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The Last Word: Absorbing the Lessons of a Five-Year Plan

America’s workforce deserves a huge amount of credit for its ability to rise to the task. But how much longer can that last?

October 10, 2013

Most of us can rattle off a grim string of workplace anecdotes and personal recollections spawned by the Great Recession and its trusty sidekick, the financial meltdown, with relative ease.

I suspect my story sadly parallels what many Americans experienced as we mark five years since the September 2008 collapse of global financial services firm Lehman Bros. — widely viewed as the flashpoint of the worldwide banking crisis, which spawned the meltdown and deep dive into the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression.

Within a few months, my previous employer initiated across-the-board, companywide pay cuts. Adding insult to injury, some colleagues also endured temporary furloughs.

Bonuses? Dream on. Not that year.

For months on end, we reported almost daily on new rounds of mass layoffs. The news of course hit much closer to home, as co-workers and friends grappled with the reality of losing their jobs, their homes and even their families.

Everything that was comfortable and familiar suddenly wasn’t. There are plenty of days when I pinch myself, wondering how I wound up working in Chicago rather than my former home turf of San Diego. While my move in 2010 to the Windy City wasn’t completely involuntary when faced with our office’s sudden, surprise closure in Southern California, it certainly wasn’t part of my long-term employment strategy either.

I wish I could lean way back in my chair, kick my feet up on the desk, let a smile break across my face, take in a deep breath and think: “Man, I sure am glad that’s all behind us.” But the scars of the past five years run deep. Workplace management has been foundationally shaken and has yet to fully recover. A pervasive sense of weariness still encompasses a workforce that just wants a little relief.

More so than any tough economic climate I have worked through — the downsizing of the 1980s, the rightsizing in the early 1990s or some other Orwellian doublespeak to convey an organization’s realignment — the effect of the Great Recession lingers like the stench from a moldy basement.

There’s an ongoing disparity between compensation and productivity. Several studies show wages for workers with collars both blue and white largely stagnated while the amount of work they accomplished jumped substantially. This, despite soaring costs for the things that are essential to employees doing their jobs — chiefly, fuel and food.

A report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that wages remained flat or dropped between 2000 and 2012. Yet at the same time, researchers said, worker productivity escalated by a whopping 25 percent.

There’s also the effect of employees having to pick up the workload after their colleagues are let go. It hasn’t been dubbed a jobless recovery for nothing. Like the data from the salary and compensation studies reveal, workers did a lot more for a lot less pay, dwindling health care and retirement benefits and, of course, resources.

America’s workforce deserves a huge amount of credit for its ability to rise to the task. But how much longer can that last? After five years of economic turmoil, or uncertainty, or instability, perhaps the more appropriate question for managers is: What have we learned since then?

For me, besides the realization that winter is way, way colder in Chicago than it is in San Diego, I’ve learned that morale and communication must play key roles in bridging the gap between economic discord and whatever waits on the other side.

During the depths of the recession, the gossip grapevine burned hotter and louder than ever. Managers, don’t think for a second that your staff is oblivious when you go into your third unscheduled closed-door meeting in one morning. And don’t be shocked when you emerge to find several of them with an ear hugging a glass that’s plastered to the wall outside of the conference room.

While unplanned, closed-door meetings are a drain on you, they also sap the morale right out of your team. If it’s budgetary, tell them; they’ll understand. If it’s personnel decisions, that’s all you need to say. But just say something, or before you know it, they’ll pull a “Hogan’s Heroes” and plant a microphone in the conference room attached to the coffee pot in the adjoining break room.

And don’t just send an impersonal all-staff email about pay cuts or assume the staff will figure out that someone was laid off because there’s a cleaned-out cubicle. There’s this whole social media phenomenon taking place outside of your office. Chances are that, as the rumor mill shifts into overtime, your workers are texting each other about what’s coming next.

Control the message. Talk to your people; reward them when you can. Trust me, morale and communication are keys to getting through tough times. It becomes second nature — and easier — when times get better.

And yes, the economic malaise will lift someday, maybe soon. I may be a realist, but I also like my glass half-full, too.

Rick Bell is Workforce's managing editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Bell on Twitter at @RickBell123.