ACROSS the world, the effects of Influenza A (H1N1) are being felt — business trips and events cancelled, schools closed, and a need for mass screening and medication.

Public health authorities in most affected countries have issued notices advising people on how to minimise the risk of this pandemic escalating. The three main pieces of advice are:

* Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing and sneezing;

* Put the tissue in a bin; and

* If you feel you have a contagious virus, stay at home or, at least, away from crowded places like schools and offices.

All this is sensible advice, but let’s face it: it is what we all should be doing anyway — even with a “common” influenza. Despite the precedents of avian flu and Sars, authorities are unable to provide specific advice for this latest health threat. So, they wisely go back to the fundamentals.

Similarly, past economic downturns have provided little useful data for the global financial crisis. However, those businesses that have the fundamentals right are most likely to make it through, and thrive when the economy recovers. In other words, just like the H1N1 flu advice: Do what you should have been doing anyway!

Two years ago, when business was booming and the greatest challenge for a recruitment firm or HR department was simply to find and place staff, engaging existing staff didn’t receive — or need — much attention.

Personality and behavioural style tests were done, but used only for recruitment, annual reviews and occasional team-building exercises. Now, times are different, and these tools provide a valuable resource in staff engagement in tough times.

They will all help you identify how your staff like to be communicated with, how they respond and adapt to change and how they can best contribute.

Let’s look at how important each of these is in the current situation.


Understanding this — the language employees prefer, the mode of communication, the time, the place, the context, the benefits/threats they will perceive — is crucially important when there are difficult messages to communicate.

Today, you need to over-communicate: tell them in many ways, but it’s important to do it in a way that they will respond to. This is a primary component in building trust, and trust is proving to be an essential factor in creating and building employee engagement and client loyalty in these tough times.


In good times, change is a choice the business leadership makes to improve productivity or create a market advantage. In tough times, change is often forced upon them.

This change can be very uncomfortable for staff involving downsizing, reallocation of duties and changed rules of operation. How these are communicated to them will significantly affect how these changes are accepted.

It is also important to be aware of the likely reaction of valued staff to the change and their preferred way of having the change implemented. These changes can be traumatic — often involving the loss of long-time colleagues — so you need every resource available to avoid negative fall-out with those who remain.


In the current situation, you need staff to contribute more than ever before — with little prospect in the short term of additional remuneration. Two factors that can work in your favour — if used wisely — are trust and involvement.

One of the most important attributes that attracts employees in these times is trust. A worldwide survey on employee engagement completed in March of this year put trust at No. 2 in a list of what they looked for in a company, second only to concern for their professional and personal well-being.

One of the best ways to build trust is to demonstrate it. Take workers into your confidence about problem areas — rather than glossing over the facts. Instead of compromising confidence in the business, you will find it builds trust and commitment.

The other key factor is involvement. If staff feel they are able to contribute directly to the business’s success, they feel more engaged. Don’t just limit them to participating as implementers. Allow them to contribute as initiators.

Take them into your trust, quantify the problem and ask them to suggest a solution. Some solutions will inevitably involve sacrifices or compromises by staff.

Isn’t it obvious that they are more likely to accept these if they have been involved in the decision-making? This is another area where your type-testing can prove useful, because it will tell you the way in which they like to contribute and the type of contribution that is likely to give them most satisfaction.

The current flu pandemic has arrived at a time when many businesses are already struggling. The way forward is the same: stick to the basics or, in some cases, go back to them.