Should we stay or should we go? There isn’t a bigger question being asked in Britain right now than whether we leave or remain in the EU. The more important question is what does the decision, either way, mean for Britain? Speculation and estimates aside, what changes will we see and how will we be told about them?
A major change demands clear, unambiguous information. This applies equally when telling 60 million people about their long-term prospects following a referendum, as explaining a new strategy or structure to a workforce of hundreds or thousands.
When a business is hit by a financial crisis, it may only experience small-scale issues that affect a handful of departments, but it may otherwise be bought out or close, resulting in job losses or, at best, a restructure. Employees face uncertainty over redundancy or new roles and responsibilities. They will have questions about the reasons for change, the criteria for redundancy and the impact on their roles if they remain with the company. What resources will they need?
If change is gonna come, everyone in your organisation needs to know firstly what the change is and why it’s being implemented. What has happened to bring the organisation to this point?
Focus on the positives. Be clear about how this change is going to make the organisation stronger. Explain the reasons for a restructure or new strategy, and how it will limit the risk of a negative situation recurring. What alternative options were considered? Why are they not viable options? How will employees be affected? Be honest about any negative consequences.
No crystal ball is going to tell you what life is going to be like on the other side. With reasonable accuracy, you should be able to state how any workforce cuts or streamlining elsewhere will impact the bottom line. As for post-change culture, workloads, industry reputation, strategy, etc – well, all you’ve got to work with is educated guesses. People need reassurance and leader confidence. A lot of your employees will disagree with your approach and feel they are powerless to steer their own future with the company. Use forward-looking data to show that you’ve sat down and done some calculations; your decision is strategic and carefully considered to help the organisation achieve a specific goal.
The process can be lengthy and, managed badly, can lead to unhappy, demotivated and disgruntled employees. You may be keen to reduce costs (i.e. headcount) for a short-term financial gain, but the way you go about it – how you communicate with employees: those who stay and those who go – could have a more lasting impact.
Your brand’s strength is as much based on your reputation as your products and services. Those who leave through redundancy may share their grievances in future roles, possibly at your competitors’ companies. Employees who stay may be demotivated if they believe the company they work for doesn’t take its people’s views and concerns to heart. Ultimately, the best people in your industry may choose to work elsewhere if it comes down to ethics and culture.
It’s not always bad news that prompts major change. As an industry evolves, organisations strive to be different from, or more innovative than, their competitors. In doing so, they adopt new strategies, introduce sectors and product lines, or merge with or acquire other firms. Integrating hundreds or thousands of new employees and attempting to seamlessly unify the larger workforce in one culture is not a case of hoping the existing mindset rubs off on the new intake in the canteen or down the pub on a Friday lunchtime. Look for formal (but fun) ways to integrate new and old teams, and avoid an “us and them” culture; you have to get buy-in from both to a new way of working.
Establish a plan of communication that allows your employees to respond and ask questions. In a large, multi-site organisation, communicating face to face may be difficult, but it is important to create a forum where people can voice their concerns about the changes. That may not always be from senior leaders – though their visibility in times of uncertainty can go a long way to maintaining faith in the company. Brief line managers to talk with their team members – and not just “if you have any questions”. Encourage managers to talk to everyone about the future and ensure they understand the implications of the changes. In communicating how the changes will help the organisation achieve its targets, remember to explain to employees how the new strategy or restructure keeps them on track for achieving their personal career goals.
Regular communication by email or through a publication is also important. Your change programme may warrant its own channel – a new newsletter or a regular Q&A in your staff magazine; a hashtag on your internal social media channel; a monthly Town Hall meeting. A change programme can last months; don’t keep employees in the dark for weeks on end. If you’re rolling out a change in strategy or structure, it’s almost impossible to build momentum and motivate staff to think differently without a structured comms campaign.
Communicating during a change is a long-term investment. You can’t just spread the word in the period leading up to the change and immediately after. Remaining workers may keep one eye on the door once the dust settles. Where there has been one wave of redundancies, they may expect others will follow. Or they may worry about settling back in to a new environment, with new colleagues or without the old ones. They may have to work harder or differently. Sure, they can adapt, but if their work experience is set to change anyway, why not look for something different? If you’re going to disrupt employees or take them out of their comfort zone, help them see how the challenge can be an opportunity.
You have to continually demonstrate that the decisions you made were the right ones, and remind employees that they, and the company, have a positive future. Again, this can be resolved by one thing: continuous communication. Keep telling them how important they are to you and the business and keep them updated with the developments of the change. Remember that forward-looking data you showed them when you explained why you are doing this? How did all that work out for you? Are you there yet?
But don’t do all the talking. You may have spent weeks or months planning the strategy or change. In your head, you’ve answered your own whys and hows. To your employees, the news may be a bolt from the blue, so expect a deluge of questions – many of which you won’t immediately have the answers to (that doesn’t mean you should just ignore those questions).
Ultimately, your employees can’t do much about the decisions you make, but it is they who will walk your business down the path of change. The future might be uncertain, but through a clear, accurate and planned communications campaign, you can guide and unite your people to building, or rebuilding, a stronger organisation.
- The need for change may be financially driven, but keep your people at the heart of your change programme.
- Be specific in your reasons for the change – use statistics to highlight the issues and future targets. Outline how the change is in line with the company’s values.
- Communicate equally with people who stay in your organisation and those who will leave – everyone is an ambassador for your brand.
- Develop a sustained multi-format comms strategy: face-to-face forums are important, but these can’t always be done on a regular basis. Use ad hoc channels to top up messages.
- Keep messages consistent and well managed. All your office should hear the same news at the same time.
- Remember that your employees will have different questions to the ones you have already answered at a senior level.