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As the economy slows, businesses want to get the most out of their workers. Here’s how to increase productivity in the workplace in times of slow growth.

For more than a decade, businesses have focused on growth. A strong economy and low interest rates prompted companies to confidently invest in technologies and innovations designed to broaden their portfolio, gain competitive advantage, and increase revenues. Employee technical and sales skills were highly valued.

Moving through the recent pandemic, businesses pivoted service models and workforce policies to define and step into a new way of doing work and serving customers. Employee wellness, flexibility, and resiliency became top initiatives.

Now, interest rates are rising and the economy is slowing. Big tech companies are scaling back experimental initiatives and slimming their workforce from the glut of hires over the past couple of years. Attention is shifting to getting the most out of their existing workers. Business and HR leaders are focused on how to increase productivity in the workplace in times of slow growth.

Business Priorities in Times of Slow Growth

During economic downturns, individuals and companies have less money to spend. Even those with money may change their behavior, making fewer discretionary purchases to preserve the funds they do have.

Experienced leaders understand that navigating through periods of lower sales volume means shifting business priorities from growing a business to sustaining a business. This must be a time of intentionality, starting with a hard look at company goals and aligning operations and budgets to support them

As companies position for sustainability, they need their employees to contribute meaningfully. They are relying on employees to increase:

  • Efficiency: Time well used for an intended task
  • Quality: A degree of excellence of a product, service, or other output
  • Productivity: A reasonable rate of delivery of a product, service, or task
Workforce Priorities in Times of Slow Growth

As some headlines confirm, organizational alignment in a down economy may mean a smaller workforce. But, as a former boss often said, “No company shrinks to greatness.” Short-term layoffs will not be enough to carry a business through a tough patch. In fact, layoffs can create their own challenges for employees shouldering the workload or job responsibilities of people who have left.

Even if job roles are “right sized” for the remaining workers, it’s natural for employees to feel let down as they adjust to newly configured teams. Especially now, layoffs and other cutbacks may be just one more loss in a series of hurdles your workforce is already facing. Employees are already dealing with the drag of pandemic losses, social unrest, inflation, and other challenges in their personal lives. Many of today’s workers are tired. Discouraged. Depressed. Burned out.

As Josh Bersin points out, these employees are looking for:

  • Connection: Early career employees who lost traditional career growth during the pandemic are eager to connect and grow again.
  • Engagement: Older workers, too, are eager to connect and engage with others in the workplace.
  • Opportunities to Grow: Employees want to develop relevant skills and experience new challenges and milestones at work.
  • A Socially Conscious Workplace: Today’s workforce expects employers to support sustainability, mission, and a focus on “moral values.”

How, then, do leaders build a sustainable company with a tired workforce that’s expected to be more productive?

How to Increase Efficiency and Productivity in the Workplace

In economic downturns, some of the more traditional ways of supporting and rewarding employees are taken off the table as the company pivots from growth mode to sustainability mode. Big raises, additional team members, and blue sky innovation teams are often suppressed in favor of a “quality over quantity” approach to reliably deliver core products and services.

So, how do organizations get the most efficiency, quality, and productivity out of their employees? Ultimately, it’s a leadership challenge.

In fact, leadership models are getting redefined to keep up with the times. As this LinkedIn article points out, new models value care, empathy, and human energy. “Good leaders are those who foster trust and belonging and are inclusive, empathetic, and flexible,” it says. However, too many organizations aren’t yet getting it right. A McKinsey report said the top reason people left their jobs in the past two years was uncaring leaders!

Employees want to do work that matters in a place where they are valued and recognized. To increase employee productivity, this Talent Management article suggests creating a work environment that promotes:

  • Robust culture. Your culture affects how customers and prospective employees view your organization, impacting future talent retention and recruitment. “Companies with a robust culture have a 72% higher employee engagement than those whose cultures are misaligned or need improvement.”
  • Heightened focus on employee experience including work/life balance as well as mental health and wellbeing at work.
  • Inclusive and transparent leadership to build trust across the organization.
  • Evolving work models. Hybrid and remote work models are here to stay.
  • Ongoing skill development. As the world changes, upskilling is one way to retain employees. And soft skills are invaluable to employees, teams, and organizations.

This Workest article would add:

  • Employee incentives. “Recognizing employees for a job well done makes them feel appreciated and boosts employee engagement, which encourages them to continue increasing their productivity.” Incentives don’t need to be a big raise, bonus, or other expensive perk. It could be as simple as a hand-written thank you note, telling a boss about the success, or offering additional paid time off.
Redefining Sustainability

Usually, we think of organizations in “sustainability” mode as those who are hunkering down to protect what they have. But that definition overlooks the very real possibility of growth in a down economy. Using the time, talent, and resources you have, a slow-growth period could be just what you need to identify or create and pursue a market advantage.

Hubspot suggests that times of slow business are a great time for teams to brainstorm new products or services. “Sales reps have the best pulse on what’s happening with customers” and may organically uncover gaps in products or services. You can engage sales teams and others in the innovation and problem-solving process without expending (too much) additional budget to pursue adjacent markets.

Leadership Review is more bold on this point, “If your organization is in a slow-growing industry, it’s up to you to do something special. …  The nature of any market is that the opportunity is finite. It’s you or them.”

Creative pursuit of a competitive advantage can be a win for employee engagement and productivity – and a win for company sustainability.

Another McKinsey report on employee attrition emphasized, “Employers can’t fix what they don’t understand.” Authors identified a disconnect between employers and employees, saying, “Employees were far more likely to prioritize relational factors, whereas employers were more likely to focus on transactional ones.” The same can be true for employee productivity. To achieve greater productivity, keep sight of the relational factors – communication, culture, and connection – that will bring out the best in your workforce.


If you’re interested in learning how a competency-driven approach to workforce productivity and a competency management system can advance your business goals during a slow-growth period, download our Competency Management Toolkit to get started. Or contact us to find out how Avilar’s WebMentor Skills™ competency management systems could be a fit.


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