When Life Hands You Lemons

Recognizing Opportunity in a Downturn

Although the job situation in Japan has improved slightly and there are signs of an improvement in the economy overall, it’s no surprise to anyone reading this blog that uncertainty remains. If you are lucky enough to be an employer in this market, now is the time to make sure you hold on to the people that you need in order to take advantage of the recovery and build your business as things improve. Based on our work in Japan, we’ve come up with a few fairly simple but potentially useful ideas to keep in mind:

1. Listen to your people. This may seem incredibly obvious but all too often this is at the core of morale issues. It can be especially true among middle managers, who too often cling to the traditional top-down approach where there is little room for ideas to filter upwards. This is all the more important in a downturn – and particularly as the upturn gets going. Customer needs change in uncertain times and it will often be the front-line staff that has the best ideas to keep you ahead of the curve. Provide the tools (internal blogs, intranet, informal chats with staff), keep your door open and follow up on the suggestions that come. You may be surprised by the results.

2. Expand staff scope of work. It is very important in a downturn to take a flexible stance on staffing. Job cuts and restructurings force a wider range of tasks onto individual staff. For the flexible employer, this allows a look at the full range of an employee’s abilities. This approach to staffing is actually in line with many Japanese organizations, where skill sets often tend to be company-specific as opposed to industry-or trade-specific. Encourage strong performers with a narrow focus to expand their range. Talented people love a challenge and redesigning positions to make them more interesting may be easier now than when times are good.

3. Invest in training. Although training tends to be one of the first things to go when times are tough, it is no secret that Japan values education. Employers who give their staff a competitive edge through “skill-upping” often get that extra bit of loyalty and commitment. While finding cash is probably no easy task in a downturn, look at it as a cost saving. Employees who feel their company is invested in their careers will be less likely to resign when an improving economy brings new job opportunities. Also remember that training doesn’t have to be given by a polished professional in a swanky hotel. Consider informal sessions taught by internal managers. This offers the added benefits of mentoring and sharing institutional knowledge. You may also find some hidden natural trainers in your midst.

4. Identify and groom leaders. Anyone can get by when times are good – it is when times are tough that the true gems shine. Take some time to look at who in your organization has risen to the challenge. It is the best way to identify those with the potential to be your future leaders. Remind your employees that careers can be made during tough times.

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