By Lee Shorten

Lee Shorten, managing director, UK and Ireland, from Avaya analyses the impact the economic slowdown has had on working practices and communications in Europe and examines how business leaders can provide support for successful recovery.

Over the last year it has sometimes seemed as though the recession has been inescapable, with many companies and individuals directly affected, and everybody bombarded by bad news. As we see markets emerge from a state of shock, business leaders are now blinking in the sunlight and looking at what they can do to be more competitive and position successfully in the recovery.

However, as they prepare to take advantage of the economic turnaround, many businesses may have underestimated the impact of the downturn on their workforces. I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal evidence of change, but independent research commissioned by Avaya also shows that the recession has had a dramatic effect on the experiences of European employees.

With greater pressure to deliver results, almost a third of workers across France, Germany, Italy and the UK believe that there has been a significant increase in their workload. Alongside this, 90% have experienced changes to the way they work in terms of new pressures to deal with. Worryingly, UK workers have seen more changes in their organisation as a result of the downturn compared to those in Italy, Germany or France.

Across the board, 39% of employees believe staff are under more pressure to deliver results. Other demands cited were the increase of individuals’ workloads (31%) and the expectation that staff would put in longer hours for the same pay (15%). Twice as many staff in the UK believe employees are expected to put in longer hours for the same pay than France (18% and 9% respectively).

Interestingly, our research also revealed that such changes to the work environment have been more common in large corporations than SMBs (78% versus 68%) — though this could be read as good news for those of us who believe that small and medium businesses (SMBs) will be at the heart of the recovery. The effect has been felt slightly more by junior and middle managers (75% and 80% respectively) than senior executives (68%) though it’s clear that there has been greater pressure across all levels.

While many workers have demonstrated loyalty and commitment to their employers, the impact of these pressures will be felt in the long term, both in terms of morale and results. Overall 44% of employees think communications with colleagues have suffered as a result of the downturn and there is evidence that companies have been generally slow to respond to the needs of their employees and have not sought ways to mitigate these new pressures. 64% of workers say their organisations have put in place no new policies or procedures since the downturn to address these issues or provide better guidance on internal and external communications. Germany in particular has seen a dearth of guidance in this area, with this figure rising to 78% of employees.

A lack of action in this area has been accompanied by little investment in new or improved communications tools to aid workers, with only one in five European companies doing so within the last 12 months. Similarly, only 20% of workers have received additional training to communicate better with customers, colleagues and suppliers in this timeframe.

Taking the time to review an organisation’s communications procedures, provide better guidance on internal and external comms and ensure that all employees have the tools they need to communicate effectively should not only help to mitigate some of the effect that the above pressures have had on workers, but also aid productivity.

Despite the impact of these pressures, much of the workforce remains optimistic, with 54% of workers believing that their organisation has responded well to the changing business environment and is in a strong position to emerge from the downturn. This positive outlook is reflected across Europe — peaking at 57% in the UK and dropping only to 51% in Italy. Overall, only 26% of employees think the opposite, with 20% remaining uncertain about the future performance of their organisation. Within the UK the most optimistic regions are Wales and London — where 69% and 63% of workers believe their organisation has been agile and is in a strong position.

While the impact of the economic downturn on the bottom line for European businesses has been obvious over the last year, organisations need to be wary of focusing too much on this and ignoring the impact on employees and the way they work. As we all prepare to take advantage of the recovery, our research suggests business leaders should reward loyalty by offering workers the tools and support they need.