by Roman Rostek
The Chinese sign meaning “crisis” consists of two elements: first meaning “danger” and second meaning “opportunity”. This can be quite relevant for internal communication during times of change. On the one hand, it is easy to make a mistake that can have dangerous results. On the other hand, there is no better time for implementing new solutions for a communication system and for raising the importance of internal communication in the eyes of leaders.
The best players take responsibility
I’ve been working for several years as a communication consultant and I have met plenty of communicators. I’m always curious what some of them do differently to make their position solid and strong in their organizations. My observations prove that they are different from those who always say “no one cares about employee communication in my company” in one way: they treat change as a chance.
They strengthen their professional position during time of difficult changes or crises in their organizations. Instead of avoiding communication or practicing conservative messaging (which is a frequent practice in companies), these communicators took responsibility, came up with new initiatives and implemented new solutions and new tools. They’ve never waited for a signal to act.
During ‘good’ times nobody is going to ask communicators about how to communicate good news—this is a task that almost everybody can deliver. During a crisis situation, many managers willingly hand over responsibility for planning communication or writing a bad message for employees because they are overwhelmed by other tasks or because they feel communication is burdened with a risk of failure.
Changes—good times for new tools
Changes in an organization require more intensive communication than typical two-way channels. Employees have growing informational needs and water cooler gossip often makes change implementation difficult. That’s why introducing new tools is very reasonable. Also, it is easier to persuade managers to try something new since they see that typical ways of communication don’t necessarily work during changes. When employees complain that they don’t have critical information, you can exhibit the need to management to launch new or improved communication channels such as the ones I mention below.
Direct managers are key information sources according to employees. But during changes, managers can be left out, with little confirmed facts that they can pass to their teams. This makes managers even more frustrated than their subordinates because of a perceived lack of authority.
That’s why providing employees with information through their managers is so important during change. This can work, if:
1. The information is fully relevant and accurate (no manager will organize a team briefing about non-essential facts).
2. The same information isn’t simultaneously distributed via another channel. If similar messaging is sent in an e-mail or via the intranet, some managers will not feel that they need to meet with their teams to discuss the situation. Therefore, waiting 24 hours to publish the news anywhere else is an effective and safe delay tactic.
3. Managers are given the opportunity to ask questions about the messaging during face-to-face or virtual meetings with organizational leaders. If you expect managers to have a dialogue with their team, give them the opportunity first.
In short, using managers to present important information to employees builds a better understanding of who is responsible for communication at team level. Managers receive a clear message that nobody can substitute them in communication with their subordinates and a communication team is responsible for supporting them. Implementation of team briefings can significantly strengthen the relationship between a communication team and managers.
One of our clients embarked on a team briefings project; after a few months 2/3 of managers reported back to the internal communication team that they held such meetings with their teams. Some managers liked the channel so much that they sent information to communication teams to include it in the next brief.
A forum is a good gauge for the ‘emotional temperature’ in an organization. If there are no important problems, discussions often concern subjects non-essential for business like a new cafeteria menu or music in the workplace. That’s why many managers treat an intranet forum as useless when they see such discussions.
But in times of changes a forum can be very useful:
1. As a “safety valve” for employee dissatisfaction
2. As an on-going employee opinion survey
Starting a forum during change helps bring out opinions that employees express in informal situations. A forum enables access to management – while it may be an uncomfortable experience for some managers, there’s no easier way to have instant insight on employees’ opinions.
A forum requires a moderator when there are important questions or opinions that need to be addressed. A communicator’s help is necessary in this task. Management will value reports summarizing forum discussions with a synthetic view on subjects important for employees in a particular time period.
Implementing a forum during emotionally hot times of change has one more advantage—it is easier to encourage employees to speak out when they have a lot to say. In a quieter time many more communication efforts are needed to make a forum as effective.
When one particular retail chain company implemented such a forum to improve communication between headquarters and store employees, the communication team (and leaders) heard many employee suggestions that would be uncovered without this tool.
For example, playing music in stores became a top problem for employees but management had no idea how important that was. Forum discussions have helped management to see this problem and to solve it. This has been a meaningful sign for employees that it is okay to speak up on company issues.
E-mail is still the most important communication channel in many organizations. In most cases, this important tool is misused because of the chaotic policy of sending messages to large groups of recipients. Everyday employees are overwhelmed with e-mails from many sources and probably only a small part of these messages are worth reading.
If there’s no one general e-newsletter that assimilates the most important company news, a time of change is a good time to implement one. Introducing such a new tool will be seen as a strong response to employees’ needs and it will be easier to persuade other departments to assemble their news in one newsletter to prevent communication chaos. Of course this newsletter shouldn’t disappear when things calm down because the channel remains a beneficial way of keeping employees informed while managing information overload.
When I was working with a client on a large outsourcing project, such a newsletter was one of the most important tools they used (together with team leader meetings and an intranet forum). A project team sent regular project updates; sometimes they even had nothing new to communicate but a ‘no new news’ message was also important for employees. Team leaders during workshops told me that they felt well-informed during the process (which took 12 months) and communication from the project team was strong.
If this tool hasn’t been used yet, organizing the first chat about company changes is a very good choice. In large organizations where most employees work in front of a computer, such a virtual meeting is the perfect solution. A chat requires strong preparation time including analysing possible questions addressing employees’ concerns. Here, the communicator’s role becomes essential.
As a two-way tool, chat enables not only employees to find out about what is going on in their company but it also enables managers to see what’s on employees’ minds. Such a dialogue helps with implementation of next improvements in communication-based on employees’ questions and opinions posted during a chat.
All these tools are low-budget which is important as entrepreneurship approach in communication management is necessary—and it’s another argument for decision-makers.
When helping a large bank to communicate change, I was surprised that managers (who were a target group for this chat) had so many questions about ‘how to communicate with my team.’ After a few successful chats, everyone – even those less eager management team members – wanted to participate.
Besides new tools and channels that can be started during change, communicators should seek other activities that can strengthen their professional position and build credibility within an organization.
Being a member of a project team
Every large project should be supported by internal communication experts. As my observations show, this is not a typical approach for every company. I worked many times as an external IC expert with my client’s project teams and I was very surprised that in some companies an internal IC specialist wasn’t invited to work with us (typically because they were treated as newsletter specialists or intranet specialists, rather than strategists).
If an internal communicator is not invited on a project, it’s time to capture this opportunity. Offer preparation of information packs about changes for employees. Allow for well-structured communication about the project, and take responsibility for communication about changes. Start by telling the project managers, “I can do this for you; you decide if you want to use it.” This approach has always worked for me as an external expert so I expect it to be valuable for internal communicators working directly for the organization. And as a result, internal communicators will be assured a permanent seat at the project table in the future.
Working with managers
Almost every manager experiences difficulties in communicating changes to subordinates. Any initiative that could support them in this task will be received well by many of them. Workshops, e-learning, coaching and even circulating a good publication should be helpful—but only in a case when these are accompanying messages managers can send to their teams, not as a substitute for communication about changes.
Need for communication during change grows in every organization. It requires a lot of work but as a result an IC team should have more opportunities to work strategically and the perception of the function will be better. After all, if there is only good news to communicate, there are not as many opportunities to grow as communicators.