Communicating Change: How To Use Your In-House Communications Team

Using your in-house communications team for communicating change (especially during union organizing!) can present a unique set of challenges. One of the worst things that can happen is a manager responding, “I don’t know” after employees ask the about a new policy or change. Just as bad is the response, “Where did you hear that?”

These kinds of answers are indicative of a serious internal communication problem. The implications of employees getting unreliable information through the grapevine are huge. Managers failing to communicating change is equally damaging. Your in-house marketing and communications team can make all the difference in making sure employees feel part of change – rather than subjected to it.

Communication Breakdown

“Communication breakdown, it’s always the same,” sang Led Zeppelin. The truth is, employees want to feel in on things. Good communication from leaders takes training and strategy. Without good communication, a few wrong words from a leader can undo months of efforts to improve employee engagement and morale.

Technology, global markets and competition make communicating change a constant challenge. The words “I don’t know” have no place when you’re working to be an employer of choice. In fact, not properly preparing leaders on how to communicate change can lead to higher turnover, disengagement and even union organizing.

Change management is a process for helping the workforce accept and embrace change in the workplace. At the heart of effectively managing change is communication, and your in-house communications team. Without a rock solid communication system that supports an inclusive collaborative culture and keeps people informed, and leaders who can communicate change, the change initiative is likely to fall flat.

Many of the same principles and skills needed for external marketing are needed for internal marketing. That is to say, your communication should build trust in your employer brand. In advance of any big change, ask your in-house team to craft a communication strategy for your leaders that will help everyone maintain a positive attitude. Make sure the strategy gives leaders the information and tools they need to keep their team members informed about the who, what and why of changes.

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Influencing People

Your in-house team’s ability to strategize around communicating change is a determinant of how connected your people are to the business mission and leadership goals. An article published in the Public Relations Journal reported the results of 32 in-depth interviews with internal communicators concerning change management.

The study found that effective communication strategies included seeking out employee advocates or identifying influencers. Using videos to communicate key messages was found to be highly effective. Additionally, managers hold face-to-face meetings with employees when possible and ensure the messages communicate what the changes mean. Leaders share the impact of the change on employee jobs and the specific benefits of the change. Importantly, change managers also provide resources and alternatives for employees. The quality of employee training resources can make or break a change initiative.

It’s nearly impossible to depend on face-to-face meetings to keep people up to date, especially if the workforce is dispersed as so many are today. Change, by its very definition, is a state of flux, meaning the communication system must be capable of keeping people updated at all times on what is happening and why. This can be achieved with a dedicated website and online video.

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Cultivating In-House Influencers for Communicating Change

If your managers are uninformed about what is going on in the company, then so are your employees! Your in-house communications team should strategize to create well-informed managers who empower employees to succeed. By helping team members understand the reason for the change, their role and the goals ahead, the employees themselves become supporters of the change.

One of the responsibilities of your managers is to identify and leverage employee advocates who embrace change. Employee advocates your internal ambassadors. They are the people who talk to co-workers, listen to their concerns, share perspectives with managers and advocate for positive change.

Imagine this conversation between employees:

Employee 1: “You have any idea what’s going on? They keep changing everything, making my work so much more difficult. This is not fair, and I think I will protest.”

Employee influencer: “I only know because I regularly visit the online company website that explains the change initiative and have asked our manager a lot of questions. What management is doing is exciting and could possibly lead to some interesting projects soon and maybe even a promotion. Want me to share what I know?”

Building Your Communication Infrastructure

Change management can address a one-time initiative or continuous change. Either way, developing leaders who know how to spot and cultivate positive influencers is crucial to maintaining employee engagement. First, you need a communication infrastructure in place that provides the training and communication opportunities people – leaders and staff alike – need to support adoption of change.

manager can say, “I don’t know,” but a better leader response is, “I don’t know the answer off-hand, but let’s look at the employee website for an update.”

supervisor may say “I have no idea,” but a better leader response is, “The website is available 24/7 and explains how you can estimate the cost of union dues.”

manager will ask, “Where did you hear that? You know more than me!” (ouch!) but a better leader will respond, “I understand your concern. I’ll be sure to share it with our top leaders and get some feedback.”

Obviously, your leaders need good training first. Your in-house team, as well as your outside resources, can provide your leaders with the tools they need to convey the organization’s mission and reasons for change. Make sure they have a clear understanding of the goals, specifically what’s required of them personally. Providing consistent messages online to leaders and employees gives supervisors the confidence to interact with employees, actively listen, get and give feedback, address concerns and identify and encourage influencers.

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Access to Proper Communication Channels

Your in-house team should use a mix of communication channels. Be sure they’re enlisting outside resources as needed. Asking them to strategize, write copy, communicate, train others to communicate and meet the company’s goals may be overwhelming.

Be sure they have resources at their disposal that will help them include social media. Consider developing web-based interactive training programs that enable immediate feedback, online videos, and even customized eLearning programs specific to the change initiative.

Include recognition and reward systems in your communication strategy, as those can be highly effective for employees and leaders alike. Mix in some good old-fashioned emails and face-to-face conversations (when possible), and your communication system is pervasive and highly engaging.

The Management of Communicating Change

Famed consultant Dr. John Kotter describes an eight-step change process in his book Leading Change. The process is the same, despite the fact that some of the tools have changed thanks to new technologies. Your in-house team can use this structure, which is solidly about effective communication. The eight steps are:

Set the Organization’s Climate for Change

  1. Create a sense of shared need and urgency
  2. Develop and be part of a guiding coalition
  3. Develop a vision and strategy

Enable and Engage the Organization

  1. Communicate the change and mobilize workforce commitment
  2. Enable employees to make the change
  3. Generate and celebrate short-term wins

Implement and Sustain New Ways

  1. Consolidate gains and build on success
  2. Make the change stick

Kotter believes that at least 75 percent of leaders must buy into the change process for it to work. If your managers and supervisors are not change influencers first, then how can you expect team members to become advocates? Be sure your strategy includes frequent communication from the top to lower level managers and from managers to employees, and back up again is crucial.

Communicating Change and Learning New Behaviors

Your leaders may need to learn new behaviors and become models for employees. Interactive eLearning and videos can demonstrate the right behaviors in an engaging and memorable way. Leadership training and development is critical because change management is not just about tactical communication.

Do your managers know how to actively engage employees in the change process and build a successful team by helping them learn new behaviors and skills? Do your leaders know how to respond to employee questions with truth and transparency? Availability of online leadership development training, customized employee training and employee dedicated webpages that include two-way feedback becomes the beating heart of the change effort.

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and the founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.

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