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Keeping employees engaged during periods of change

It was Greek philosopher Heraclitus who was first quoted as saying the immortal words: “The only constant in life is change”. What a wise chap he was. I bet he rocked a good toga, too.

If the saying has become something of a cliché, it’s because it’s so true - now, as it was then. From industrial revolution to industrial automation, from rapidly advancing technology to artificial intelligence, from endemic advancements to an advancing pandemic… change has always been with us. It’s necessary for growth and development and, sometimes, just for survival. Recent research by Gartner found that the average business has gone through five significant organisational changes in the past three years.

And yet, change is resisted by so many of us. The human mind finds so much comfort in the familiar, we seem almost hardwired to fight change and choose to live forever in the status quo. It’s a fear of the unknown. It can be perceived as anything from somewhat unsettling to downright threatening.

All of this can pose quite a challenge for leaders and communicators when their organisations are going through programmes of significant change. This, we have established, can be a lot of the time for forward-thinking (and moving) organisations.

So, how can we adjust our change strategy to keep our people engaged, motivated and on board with the changes? The key is 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

Most importantly, if we want our people to buy into the changes we are selling, they need to understand why they are necessary. That may, depending on the nature of the changes, mean sharing some grizzly facts or figures in the name of transparency and honesty. We should not try to protect our people from what is going on behind the scenes. The more straightforward and direct we are, the less room there will be for the rumour and gossip mills to spring into life. And nothing will decimate the engagement and motivation of our people faster than disinformation and distrust.

2. Start comms from the top

Our people want to hear about the critical stuff from the top. Initial announcements should come from the CEO (or equivalent) in as human and personable a way as is possible. If this can’t be done in person, a video message is best. After the initial announcement, frank and open, two-way team cascades with directors, managers or supervisors are best. We should be sure 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 at the top. A platform that facilitates polling, Q&A and virtual interaction with the top from all levels can be invaluable at this time. It’s vital that our people feel they are being listened to and getting responses to their apprehensions, queries and suggestions.

3. Focus on what it means for them

The big picture is the essential start, but all too quickly, minds will turn to “what does this mean for me?” Our people will want to know what this change means for their roles and responsibilities, their line of reporting, their team structure, how they will be managed etc.

This is the time to acknowledge that things will be different, to share an understanding that this can be unsettling, and to appreciate their efforts to accept and embrace the change. Again, we should underline 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

We can’t stop the element of surprise that will come with the change announcement, but we can minimise further (unwanted) surprises by clearly explaining the plan and process for how this will play out. Lay out the next steps clearly and with a timeframe. If there are gaps and unknowns, be honest about this but give an idea of when you are hoping to fill these gaps.

This is also when we need to be clear about what is needed and expected of our people. We should be specific about any actions they must take, and the deadlines for these. If some employees, or teams, are more involved in the changes than others, then a bespoke comms strategy will be required to keep these targeted groups informed and up to speed without unnecessarily bombarding the rest.

5. Listen to what is being said

As with point two, throughout the entire process, a sense of psychological safety for our people is essential. It’s vital that we give all of them a chance to feedback, ask questions and raise concerns. And it’s even more crucial that we answer them or respond in a meaningful way. A properly managed page on a social platform or intranet, holding Q&A sessions with senior leaders (in person or remotely), publishing questions and answers in regular newsletters, or using the aforementioned interactive app can all help with this.

If change is constant, then it’s our duty to make it as painless as possible for our people. The rewards from having them involved, engaged and on board with the changes are huge! The price we may pay from the opposite being true could be even more significant.


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