5 tips for effective change management communication

By Sarah Olson, senior associate, content marketing, @seolson5

Published April 29, 2020
Last modified June 19, 2020

As businesses respond and adapt to life after the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever that organizations get their internal communications right. To do that, senior leaders should focus on the audience of their change management communication: their employees.

Read on to find out how a focus on effective communication and employee engagement can help you carry out an organizational change for your business.

The importance of clear communication in times of change

Your customer experience—elements including your communications, customer support, and technical infrastructure—can shape how a person feels about a product or service and the company that provides it. One way you could think about navigating change is that your employees are your internal customers, and you are creating a “change experience.” In times of change, your leadership and communication strategy will determine how your employees feel about the change effort, and the company, afterward. Ideally, you want your employees to have a good change experience. At the very least, you want to minimize confusion and distress during the change process. Find out how to structure your change management process to improve employee engagement and reduce friction.

So, what does successful change communication look like?

People are naturally resistant to change, but good communication can make it a much better experience for all involved, according to Dana Otto, Senior Manager of Change Management at Zendesk. To help manage resistance to change, she says your change management communication plan should focus on two main outputs:

  • Awareness — Do employees understand the change?
  • Preparedness — Do employees have the knowledge and ability to make the change and sustain it?

If your strategy helps employees be aware and prepared, those are good measures of change management success. Read on for a few change management communication tips that can help you accomplish both.

5 tips for effective change management communication

Clear and specific communication is one of the key principles of change management. Here are a few tips that can help make your change management communication more effective:

1. Help employees understand the why

People will be more agreeable to change if they understand that there’s a specific reason why it’s happening. Your internal communications should explain why the change initiative is happening, why it matters to the business and how they can help have a positive impact on bringing about the change. In his 2018 book, Next Is Now: 5 Steps for Embracing Change, change management consultant Lior Arussy advises connecting to your core cause—the reason you got into the work you are doing—to help motivate employees to get on board with a change, even if it’s a little uncomfortable for them. Your employees will be your change agents, so getting their buy-in is an important step in the process.

2. Prepare them with specific instructions and resources

Each stakeholder or stakeholder group should have their own communication plan. Different stakeholders will experience change differently and will need to respond differently. Your communication should outline the specific details of the change management initiative, such as what’s changing, why it’s changing and when it’s changing. You also need to set them up for success based on their roles and responsibilities as they relate to the change. For example, your sales representative might have different questions than your support agents, and you want to provide the appropriate resources to each group.

3. Sequence your communication deliberately

Otto notes that while it might seem diplomatic for your leadership team to send everyone the same message at the same time, this is not a good change management strategy. For example, if managers are hearing the news at the same time as their direct reports, they likely won’t be able to answer their employees’ questions about the change. This results in a worse change experience for everyone, both the managers and the employees. There should be a deliberate sequencing of communication, Otto says, and it often makes sense for information to be delivered to directors and managers first before being distributed widely.

4. Be direct

Some changes are tough. People have a hard time giving bad news, Otto says, so they have a tendency to sugarcoat it. Instead, she says, “I think we need to be much more brave and be very direct with our communications.” Internal communicators should be direct when communicating change, even if the news is hard to hear. Additionally, when communicating a difficult change, it’s important to discuss the issue in person (or via a video call if necessary). Communicating face to face shows respect to those impacted and gives the issue the importance it deserves.

5. Repeat the message

The work doesn’t stop once a change has been announced. To ensure employees are both aware and prepared for the change, as Otto recommends, you should check in regularly and repeat your key messaging across multiple communication channels. Beyond your initial communication, you could also update your internal knowledge base with important information and updates. You may also consider activating an internal help desk, so your employees can escalate questions or issues as they arise. Take advantage of your company’s messaging channels, like Slack or Microsoft Teams, as well. Providing a clear, consistent message across multiple channels can give your employees peace of mind during times of change.

Change is constant

It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said, “The only constant in life is change.” Individuals and organizations alike are coming face to face with this reality in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In these times of uncertainty, it’s especially important that we understand how to communicate effectively and with empathy. By investing in your communication tools, your team can be better prepared for the changes yet to come.

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