The crisis has been dragging on for five years now, six years in some sectors. The situation is slowly starting to improve, but we’re not there yet. Lots of companies are getting to the ends of their reserves, mental fortitude is wearing thin, and belief in better times ahead is made more difficult by governments doing too little to improve the business climate. So we will have to weather the storm ourselves.

But times of crisis make us uncertain, and uncertainty makes people more cost-conscious, which in turn leads to more control and so also more overheads. Management boards have to realize that control affects employees’ levels of involvement and commitment, and so also their motivation. Control results in people having to spend more hours achieving the same result. Add to this the added pressure that times of crisis put on prices, and it becomes clear to see why even more work is required to generate the same turnover as before.

Basically, employees are put under too much pressure. They work more hours for the same pay, perhaps become less motivated, and might even fear losing their job. The result: all this uncertainty means people get stuck in a relentless cycle that doesn’t give them anything other than too much stress.

Better results from working less

Let’s think in a cost-conscious way. Get rid of all the excessive control in unnecessary layers of management; it’s better to create an environment in which employees’ levels of involvement and commitment can grow. This will lead to improved performance and a better working atmosphere. Stimulating employees’ involvement helps companies achieve better results at lower costs with fewer working hours and less stress. Give employees the space to balance their skills and responsibilities. Stability is a key factor here: avoid lurching from unnecessary costs in good times to big savings in times of crisis.

Five fruitful crisis measures:

  • Clearly communicate challenges and corresponding solutions;
  • Create an environment in which everyone shares everything, including mistakes, so people can find solutions together;
  • Ask groups of employees to develop proposals for cost optimizations that do not threaten the business impact;
  • Stimulate ideas that help increase your services’ impact on clients;
  • Don’t lose yourself in excessive bureaucracy or complex procedures.

Despite all the available books and training courses on empowerment, motivation, stress and delegation, too many organizations are compelling their managers to exert extensive control. This is well-intentioned, but it just serves to aggravate the effects of the crisis by putting more pressure on managers to control employees at all levels. It results in more work in the form of extra reports, and management teams spend more time attending meetings. They think they are gaining control by following employees’ emails in cc when in fact this traffic is actually just taking up more of their time. So stop the crisis for yourself by limiting the levels of control to a minimum, and focus on developing your strengths.

Are we on the right track with endless discussions about how to help industry recover?

Business people and trade organizations are focussing on the cost of labour. But that in itself isn’t a solution. Is it better to buy a BMW in China than a Renault because of Germany’s more beneficial labour costs compared to France’s? It’s true that the cost of labour is too high here in Belgium, but if we think that this is the sole root of problem, we are simply being dishonest with ourselves.

Politicians shout loudly calling for more innovation. And Belgium does indeed score badly when it comes to investing in R&D, but there isn’t always a direct link between levels of investment and quality of innovation. I’ve been in contact with technology companies at home and abroad for over 20 years, and it’s clear that Belgian engineers score very highly in their specialist domains when it comes to productivity and creativity.

Furthermore, too much focus on product innovation results in a rat race in which having the lead is now less important with insufficient financial gains. No single company can keep on winning this race. Option NV couldn’t maintain its lead over Chinese companies. And Barco had the same problem over multiple technology cycles, which current CEO, Eric Van Zele, recognized as soon as he took up his role.

Companies can only profit from the raising of R&D stakes by avoiding the battle as much as possible and packaging technology in solutions that the market wants. Because the more product maturity grows, the more the market demands a better package. Most clients aren’t looking for the latest products; they buy the product that creates the most value for them.

This means that skills other than just innovation from R&D departments are required. Understanding customers and the environment is crucial for delivering value. A value-driven approach gives products longer lifecycles so they can remain competitive with large volumes. This improves the financial leverage of investments, increases profits, and enables a company to finance its further expansion. Not ‘time to market’ but ‘on time to market’ is the motto.

You are ready to work on this sustainable growth when your product innovations reinforce the added value that your client perceives (because otherwise you are only innovating in order to beat your competitors in the technology rat race). Clients are then prepared to pay more for your strengths. This is possible when your R&D personnel have enough contact with clients to really understand how and why your products are used. When your sales and marketing activities no longer focus just on the product, but also on creating added value. And when you organize your entire company in such a way that everyone is focussing on clients and the market.