understand what is at stake for them in these tough economic times. If they can stay focused on the bigger picture, there’s a better chance that they will do the right thing and act accordingly to preserve their jobs.”


How to motivate your staff

Here are 8 ways to motivate your team to perform better and do more – when they know that they won’t be paid more, and when you, the manager, are under extreme stress to meet impossible targets yourself.


1. Help them see where you’re coming from

The last thing you want is for your own staff to resent you for piling them with more work. Instead of just barking out orders, sit them down and explain why you all have to work harder as a team and with fewer resources. “When they have more information about things like budgets and resources, they will be able to understand your constraints and thus more willing to cooperate with you,” says Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre.


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At the same time, remind them that you’re all in the same boat, but that, as their boss, you have their backs and that you will make compromises or fight for them wherever you can. If they can see that everyone is in it together and that you’re all working towards a common goal, there will be fewer misunderstandings and less resentment.


2. Create a self-motivating environment.

When your team feels sufficiently challenged by their work, when their interest and curiosity are sufficiently stimulated, when they feel in control of their tasks, and when they are supported and recognised for their contributions, they will feel more motivated to get the work done and with little resistance, says Amit Puri, managing consultant at Sandbox Advisors, a career counselling and training firm. A self-motivating environment also boosts loyalty among staff and makes them less likely to resign.


3. Encourage and support them.

Praise and compliment them when they’ve done something well or completed a task on time, Daniel suggests. The more support and encouragement you show, the more inspired they will feel to do good work without complaint.

If they make a mistake, don’t punish them for it, and try not to over-criticise or pick at their shortcomings, Amit adds. This only serves to demotivate them.


4. Look for little ways to show your appreciation.

You may not be able to increase their salary, but you can boost their morale in other ways, like having “pot luck” team lunches once a week, sharing treats, or just doing something nice for them once in a while. In addition to making them feel valued, Daniel says that this makes for stronger and closer connections between team members.


5.  Listen to their concerns.

Don’t brush them off when they have a complaint or they will become resentful towards you, says Daniel. Instead, hear them out and look for solutions together. If they’re struggling with a task, for example, ask them how you can make it easier for them and think of ways to help them out.


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“When you speak to them, find out what they value, too, so that you can tailor the way you motivate each one of them,” Amit adds.


6. Make the extra workload easier to manage.

This involves knowing each team member’s strengths and weaknesses so that you can match different tasks to different people. When each team member gets to do what he or she is good at, the work will get done faster and they will feel more productive as a group, says Daniel.


7. Don’t transfer your stress to them.

“Be mindful of projecting your stress and frustrations onto your team,” Daniel warns. “Remember that part of your success depends on how well your team works, and if you want them to be happy, you can’t allow yourself to take your anger or irritation out on them. Learn how to deal with your own stress so that you can lead and guide more effectively.”


8. Don’t just look at KPIs.

Sure, duties have to be fulfilled and targets have to be met. But remember that you’re dealing with human beings and not machines, says Daniel. “Put yourself in your team members’ shoes and try to understand the pressures they’re under. They may fall short of their targets, but what matters is that they’re doing their best with whatever little resources they have.”


*Name has been changed