I’ve got one word, or rather contraction, for you – Brexit. Like me, you’re probably sick of hearing it by now. But I’m afraid we have a whole other issue to deal with. Given the wake of economic uncertainty granted by the UK’s decision to leave the EU, we now have the unenviable task of avoiding that other poisoned pronouncement – recession.

Who is recession-proof?

Many businesses struggled with sales, lost considerable value or went under completely in the wake of 2008’s downturn, and the very real threat of a repeat hangs in the balance. The immediate effects of a volatile sterling and an unsteady, UK-centric FTSE 250 index are being felt already, but the long-term impacts of dealing with a stalled economy, a mountain of legislation, the collision of political egos and a muddied regulatory environment in the future are yet to raise their ugly heads.

We have a national workforce that could up sticks at any given moment

The human resources problem

However, there’s a more immediate problem peeking over the parapet right now – people. The human resources conundrum is a pressing one revealed by new research from CIPD/People Management. Until the government establishes a firm, forward plan for leaving that preserves relations and sets up new trade deals with EU members, the employee problem is three-fold:

  1. With the threat of an economic downturn, 36% of employers say that staff have expressed concerns about job security.
  2. A further 36% of employers say that non-UK employees are worried about their continuing right to work in the UK.
  3. The divisive nature of the debate has increased workplace tension, with 8% of employers saying incidents had been reported and a further 25% admitting there were rumours of incidents, though none reported. The details of these incidents was not revealed.

So, for a number of reasons, we have a national workforce that could up sticks at any given moment. There is clear onus on the government to reassure our non-UK workforce that their right to remain is secure. This would allow these individuals to concentrate their efforts on helping their employer and, ergo, the economy. We also have to consider the fact that EU-influenced employment laws will inevitably change. We just don’t know if that’s a big change or a slight alteration yet.

The post-Brexit case for employee engagement

With all that in mind, it’s clear that employee engagement has never been so vital. The country as a whole needs to future-proof its workforce and retain its top talent if it is to stave off any kind of recession and keep our heads afloat.

Clarity and openness are absolutely crucial, as are strategies to keep employees talking to and supporting each other. Employees need a voice and they need to be shown that upper management has not forgotten them during a fraught time. If it’s business as usual, staff need to be reassured that their jobs are secure. If you’re undergoing major changes or considering a relocation, tell employees about what is expected to change and gather their feedback; find out their needs and concerns before making any decisions.

Meanwhile, if divisions are forming, line managers need to know so they are aware of where tensions could arise and can prepare to address any conflict or take steps to avoid it.

Invest in a strategy

Investing in and developing an internal communications strategy and/or infrastructure that focuses on engaging employees with these targeted, specific needs – one that provides an open forum between them at the upper echelons of the company and that shines a reassuring light on employee development – sends a positive message, for a start.

A social media strategy could be focused on addressing conflict

One of our clients, RBS, was a notable example of an organisation quick to be honest with and to reassure its employees that, while it supported the Remain vote, it’s nevertheless business as usual following the referendum result.

Of course, different companies have different workforces with different needs and the advice from the CIPD is not to be hasty in sending everyone a memo.

Last week I reported on setting your internal communications goals against measurable business KPIs. The recommendation is to have a common and clear goal to work towards, removing any uncertainty amongst employees and letting them get on board with the journey ahead.

What’s interesting is the uncertainty that Brexit offers UK employees, in fact gives employers a clear and certain business goal to measure against employee engagement – that jobs are secure and the company will continue down a road of honesty and transparency.

A social media strategy in this respect could, for example, be fully focused on addressing conflict in the workplace. Managers have an opportunity to discuss issues, bring them to the fore and address them head-on.

In other words, from the many unknowns that have arisen from the Brexit vote comes a clear opportunity to stand out in terms of your employer brand. In the midst of a maelstrom, being seen as the employer that handled Brexit well isn’t just a way to retain your faithful flock; if your competitors are lacking substance, you may even end up attracting a few new ones.