communication change intelligence

Helping your employees deal with change by communicating it the right way

Last year, 70% of employees we surveyed indicated that they faced an increasing amount of change over the prior year. In addition, Communications executives identified employee change fatigue as the most pressing challenge they faced. Of course, 2020 was a year unlike any other, but before attributing these figures to the dramatic events of that year, consider this: from 2017 to 2019, employee change fatigue had already topped of the list of communications leaders’ challenges. Clearly, this is not a new phenomenon, and does not appear to be going away any time soon.

VUCA Environment

More and more leaders are using the term “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) to describe the current environment that employees are facing. VUCA is an acronym coined by the US army in the 1980s, but over the past several years, it has migrated into business lexicon to describe a constantly ongoing state of change. For communicators, it can be instructive to frame the communications strategy that will effectively engage workers in this brave new world.

Given this context then, how can communications leaders engage employees to help them navigate this ever-changing world? First, they need to reconsider the nature of the changes that employees are facing. But they must also acknowledge the limitations of the traditional approach to change communications, which prioritizes large-scale, organizational transformations like a merger or acquisition, the launch of a new corporate strategy, or introduction of a new CEO.

While all of these events still necessitate a communications response, they represent a small fraction – just 4% – of the total number of changes that employees face in a given year. This leaves a gaping hole in the way that leaders help employees through the other 96% of changes – everything from rolling out new technology in the workplace to getting a new manager – that may be individually smaller in scope but collectively have the potential to be quite disruptive.

Communications’ response: adopting an always-on strategy

When we studied how communications leaders were most successfully responding to this environment, we found that they were fundamentally shifting how their employees think about changes; not as one-off events, but by talking about change as an ecosystem. In short, they were adopting an ‘always-on change strategy,’ where they deliver regular, overarching messages that are not specific to any one organizational change, but rather discuss how the organization operates in a consistently changing state.

Broadly speaking, an always-on change strategy includes two components:

  • Providing employees with regular information about how decisions have been made and the implications of a VUCA environment on the organization
  • Providing employees with access to self-serve networks and resources that they can use for just-in time support and to build their resiliency

Adopting an always-on strategy dedicated to supporting employees in an environment of ongoing change has several benefits when compared to the traditional, one-off approach:

  • First, the regular information about VUCA helps reset employee expectations of stability. Information that is initially shared with employees to help them understand change often becomes outdated as business conditions change. As such, the always-on strategy can help employees become better primed to expect that their organization is in a consistent period of change.
  • Second, visibility into how change decisions are made helps employees follow the organization’s change journey and prompts them to seek out opportunities to consider how they can contribute to that journey.
  • Third, access to self-serve networks and resources helps employees find long-term success in a VUCA environment, which ultimately builds resiliency.

One final advantage of adopting an ‘always-on change strategy’ is that it helps to mitigate the need for communications leaders to respond to every single change that occurs across the organization. On the contrary, an effective always-on communications strategy has the potential to be self-sustaining, as it provides employees the ability to access self-serve networks and resources in real-time, drawing upon peer-to-peer engagement to help each other navigate the ongoing VUCA environment.

Author: Emmett Fitzpatrick

Source: Gartner