Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said: “The only thing that is constant is change.”
Change in business is inevitable. Whether due to economic changes, company-level struggles or improvements, fear in the midst of uncertain times could shake the confidence of your employees.
At no other time is the importance of employee engagement as apparent as during organisational change. Clear and effective communication can help gain the trust and support required to bring your company through a rough patch or a period of reform.
How do you engage employees when the company is going through a period of significant change?
When anxiety in the workplace starts to rise, it is imperative to keep the communication lines open.
PwC says about managing in a downturn:
"While the required communication can be very time-consuming, particularly when there are many other challenges to be addressed, it is a vitally important investment."
For physical teams, it’s best to have regular face-to-face meetings or update sessions. Virtually, be approachable and open with information.
Constant communication not only helps employees understand what is going on with their company, it also allows managers to understand the sentiments on the ground. Holding a change management or crisis management town hall with a Q&A session, for instance, will allow employees to share their concerns and be heard. Running a poll about decisions in the company could help employees feel like their feedback is valuable and useful.
Set the parameters for change
To provide a sense of control in a time of uncertainty, try giving some milestones or expectations that your employees can rely on. In a time of restructuring, this could be a timeline or tasks broken up into phases. In economic downturn, this could just be milestones where management promises to re-evaluate or give updates.
To help establish trust, be sure to document the changes. Trust is important to ensure that the whole company is aligned to achieve organisational change together. If there is distrust in the workplace, it could hinder the company’s progress.
Frame it in a story
Framing a major upheaval in a story doesn’t mean to fabricate nice-sounding lies. Instead, it’s about providing the context and the reasoning behind the decisions that management has made. According to Anthony Petrucci at Forbes, storytelling in corporate communication has the ability to build trust, help employees visualise transformation, and bring meaning to change.
The typical storytelling device of conflict and resolution is familiar to any audience and could help employees place themselves in the hero role -- someone poised to take on problems and overcome adversity.
Understand your employees’ change in motivations
Your employees’ concerns can change in a time of volatility.
Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory on human motivation. The theory suggests that humans need to first meet their basic needs, like food, shelter, and safety, before they need to have their psychological needs, like love, belonging, and esteem, met. Only then, can they progress to meet their growth needs or reach self-actualisation.
According to Engagement Multiplier, you can apply this hierarchy of needs to employee engagement. Only if the basic needs of an employee are met, such as good pay and job security, will the higher tier needs, like the friends they make or their contribution to a team, matter to them.
In other words, emphasising the difference your employees make in a company when their paycheck is being cut is going to be a difficult sell.
So what happens when you can’t promise your employees the most basic needs?
According to the Wall Street Journal, a big part of crisis management is effective communication to all stakeholders, including employees, vendors, the media, and the public. Honest and consistent information is paramount, so appoint a crisis manager to be the sole spokesperson and to keep a record of all the facts.
Instead of trying to mask the bad and the ugly, be upfront and transparent about the facts. Even if you can’t provide total transparency, which happens in a huge organisational change, be upfront and transparent about that. Employees will respect that not all the information will be available if you give them a reason.
Empathy is always an option, even when a company goes through a tumultuous time. However, it is rarely the option chosen. When employees lash out or managers themselves struggling with the uncertainty, they often turn to defensiveness, avoidance, and frustration.
But choosing empathy is choosing a stance that the company isn’t built on numbers or money or code -- it’s built on people.
Communication expert Patti Sanchez writes:
“(...) In my work as a communication consultant, I’ve observed the same thing time and time again: how information is communicated to employees during a change matters more than what information is communicated. A lack of audience empathy when conveying news about an organizational transformation can cause it to fail.”
By acknowledging the fear, confusion, and even anger that could arise from uncertainty and approach the subject with empathy, you take small steps to win your team’s trust, support, and perhaps even empathy in return.