The words “unprecedented”, “challenging” and “uncertain” are probably among the most used words of 2020. But those words are now, more and more, being coupled with the phrase “difficult decisions to make”.
Whether your business has seen a downturn, or been boosted by the pandemic, what’s certain for the vast majority of businesses is that change is a necessity. And how you handle that change is crucial, particularly for those that need to pivot to survive.
An enormous part of the effort to push through uncertain times and come out the other side in one piece is how well you communicate with your stakeholders throughout the period of change.
So, how do you communicate change, when everything is changing?
Having worked on a number of major change and transformation programmes, I thought I would share my experience and advice for businesses tackling a challenging period of change.
Key steps to successful change communications:
- Analyse the impact
Whether you’ve decided to restructure, divest a business unit, merge with a competitor, or you’re adapting to take on new opportunities; you’ve decided on your direction, set a plan and you understand the implications for the business. But before your change programme gets underway, it’s important to assess how these changes might affect stakeholders – both internal and external.
Whether you’re dealing with clients, partners, employees, shareholders, they will all be focused on exactly what your decision means for them. You need to be prepared to tell them and to answer their questions and concerns.
Consider and communicate with all stakeholders, even if they’re not directly impacted. They don’t want to read/hear about it elsewhere and they’re likely to have questions – give them chance to engage with you.
- Be transparent and timely
Being open and honest is vital during a period of change. But it is always important to gauge the right time to give each level of detail. Too soon and your information could quickly become outdated and confuse clients and employees. Too late and you risk the news leaking out and you relinquish control of the message, lose trust and cause reputational damage.
If possible, plan and map the flow of information you’re going to develop. In today’s circumstances, you may be doing some things ‘on the fly’, so you may not have the details at an early stage, but you can still have a high level, fluid plan.
Whatever kind of change you’re driving, one of the most important things is being completely honest. Make sure you involve both your comms teams and your legal representatives to agree any complex communications and ensure that you’re striking the right balance between honesty and meeting your legal obligations around employee rights and any competition laws, for example.
Being transparent also means that sometimes you might have to say, “we’re not sure”, or “we don’t know yet”. If this is because it’s too early in the process to know the exact details of something, (this is particularly common in a merger/acquisition, or a restructure, for instance) it can be OK to throw your hands up and admit that you don’t know. But if that happens, you have to commit to finding the answer and following through on answering the question in your comms when you’re able to.
- Deal with the details
It is, of course, vital that you help your stakeholders understand ‘the big picture’; what you are trying to achieve, why and how you will get there. But don’t underestimate the importance of the finer details.
Try to anticipate localised questions and concerns. For instance, if you are planning a relocation of your offices, how does this affect employees? Even if it’s a local move, does it impact their work journeys? What are the transport issues it may raise? While these questions may seem insignificant, the cost of travel, availability of parking and public transport is important to most employees.
Gauging the level of detail to communicate is important and tailoring the communications for each stakeholder group is critical. So, while your internal communications might deal with details about parking and employee benefits, your client communications are more likely to deal with information changes to their daily point of contact, or whether it affects their technology interfaces, or data security, for instance.
- Engage employees
There is nothing worse than trying to communicate a positive message when employees feel negative or left out in the cold. Everyone in your business needs to be as clear as possible on what journey the organisation is on and what it means for them.
Client-facing employees need to be kept particularly well-informed. They need to be equipped with answers to help communications with clients and prospects. If your client facing employees don’t seem to know what’s happening, this perception can have a big impact on relationships and on market reputation.
It’s also important to use your management team – don’t try to manage the communications by yourself, or just via your comms team. A united front and ‘ears on the ground’ really help. It’s really valuable to empower your managers to lead their own teams through the period change. The best way to do this is by briefing them early, issuing management comms packs and keeping them engaged as things progress. This gives line managers the chance to help with onwards communications to employees and in answering any questions from their team.
Employee ‘Change Champions’ can be a huge asset in ensuring effective communications too, especially for a long-term change programme. When you select your change champions, (who should be volunteers) don’t just pick positive people, or those who will be onside. And make sure you include people from all levels in the organisation – they will help you understand any requirements or concerns you may not have thought of. They can also be valuable in feeding back as to how your change plans – and your communications activities – are being received.
- Measure and adapt
The key here is to acknowledge any issues and then address them, don’t ignore questions or pay lip service to listening – you will be called out on it. If employees or clients feel you are being insincere, holding back or embellishing the truth, it can cause huge rifts in relationships and morale.
Measurement and feedback mechanisms must be built into your comms plan right from the start and there needs to be a constant feedback loop to ensure you are monitoring perceptions, problems and engagement.
While you may not be able to change the big picture to make the change process amenable to everyone – and you certainly can’t keep everyone happy all the time – it’s worth seeing what issues can be addressed to help make the changes more palatable for those affected. A little good will can go a long way.
If you’re facing a period of change and need help or advice in mapping out your communications plan, get in touch.