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Communicating change: The five things I’ve learnt about employees’ emotions

After a decade communicating change to employees, I’ve learnt a lot about how they emotionally react, and how that’s shaped my internal communications plans and strategies. Here are my top five – I’d love to hear yours too.

Solidarity

When the going gets tough, employees stick together. I’ve witnessed it during different types of change, but during redundancy or TUPE (that’s where someone’s employment is transferred to another company due to acquisition, outsourcing etc) I’ve seen it at its greatest. The feeling of family and protectiveness towards each other deepens. People form a united front.

When you’re in that family unit it’s a really powerful feeling. In my experience, it’s important for internal communicators to embrace it and be an integral part of that family. Work out who your stakeholders are, form a network, find out how they feel and what they’re missing, and then look at how your internal communications plan can support them.

It’s ok to cry

Me included in this one. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried on more than one occasion during my redundancy. It’s the only time in my career that I’ve witnessed employees cry in the office, and walk out of announcement briefings in tears.

I think that sometimes it’s the shock, sometimes it’s because they care so deeply about their job and where they work, and sometimes it’s the realisation of what the change could mean for their family.

When you’re working on a change communications strategy, working closely with HR will help you to clearly communicate what emotional support is out there for people, like employee assistance programmes, when they need it the most.

Sensitivity reigns

When people’s futures are uncertain and they’re desperate for information and news, I’ve found that even the most carefully crafted message can land wrong; be it timing, targeting or content.

As an example, I once issued a communication offering free CV workshops to employees. To the part of the audience at risk of redundancy, it was snapped up. To the part of the audience who were still waiting to see what their futures held, they read between the lines and thought it meant they would be leaving too.

It’s hard for busy internal communicators to consider everyone’s reactions, especially when comms are backing up and you’re under pressure to get messages out of the door, but once you realise how sensitive people are, you’ll make the time to check you’ve got it right.

They sweat the small stuff

But it’s not small to them.

It’s easy for a project team to overlook what’s getting employees worked up, as they’re focused on the big milestones, so that’s where advice from internal communicators can add real value. You’re the voice of the people. You know how they feel and what matters to them.

In my experience, people’s working environment is the thing that provokes the most heated reaction. I’ve seen Q&A inboxes drowning with employees’ questions worrying about their parking spaces, asking if they’re moving desk, are the restaurant prices increasing, can they continue to use the on-site gym, are the vending machines being removed, are they still getting a Christmas party?

Help them get the answers. Or at least get their voice heard by the right people.

The barriers are down

During times of change, I’ve noticed that people let their guard down. Even the most senior.

You may hear your CEO speak openly about their family for the first time. You might discover more about your colleagues’ home lives, and what their income means to them. And you’ll probably find employees readily offering up how they really feel about the company they work for… both good and bad.

As internal communicators you have the chance to match how they feel, and respond with open and honest communications with personality.

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