Communicating Organisational Change
Change is scary. Uncertainty drives anxiety. Feeling like you’re losing control is disorienting. These stresses can fester as quiet resentment or boil over into outright hostility. When you are driving the change, the importance of effectively communicating the change cannot be understated. The size and complexity of the task can also trigger unconstructive behaviours in the change/communication agents in an organisation, so it pays to be prepared and methodical in your approach.
Approaches to Change Management
There are many established change management frameworks, such as the ADKAR Model and the Kübler-Ross Change Curve. An effective communications strategy will consider the people affected, the nature of the change, the impact and the behaviours desired from those impacted. Positive framing can help you send the right message - but if you want to appear genuine, you need to be open, honest, and respond to your peoples’ concerns.
Understanding common reasons for push back or resistance to change can help organisations be proactive in addressing these issues.
When devising our Communication Strategy, we’ll start by answering the “Four W’s + H”:
Who are we sending the message to?
Who is impacted? Who needs to hear about this change?
Consider each impacted team or group of people separately.
Who should the message be coming from?
Consider each stage of the communication effort. Whose voice it should it be delivered in? Communications from a CEO/Exec/Senior Manager can have a sense of importance and urgency. While these types of communications can go out across an organisation quickly, they can be impersonal.
Prosci advises although the person driving the change is the best person to communicate the business drivers for the change (why do we need to change?), direct supervisors are the preferred messengers for the personal impact of change (what does this mean for me?). This is due to the trust and personal connection people typically develop with their immediate leaders.
Significant change cannot be managed or communicated in one email, teleconference or Yammer post. A communication campaign must consist of multiple coordinated communication efforts and touch points. For each of these interactions interaction we will seek to do one or more of the following:
- Get buy-in
- Get input
- Drive a behaviour change
Depending on the objective, we must vary the communication format and messenger accordingly.
The timing of your communication is important. Sending an email at 4:30 pm on a Friday afternoon will improve the likelihood it will be missed by most people, and imply you wanted it to be missed. People will smell your disingenuousness and you will instantly lose some of the trust you might have established.
Similarly, delaying communication until every single detail has been ironed out can cause unnecessary stress and anxiety for people. It’s important to balance communicating early and often with having all relevant the information, and be transparent about this.
The content of your messaging matters. When it comes to organisational change, people want to know:
- What is changing?
- Why is it changing?
- How does this effect me personally?
- How will I be supported through this change?
People will want to know exactly how they will be affected – essentially, how their work day and working life will change.
It’s important to be genuine in your messaging, particularly where there are unknowns. Things people will easily see through include:
- Glossing over unknown aspects of the change
- Excessive reframing of potential negative impacts
- Hiding behind buzzwords
There are many communication channels available to us, each with their own pros and cons. Consider the communication hierarchy, from most personal to least personal:
- Face to face
- Video conference
- Recorded video or audio
The same hierarchy is inverted when you consider the size of the audience you can effectively reach. That is, the higher the fidelity, the smaller the audience and the lower the fidelity, the wider you can be with your communications.
Our Communication Strategy In Action
Let’s apply the 4W + H prompts to a communication campaign.
Consider an office relocation: one of your satellite offices is being absorbed into the main office of its city. You start your change campaign an initial “change is coming” announcement.
Consider the people impacted by the office move:
- Staff in the satellite office;
- Staff based in the main office. Why? They will also be impacted as more people are now working from this location;
- Staff in nearby offices, or even all staff nationally. Chances are, people in other cities or offices will also be impacted. The direct impacts may apply to staff in the impacted town, but those staff likely work with others in the region or across the company. The changes and possible disruptions will have flow on effects to these folks as well; and
- Clients, customers, suppliers. Anyone who would visit your physical office.
All of these stakeholder groups need to be included in the initial round of messaging.
The messenger will depend on whether you communicate to each group individually, or go broad. Chances are you will at least split the internal and external stakeholder communications. In this case it is appropriate for a CEO or MD, as the public and internal face of the company, to be the voice of the initial communication. Alternatively, your Media/PR spokesperson can handle the external communications.
The purpose of this initial communication is to inform. We want to let all staff know as part of the next 3 year planning cycle, the two offices in this town will be consolidated. More details will be communicated as time goes on, to the relevant people.
Given we are informing, a one-way communication medium strikes the best balance of reach, personalisation and efficiency of communication.
We want to give our people as much notice as possible. You certainly wouldn’t announce the office relocation the week before the movers arrive. We want to announce we have commenced planning an office move, and will be actively consulting our people throughout the process, as well as providing regular updates. The worst thing you can do is announce an office move has been planned over the last three months and has now been scheduled.
If you want people to become anxious and resentful, do the latter. People will wonder why it took you six months to notify them. In that time, they could have made a number of decisions which would have been impacted by knowing their office was moving. They could have spent that time coming to terms with the move, and making changes to reduce the impact of the move. Instead, they feel like the rug has been suddenly pulled out from under them, and valuable information has been withheld.
What information do we need to convey in this initial messaging?
What is changing?
We need to clearly detail which office is moving, where it is moving to, and planned timeframe for the move.
Why is it changing?
Are we moving because of financial drivers, reduced requirements for community presence, lower quality of facilities? Whatever the reason, it’s critical you are honest and genuine. People can smell spin and dishonest reframing a mile away.
If you say:
We are moving to a new office to streamline operations and promote synergy. You will love it!
People are less likely to respond positively than if you say:
We are moving offices. For a long time, staff working at site A have told us they have inferior facilities. We want to provide the best experience for all our staff. This is also a financial decision. We can provide a better working experience for all our team, at a reduced cost, by moving everyone to site B.”
The latter message comes across much more genuine. You are more likely to get buy-in with open and honest messaging.
How does this affect me personally?
For those moving, outline the next steps.
For those in already in the consolidated location, let them know how preparation for the move, and the move itself, will impact their workplace.
How will I be supported through this change?
You don’t have to give people all the details up front, it’s sufficient to let people know the office relocation will be performed by professional movers. Staff won’t have to relocate their computers or personal belongings themselves. There might also be an increased IT presence on site for the first week to assist with any teething issues. IT have most likely already planned this activity, but letting people know will help alleviate anxiety about the move.
This initial messaging can be a one way conversation. We are also going wide with this communication. Towards the lower fidelity/wider audience end of the scale we have recorded video and email/written communication.
Consider emails to each stakeholder group as the primary mechanism for the initial, “change is coming” messaging. Additionally, messages via social channels may also be appropriate, depending on the impact to customers.
Change is scary. How we communicate change has a significant impact on the way our people experience change. If we apply the 4W + H method, consider the audience and the messenger, we can be confident we have made a sincere effort to foreshadow the upcoming change.