Maintaining cultural stability during organisational change

The strength and stability of an organisation’s culture – whether it be trust in its leadership, belief in the future of the business, or something more local to individuals – will inevitably be impacted by change of any kind. As a result, a lot of organisational communication aims to ensure that change management is implemented as smoothly as possible, even though the message is often not an easy one to deliver.

It is an understatement to say that 2020 was a time of unprecedented disruption and change for all organisations. A few days into 2021 and this looks likely to continue, with news stories filled with accounts of mergers, layoffs, reorganisations, bankruptcies, cutbacks and the continuing need to work from home. There are lots of lessons to learn in the way that organisations handled communication last year, with those that did it well surviving and even thriving in the pandemic.

In 2020, all organisations were faced with multiple change factors which impacted employees. Often a change initiative or solution designed to strengthen an organisation or deal with the ongoing situation, weakened cultural bonds initially, by leaving employees confused, stressed and resentful, at a time when leadership needed their commitment the most. During 2020 employees experienced:

1. Change in organisations and how they operated
2. Changes to their personal lives and the stresses of the pandemic
3. Changes to public life and societal norms
4. Personal workplace changes, such as a shift to working from home, or the need to protect themselves in public-facing roles.

Those organisations that managed communications well, in general and through the pandemic, considered the issues below:

  • Understand that change is uncomfortable – we are human after all. Personal behaviour and long-held habits are not easy to change for most of us, especially over the past year when much of the change in the workplace has been driven by circumstances well beyond our control. However, organisations that have communicated well have considered their communication strategies from the very beginning of 2020, adapted them as they moved through the year, and tried to anticipate what might happen. For example, Google announced in July 2020 that colleagues would work from home until July 2021. In these early days of 2021, with vaccination of the whole population still some time away, that is looking like a good call.
  • Share information with employees as soon as possible. If the first time employees hear about change which impacts them is via social media or via the news, it will be no surprise if employee engagement and motivation decreases, and eventually employees leave. There were several examples of this in 2020, and it is a tough challenge for organisations to beat news outlets and social media with key messaging, or to stem information leaks from the organisation. The UK Government went through a number of leaks over the summer of 2020 before ministers had a chance to make announcements to the press. Similarly, many employees discovered they were losing their jobs via social media or the press before they had been told by their employer or manager.
  • Give as clear a picture as you can of the four Ws: the what, when, why and who (and possibly how) the change is needed and managed. Explaining the business reasons behind the change and letting employees know the scope of a change, even if its bad news, is important. Employees might not like the news, but they are more likely to run with it. The more information employees have, the less likely they will be to turn to the rumour mill or social media.
  • Explain how the change will affect employees, at a very local level and with as much relevant detail as possible. Getting down to brass tacks, employees will always want to know “what’s in it for me?”. Employees need to understand not just the business reasons for change, but also how the change will affect them and the way they work – including what will not change, as well as what will. This aspect of communication has been vital through the pandemic as many people have been asked to work from home and often left in a solitary position rather than the team environment they’re used to. For many, ensuring that there is some element of ‘carrying on as usual’ is important.
  • Use of a variety of communication channels and don’t rely on just one method, such as e-mail, the company newsletter or the intranet. During change, repetition is key, because repeating the information in a variety of media and in a consistent way reinforces the message. However, employees continue to need and want personal interaction with other colleagues and their line managers. Organisations that have galvanised their ‘people managers’ to continually talk and communicate with direct reports, whether through phone calls, Teams or Zoom meetings, or reaching out in other ways, have managed to better maintain employee engagement and motivation levels.
  • Help employees feel psychologically safe, with opportunities to share concerns, ask questions and offer ideas. This is both motivating and part of the healthy relationship people need with their employer. Ensure that following up with answers and updates is a top priority. The more people are involved in the process, the fewer will walk out the door – or worse, stay in a role they dislike and disrupt those around them.
  • Ensure that communication is two-way. Related to the point above, continual communications with people managers allows all parties to respond to concerns and to anticipate likely resistance within the organisation. Testing the change plan in this way means that it can the tweaked and reiterated as time moves on.
  • Celebrate positive progress. An organisation’s change efforts and outputs might not be visible to employees, so being able to demonstrate results is important. Equally important is personal recognition – operating in a completely alien way throughout the last year has been difficult for all to differing degrees, and recognising that effort is important.
  • Model change from the top. What leadership does, at all levels, speaks louder than words. Make sure actions are consistent with the organisation’s values, and the behaviours and words associated with them. For employees to accept and embrace a change, senior management needs to ‘walk the talk’ and model desired behaviour. Many were surprised to see Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, working on Covid wards over the Christmas weekend. In November, he told a press conference at No. 10 that he would be on the wards at Christmas, and so clearly ‘walked the talk’.
  • Understand that change takes time. In normal times, people and organisations do not change in a week, a month or even a year. As such, communications should be consistent, reliable and continuous over time. However, the need to be especially agile in 2020 meant that businesses had to pivot quickly, and communications were hurried over a very short period of time. Those organisations that anticipated the required change, communicated well, and helped preserve their cultural stability.

Communicating clearly, honestly and consistently with employees should be a given for all organisations. Those that have done it well over the course of the pandemic have added into the mix highly motivated managers who model good behaviour, and psychological safety by ensuring all can speak up and be heard. They have also anticipated what they need to communicate in advance, rather than merely reacting to fast-moving events.

In these early months of 2021, with the end of the pandemic potentially in sight, but with many people losing patience with the ongoing situation, it’s more important than ever that good corporate communication habits are maintained and reinforced.

For more insight from Ian, check out his upcoming Discovery Session on how purpose and beliefs can help organisations better respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.