03/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are We Ready for a Comeback?

By Janice Bryant Howroyd, CEO
Act-1 Group, AppleOne Staffing Solutions - Agile•1 Workforce Solutions

The deluge of pink slips that washed over the country in 2009 left much despair in its wake. Will the tide turn in 2010? Will business and the U.S. worker be able to forge together to revitalize the job market?

I say yes. A comeback is on the horizon. And productivity is the key.

In a recent survey of our clients, we found that 90 percent of these businesses don't plan any more layoffs. Even more encouraging, one-third of these say that they plan to hire new staff in 2010. But, most important, they all say that maximizing productivity is their top priority. Highly productive workers are at the core of any successful business, and American workers have been among the world's most productive. Today, businesses are asking workers to be even more productive. It is only with greater productivity that companies can return to a growth pattern.

The big challenge is how to keep employees motivated and willing to increase productivity in an environment where more than one-half of companies have frozen salaries. Undoubtedly there is a chill in the air from salary freezes but companies can take genuine steps to keep up morale in order to maintain productivity with reduced staffing levels.

My 30+ years of experience in staffing has taught me that career growth and development are as valued by many people as money. Now is the time to give more responsibility to those you have kept on to help you rebuild. Meet with key staff to discuss their strengths and where they see themselves in five years. Then help them start on a path to reach their goals. Bestowing more power engenders trust and loyalty from both sides of the relationship, and enables people to gain self-esteem and confidence. This will end up benefiting business growth.

It is likely that morale has suffered since staff members have seen their colleagues lose their jobs. Many of these colleagues were perceived as victims of poor management, not necessarily low producers who were easiest to let go. Your employees have lost friends to layoffs and have experienced tremendous uncertainty about their own fates. Communication is your best tool for overcoming anxiety. Let your staff know that no more planned layoffs are imminent. As much as possible, retain benefits. And, if you must cut back on benefits, poll your employees to find out their priorities and make them your own. Look for low cost but highly valued perks. These include showing recognition for a job well done and upgrading job titles. Other perks with a strong payback are surprise pizza parties, gift certificates or an extra paid day off for birthdays. If you can create flexible work hours and virtual work sites, do so!

Smart companies planning for growth will start with temporary staffing as the first step. Just-in-time staffing is an important stepping stone to the U.S. employment recovery. Temporary workers are the safest way to handle growth, maintain flexibility and control costs. As the economy stabilizes and companies become more certain about their long-term prospects, they will add full-time staff, and will look first to those who have performed well in temporary capacities. Temporary staffing is growing at all levels of hire, and across industries and skill sets. In the current market, we are recommending that job seekers take temporary jobs. They allow a person to keep income flowing while job searching and building relationships within that company. As companies begin to convert temporary jobs to staff positions, a temporary worker who has displayed good work habits and become an asset will be hired as a full-time employee.

If you are in a management position and have to replace an employee, do it quickly. With everyone working at 110 percent, there is simply no slack in an organization. And, every position, whether support or revenue-generating, has a role to play. If you allow a position to remain unfilled, it undermines overall productivity. Tracked by many organizations as their Cost of Vacancy, this results in mounting costs that will continue to escalate for each day a slot remains empty. As you experience turnover or increased demand, it's vital that you replace or expand your workforce as quickly as possible.

The best advice right now is do everything you can to retain your best people. They are the lifeblood of your company. Make sure they are invested in their future with your company, and see that you are invested in theirs. Retaining good people will be a company's biggest challenge once the economy shows signs of improvement and others begin to try and lure them away.