How to keep employees engaged and reassured during times of change
“The only constant is change” has become something of a cliché. But this is simply because it’s so true. And it’s probably never been truer than it has over the past three years or so.
Change is necessary for growth and development and, sometimes, just for survival. Research by Gartner found that the average organisation has gone through five significant organisational changes in the past three years.
And yet, change is frightening to some, and resisted by many. We are hardwired to find comfort in the familiar and to fight change. It’s an understandable (and sometimes justifiable) fear of the unknown. It can be felt by some as unsettling, threatening, or downright terrifying.
This can be a challenge for leaders when their organisations are going through periods of significant change, which, as we have established, can be frequently when you work for a forward-thinking organisation.
So, how can we adjust our comms to keep our people on board with the changes? Put simply, we need to put our people first. It is our people who fuel the change and maintain its momentum. And the way to put them first is to empower them through effective and empathetic communication…
1. Share the reasons for the change
First and foremost, if we want our people to buy into the changes we are selling, we need them to understand why they are happening. That may, depending on the nature of the changes, mean sharing some hard truths or unflattering facts and figures in the name of transparency and honesty. We should not try to shield our people from what is going on behind the scenes. The more honest and straightforward we are, the less room there will be for the rumour and gossip mills to start up. And nothing annihilates the engagement and motivation of our people faster than disinformation and distrust.
2. Start your comms from the top
Employees usually want to hear about the critical stuff from those at the top of the organisation. Initial announcements should ideally come from the Chief Exec, CEO, or equivalent. And they should be delivered in as personable and relatable a way as is possible. If this can’t be done in person, a video message is the best alternative. It’s the best way to show empathy and understanding, to be relatable and authentic, and to reassure, if that is what’s needed. After the initial announcement, open, two-way team cascades with directors, managers and supervisors are best. It’s a good idea to collect and collate feedback, questions and concerns, so that trends and recurring themes can be addressed and responded to via published comms with those leading the change. A platform that facilitates polling, Q&A and virtual interaction across all levels of the organisation can be invaluable at a time like this. It’s crucial that all colleagues feel that they have a voice, that they are being listened to, and that their queries and apprehensions are being addressed.
3. Explain what it means for them as individuals
The big picture is, obviously, the right place to start, but almost immediately, most colleagues will start to dwell on what this mean for them as individuals. They will want to know what this change means for their roles and responsibilities, their line of reporting, how they will be managed, their team structure etc.
This is the time to acknowledge that things will be different, and to understand that this can be unsettling. Show an appreciation for their efforts to accept and embrace the change. Reinforce the reasons behind the changes and share the expected positive outcomes of them, but be honest if there is bad news to share too.
4. Be clear about the next steps
It’s impossible to remove the element of surprise that will land with the change announcement, but we can minimise further (unpleasant) surprises by clearly explaining the plan and process for how this will play out. Explain the next steps clearly and with a timeframe. If there are gaps and unknowns, be honest about this and give an idea of when you are hoping to fill these gaps.
At the same time, we should be clear about what is expected of our colleagues. We need to be specific about any actions they must take, and the deadlines for these. If some employees, or teams, are more directly involved in the changes than others, then a bespoke comms strategy is highly recommended to keep these targeted groups informed and up to speed without unnecessarily bombarding the rest of the population.
5. Continuously listen to what is being said
At the risk of repeating ourselves (but it is that important!), as stated within point two, it’s crucial that we give all colleagues a chance to feedback, ask their questions and raise their concerns. And it’s even more important that we answer them or respond to them in a meaningful way. This will go some way to providing a sense of psychological safety for them throughout the whole process.
A properly managed page on the company intranet or a social platform is a great start. Holding open forum sessions with senior leaders (in person or remotely), publishing questions and answers in regular newsletters, or using the aforementioned interactive app are also powerful tools.
If change is constant, then it’s our duty to make it as constantly painless as possible for our colleagues. The rewards from having them involved, engaged and on board with the changes cannot be overstated! The price we may pay from them not being on board could be devastating.