Effective Change Management Communication

Someone rightly said ‘Change is the only constant’ and whether it is our personal life or a business, change is inevitable. In a VUCA world, businesses have no option but to evolve and move with the times, so as to adjust to the changing market dynamics or customer requirements. If we look at startups, change can mostly be described as ‘business as usual’. Startups tend to add new business lines, rehash their business models, as well as scale down a few businesses, as the business matures or evolves. This topic becomes even more relevant in the times of Corona as companies battle to combat crisis and get their businesses back on track, in the coming months. 

So, let’s begin by outlining what all fits into the definition of organisation change. Well this is quite a long list but can be categorised into three key categories- 1) ‘Developmental Change’ aimed at enhancing the current state of the organisation, 2) ‘Transitional Change’ which includes two key elements, firstly dismantling an existing aspect and secondly, putting a new order in place, and 3) ‘Transformational Change’ which brings about fundamental changes in how the business is run. 

To explain in simpler terms, organisational change can include a senior level leadership change, organisational restructuring, launch of a new product/ service, entering a new market/geography, merger or acquisition, layoffs or salary cuts, fund raise, or maybe the company’s plans to go public.

Change has a set of challenges

Change is never easy. More so, it is bundled with a range of challenges for an organisation. These include risk of failure, reduction in productivity and business losses. 

Take the example of a company that an organisation has acquired. The business model of the acquired company is such that it complements the existing business and/or adds a new dimension to it. There are bound to be a lot of questions around the company’s existing team, a possible restructuring, the fitment of the new leadership in the existing system, any layoffs on the cards etc. 

Another example could be of a senior leadership change. Let’s assume that the CEO of the organisation is moving out and the next CEO is yet to be finalised. This is a sensitive time for the organisation and it is obvious for the employees to worry about their future, the business focus, and have questions around the impact of power shift.

One more and very common example is around a technology upgradation or automation. Imagine a company that is facing business challenges due to archaic ways of working, like using excel sheets or manual ways to track the progress on sales leads. Even if an organisation is planning to automate sales execution with a market leader like Salesforce and believes it will help streamline sales process, the employees may not be excited about the development.

Communication is important

Change at an enterprise level not only impact business’s success and top line, but also has a short as well as long term impact on employees across verticals, locations and irrespective of their role in the organisation. 

Changes are generally not welcome and witness resistance, as well as an emotional reaction across employees. The reasons range from employees being comfortable with a specific working style, uncertainty around the reason for change, or the fear of the impact on one’s job/life.  

Hence, it is important for organisations to not only implement change, but also plan the change management communication in a strategic manner. Communication professionals have an important role to play, as they need to devise as well as ensure smooth execution of a robust communication strategy that effectively communicates the change as well as motivates employees to be a part of it.

Key steps for effective change communication

Leadership should take the lead in proactively connecting with employees. The change communication should be driven by the senior management. It is important for employees to hear it from the CXOs as they respect and look up to them. The company should identify the Change Leader, keeping in mind the criticality of the change (For example, the CTO can take the lead in case of a technology overhaul). There is also a need to prepare a set of advocates. This could include senior leaders or managers who are well informed about the rationale of the change and can act as advocates of the change and communicate the message to the employees with confidence.

Communication needs to be specific and well-planned. The communication should have the context, logical reasoning for the change and the plan for the future. This will help the employees get an in-depth perspective of what is happening. It needs to be specific and have answers to who, what, where, when and why.

Communication needs to be proactive. Time is the key here. While  it is important that the communication needs to be planned and well structured, it is also imperative to communicate proactively so as to avoid rumor mills to get into action. There might be scenarios when all the details of the change are not known. In such scenarios, it is recommended to send a first level communication outlining that the intent was to apprise about the development and not hold it for later. This communication can be followed up with a more detailed communication at a later date. 

Leverage all possible channels. In today’s digital era, it is important to connect with the stakeholders across all possible channels. This could include an email, communication on company’s social media channels, videos, Townhalls, focused group discussions, intranet, notice boards in office, in person meetings, blogs, newsletters, amongst others. Do not make the mistake of only sending an email to communicate a change as it either go unnoticed or not be able to make a huge impact. It is recommended to use a range of channels as it will help increase the chances of message’s exposure to the employees.

Provide channel for questions and conversations. Communication is a two-way process and hence, it cannot be about a senior leader making an announcement about the change and not taking questions. The company should provide a platform for the employees to ask questions. The Change Leaders or advocates need to spend time connecting with individuals one-on-one or in small groups. They should be open to listening grievances and be empathetic towards the employees. Leaders should respond to questions thoughtfully and avoid being defensive or making excuses. They should clearly outline the benefits of the change. It is advisable that the leaders should be prepped with the probable questions and their responses well in advance, so they are not caught off guard. It is suggested to have responses aligned to ‘What’s in it for me’ or ‘What does it mean to me?’. In case there is a question that the leader does not have a ready response to, he can politely tell the employee that he will connect later with a response, and do the needful as per commitment.

Celebrate progress and small wins. The company should celebrate progress and small wins around change. The early adopters and achievements due to the change should be clearly called out via multiple communication channels. This will help drive positivity around the change and in turn, encourage more employees to adapt to the change

Be open to feedback. In today’s times, it is advisable that the company is open to feedback from employees. This helps a long way in getting employees involved and accountable. It is important for managers to talk to their team, counsel them and fix their challenges, wherever possible. Online chats or forums can be used to address common concerns. In case there is a need to alter initial implementation plan based on feedback received, the company should be open to doing that. 

Repeat yourself. Consider the classic Marketing Rule of Seven: ‘People need to hear your message at least seven times before they’ll consider taking action’. Change communication will have to be repetitive and across channels to be able to drive home the actual rationale and motivate employees to be a part of the change.

We are living in unpredictable times and the coming months are expected to witness a lot more activity around change management, as businesses will be forced to alter their existing path or take tough decisions so as to continue their growth story. Effective change communication strategy will be the key to help deliver right information and resources consistently with the objective of improving employee capability, and equipping the leaders to act as change accelerators in the journey. This becomes even more important in a global set up where distributed teams is a norm and all the team members are not present under one roof. It is imperative that communications should not follow the top-down approach and instead, should be written keeping in mind the recipient and what would resonate with him. Right message, right time and right media will be the key.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Akanksha Jain
Akanksha heads PR and Communication at BharatPe. She has over 15 years of experience in working across global/digital public relations, corporate and brand communications, crisis communications, brand and market communications domains.

In the past, Akanksha has successfully planned and executed public relations/brands campaigns across India and over 30 other countries. She is a start-up specialist and has extensive experience of working with emerging brands. She has been associated with brands like Pine Labs, MobiKwik, VLCC and Power2SME and spearheaded their PR/brand/communication campaigns.

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