How to deliver great change communications

Haven’t we all been through enough change in the last two years? Despite this being how many workforces might be feeling after such radical changes during Covid, the reality is that most organisations are only just warming up and are investing in significant transformation projects. In this blog we’re looking at the role of HR and Internal Comms teams when it comes to change communications and bringing the workforce on a change journey.

The pace of change

Many businesses are tackling digitisation, automation, infrastructure changes, optimisation and innovation projects, all while responding to significant market disruption changes in supply chains and more. The world is changing fast, and organisations are having to adapt quicker than ever before. During the pandemic, when necessity really became the mother of invention, we all saw how agile organisations could be under pressure. Now senior leaders have experienced that agility and sped they have higher expectations on what the pace of change can be. The adage of change is a constant has never been truer.

In recent decades shocking change programme failure rates of up to 70% have often been quoted by various sources. Regardless of quite where the proof for these stats comes from, and quite what is deemed a failure, the reality is that often (possibly always) change programmes are met with challenges along the way that can unravel or reduce their ultimately smooth delivery. Of course, these challenges vary including factors like poor planning and project management, or leaders not taking accountability, but amongst one of the most common themes is often poor communication.

So, in that context, how can HR and Internal Comms teams ensure that poor communication is not a contributing factor in change programme failure rates, and instead create change communications that successfully bring the whole workforce on a change journey?

Identify what is really changing

Change is typically seen as something substantial that impacts the way things are done by more than one part of a business, often impacting multiple departments. Change programmes take time, sometimes rolling out to different parts of the workforce in multiple stages. The result of a change programme usually disrupts a large portion of the workforce and requires them to make a permanent, everyday change to the way or location they work and ultimately this change impacts the end customer, making it even more critical to enable the workforce to embrace it positively.

Top tip: It is important to note the difference between the trigger for change and the actual change. For example, new leadership (like a new CEO) or a change of ownership (mergers / acquisitions / takeovers) are triggers for change and of course require careful and considered communication, but what’s important in these cases is usually in what follows them.

Understand how the employee landscape has evolved

The first thing for leaders to consider when planning their next change communications is that whilst employees were very adaptable and accepting of change during the pandemic, even without the time to be collaborative or in depth communications, there’s now a potential for change fatigue. There is no longer the adrenaline of survival mode, living in the ‘eye of a storm’.

Now, in the context of a fierce talent war, where the candidate power is strong, employees are unlikely to embrace unwanted change. In fact, poorly received change programmes could easily unsettle workforces and perpetuate attrition accelerating The Big Quit.

Top tip: Set Leadership expectation for resistance. The talent landscape has shifted since 2020 and poor change management could impact the organisation’s ability to retain talent.

Know the impact of poor change management

Regardless of how well an organisation thinks their change programme is going, the reality is that when a workforce doesn’t embrace change the impact can be catastrophic, and expensive.

When change isn’t embraced it can result in non-compliance, disgruntled employees leading to toxic and anti-management cultures, low morale, high absenteeism, reduced productivity, work to rule mentalities, high attrition and potentially strikes. No business wants or can afford any of this, so the second thing leaders need to acknowledge is that any investment into better change communications is likely to be money, time and productivity not being wasted elsewhere.

Top tip: Be clear on the business case for a decent budget.

Deliver great change communications

Developing change communications requires significant time and effort investment, leadership interaction, and planning and the structure. Timing and language will be unique to the nature of the change and sensitivity of the workforce, but here are some of our general top tips:

  1. Give the change a name. That way it can be acknowledged and all comms relating to it are easily identified. But keep the name straight forward. It needs to be clear what the change is about. Don’t get too creative, this is not a political or marketing campaign slogan.
  2. Plan the structure and timing of your comms carefully. You may need to think about the comms in clear stages, for example giving a heads up through a teaser phase, officially launching the change, driving understanding through an education phase, helping to embed through a living phase, and so on. The stages needed will depend on the size and complexity of the change.
  3. Agree a rhythm. Identity that works for your communications and stick to it at all costs. Be that a weekly update via email or a CEO podcast, try to bring some reliable consistency to your comms to help build up trust from the workforce.
  4. Create opportunities for psychologically safe two-way communication. There are so many ways to give employees confidential channels to speak up (for example Slido) so encourage questions and feedback throughout. See questions as gifts not gripes. When an employee speaks out they’re usually opening up a debate that others were thinking and they’re enabling you to respond.
  5. Find some advocates to become change champions. We love this TED Talk that really demonstrates how to create a change movement.
  6. Mind your language. From keeping messages simple to putting yourself in employees shoes so you can communicate specifically as to what’s important to them, give yourself a chance to read (and read again) how a piece of comms might be received by different cohorts in the business.
  7. Talk about why the change is happening. There should a North Star (a goal) for what the business (and workforce) will gain from the change. For employees to embrace that goal they need to understand the benefit of going through the change.
  8. Be kind and compassionate. People often struggle with change, so ensure support is on hand to spot and take care of those who find the process stressful. Mental health plays a huge part of embracing change, acknowledge that for some employees the stability of their working life might be critical to keeping them balanced whilst their home lives are turbulent.
  9. Change is emotional. To bring everyone on the journey (and win hearts and minds), you’ll need to identify times to collaborate as well as times when it’s appropriate to be more directive in ‘tell’ mode.
  10. Consider the hardest to reach parts of the organisation. It’s all well and good that desk based staff have had access to numerous emails, town halls and corridor chats with leaders but what about the field, factory or night shift employees that have limited access to your comms channels? Consider the least communication an employee could receive and check if this is enough. If not create work arounds, imagine the impact of a late night warehouse visit by a senior leader to ensure a remote team are kept included. Check out our guide on engaging hard to reach employees to help get you started.

Communication is key in any change programme. If change programme communications fail your workforce will be left feeling anxious, frustrated, and confused, perhaps doubtful about the motives of management or simply disinterested in what’s being asked of them. Change programmes that get the right level of communication at the right time will help employees feel more positive, engaged, and confident to take on new tasks, responsibilities, and service expectations. If your business is about to go through a period of change, we can help you get your change communications right first time.