At the outset, it is essential to acknowledge the fact that ‘over communication is better than no communication.’ Most of the organisations that embark on a change program and take a re-active approach to employee communication face many challenges. By that time, rumour mills and negative stories about the change had already come to action.
“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”- Anthony Robbins
To ensure, that a change program has buy-in from all the important stakeholders including the employees, it is important to devise an effective communication strategy in the initial stage of the program. Let us refer back to our earlier example of a services company that started a project to improve its customer service by strengthening its IT platforms and find out what can they do to have an effective communication plan in place.
Levels of Communication
In a business change journey, an employee could go through mixed emotions like unawareness, confusion, anxiety or fear. A multi-dimensional communication strategy should ensure that an employee or user gradually progresses through the four stages of change commitment curve – Awareness, Understanding, Buy-in and Commitment. The golden rule is to provide the right amount of information on the right time for the right audience and targeted at the right level.
- Awareness is a stage where an employee or stakeholder has been contacted and have heard about the change journey. Key communication messages at this stage covers ‘Why’ part such as- “Why does the company need to improve customer services and why improving IT platforms is an essential step towards it?”
- In understanding stage, an employee understands ‘what’ is involved in a change program and how the project will impact their day-to-day work and his/her department. For example, how change in IT platforms and processes will help in improving performance at work and customer service?
- Buy-in: This stage is normally achieved when employees have experienced or tried the change by participating in a pilot, training or UAT. From this stage, there is no going back and hence it is important to manage the communication and experiences as there will be some good and some not so good surprises with the employees. If managed well, this point marks the start of the commitment stage.
- Commitment: This is the final stage where employees are motivated and are fully committed to the belief that their individual and organisational interests are aligned. Employees talk about the change positively and have institutionalised the new way of working in daily routine. For example, some companies institutionalise reward mechanisms to recognise employees that exhibit behaviours for good customer service.
Considering the stakeholders and the desired level of commitment, a communication plan should be designed in the planning phase with the following details:
- Project Phase: Most of the projects are divided in five to six phases- Analysis, Plan, Design, Test, Pilot and Deploy. Communication requirements at each phase are different and it is imperative to ensure that there is consistent and continuous communication through the project.
- Messages: Key messages to be delivered via the communication event such as kick-off, announcement of the key project milestones, pilot or go-live communications.
- Channel: There are many communication channels or mediums that can be used to deliver the message. The selection of a channel depends on the message, audience and their geographical spread. For face-to-face communication by senior leadership at multiple locations, video-conferencing is a good option. Similarly for print or non-face-to-face but descriptive communication, newsletter or email is a good option. Lessons learned from earlier successes are always useful as employees have greater acceptance to those.
- Audience: Not all communication is meant for everyone in the company. To ensure effectiveness of the message, it should be tailored as per the audience. Please note customers, suppliers and shareholders are very much audience for communication, but the message needs to be relevant for them. For example, senior leadership will be interested in status reports and quantifiable benefits from the change program. However, the employees directly impacted by the change would be interested in how their day-to-day work is impacted by the change. Customers would be interested in what improved customer service rather than improved IT systems, means for them.
- Frequency: Frequency of the communication events depends on the milestones, achievements and timelines of the project.
- Communication Roles: Communication plan should also define roles and responsibilities for communication owner, content writer, approver and delivery.
- Branding: Using consistent branding across the project communication helps in creating awareness and engages the employee. Usually project branding is agreed during project kick-off in a workshop or focussed group. The creative team then do the design, logo, video etc. to go with different channels.
- Two-way: One-sided communication where the employees are always on the receiving end may not help in clarifying questions and doubts. The communication should open, continuous and two-way. As the project approaches the go-live or launch phase, the questions may increase and hence revising the communication plan to include more sessions for Q&A, an email mailbox etc. to answer queries etc. is advisable.
To summarise, communication is one of the key cornerstones to ensure business change is received well by all the impacted stakeholders. Taking a pro-active approach to communication by identifying impacted stakeholders and possible areas of resistance and addressing those through a continuous, two-way, relevant and consistent communication helps in mitigating people risks associated with the program.
So look back at changes in your company, where you experienced a new system launch or changes to performance management system, outsourcing or restructuring and share experiences where you were happy or not so happy with the communications you received. What did you like or what could have been better?