The job insecurity that comes with corporate churn can lead to low morale, a high rate of turnover, reduced productivity, and a general sense of unease within your department. I’ll offer some do’s and don’ts that will help you keep your team cohesive and productive when your company goes through major change.

The churn factor: Dealing with high employee turnover
Layoffs, downsizing, and reorganization take their toll on those who remain. Disgruntled teammates, rumors, and lack of faith in management can cause a department to self-destruct. If your developers start dropping like flies, you need to follow two immediate courses of action. First, stop the leak and perform damage control. Second, facilitate recovery.

When you hear rumblings around the water cooler:

  • Do make every attempt to ease the unrest that comes with high turnover rates. Your staff may feel stymied by rumors or doubt. Answering their questions, both publicly and privately, shows your willingness to invest in their concerns.
  • Do make clear assignments to cover the workload of anyone who has left. Allowing others to pick up the slack via osmosis strains your team and can exacerbate an existing problem.
  • Do consider a flexible project management methodology that can easily handle task reassignments if turnover is consistently high.
  • Do make it clear to your staff that the situation is being addressed, and tell them how you will do it. You must make good on your employees’ faith that the problem will be resolved.
  • Don’t show doubt in management or senior staff’s abilities. Even if employees have a problem with someone they report to, you must save face until action is taken, for the sake of continued productivity.
  • Don’t avoid taking action. Find out what the problems are, and act to solve them.
  • Don’t waver from standard operating procedures, and make sure everyone knows what those procedures are. In other words, don’t make it difficult for your employees to get their work done. A less than ideal process is better than no process at all, even if you’ve lost key personnel.
  • Don’t give employees the impression that you’re unaffected by churn. Acknowledging the loss of team members is healthy for the remaining peers, and it shows them that they’re valued. Make it clear, however, that you’re confident the remaining team members can fill the hole left by departures.

Anticipate and minimize the impact of restructuring
Restructuring is a little different because, in most cases, a lot of planning goes into it. Restructuring most often results in a flattened infrastructure, and the remaining employees may be taking on new roles altogether. Even if you’ve only got short notice, make dealing with the fallout of restructuring a part of your agenda.

After restructuring is complete:

  • Do make sure everyone knows what their roles and duties are, even if they haven’t changed, and make that information available to the entire team.
  • Do stress the importance of communication and feedback. Make it easy for people to come to you with issues. Share corporate updates when you’re able to.
  • Do create a sense of security by giving your people a current focus and a long-term goal. Continue to set goals and create projects that look beyond the next three to six months.
  • Do encourage team members to help each other adapt to new responsibilities or overcome unforeseen difficulties. Make yourself available to facilitate in these areas.
  • Don’t underestimate the effect that restructuring can have on surviving employees. People are sensitive to change, so introduce new procedures and responsibilities with plenty of discussion and foresight.
  • Don’t leave room for speculation. Productivity decreases whenever people are concerned about office politics, not only because of gossip, but also from a motivational perspective.
  • Don’t expect your employees to fall in line without some guidance. Make new procedures clear, and don’t be afraid to compare the current structure to the old one. Effective leadership will help your team adjust to new tasks, and it can facilitate a clean transition from one methodology to the next.
  • Don’t forget that a lean operation often increases employees’ visibility on projects or to management. Offer some kind of informal recognition and incentive program to encourage positive feedback.

The sitting-duck syndrome: Coping with layoffs
Layoffs or downsizing can seriously reduce your team’s morale and productivity. Your staff may lose their motivation to perform if they think their jobs are on the line. Some employees will still work hard out of fear for their survival, but others will do shoddy work. Even top developers may resort to doing just enough to get by. And when layoffs are complete, the residual feelings can still sabotage your team’s spirit.

If your department falls into a slump:

  • Do make project milestones smaller. This shouldn’t require alterations to the timeline; just track each portion of the solution in more granular detail to gear back and maintain forward momentum.
  • Do set meaningful but achievable goals. Use visible metrics for something that depends on the entire team’s effort. For example, set goals to reduce the number of bugs per lines of code.
  • Do be as forward as possible about the company’s situation. You may not be able to release all of the facts, but you can create solidarity by demonstrating that “we’re all in this together.” Address impending changes as a challenge to succeed rather than a cloud of uncertainty.
  • Do set an example for your staff. A positive and upbeat attitude might be hard to show, but you must keep up appearances. Focus on your work, and encourage developers to do the same. Try to maintain a positive environment and a sense of camaraderie.
  • Don’t emotionally abandon your team. Be there for them. Even if you’re afraid for your own job, remind yourself and your staff that productivity might improve the situation, whereas reduced quality will definitely hurt.
  • Don’t let success go unnoticed. Make a big deal out of individual and team accomplishments. Stress your staff’s importance to show them that you’re their advocate.
  • Don’t play into the “doom and gloom,” but don’t ignore it either. Be a strong leader by addressing concerns and pointing out positive news to counterbalance negative vibes.

Forge ahead
The key is to handle the situations I’ve outlined with fortitude and resolve. Never allow doubt to infest your team, but be ready for anything. As a manager, you must also lead by setting examples and facilitating the continued use of processes. There will be static among employees whenever a company goes through changes. Awareness and proper handling will keep churn from derailing your team.

How have you kept your team on track?

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