Cheshire West and Chester Council – Communicating difficult change messages

Faced with the need to downsize to ease financial pressures, Cheshire West and Chester Council had a challenge on its hands. How best to communicate potentially controversial changes without losing their employees’ trust and support. Senior communications and marketing manager Carl Holloway and communications lead Jill Flynn explain how they turned a challenge into triumph by making their employees a key part of the process. This case study forms part of our internal communications toolkit.

Communications support

The context

Like all councils Cheshire West and Chester is facing some significant financial challenges which mean we must change the way we work. Part of this includes making the best use of our buildings. An internal review highlighted that we could ease some of our budget pressures by selling or renting out some of the 130 buildings in our estate. It was an opportunity we knew we had to seize, particularly if it meant being able to invest some of that money back in to delivering vital services. But we knew it could be unpopular, especially as one of the buildings identified was our head office. Where people work has a huge impact on their satisfaction, not to mention all the practical considerations you weigh up when deciding where to work. We knew we had to handle any changes with care and make sure that people felt part of the process, not that it was something thrust upon them. We also knew that we hadn’t always excelled at communicating change messages like this in the past, so the pressure was on to get it right.

The plan

We started by developing a clear narrative about why we had to change. Our staff are bright people and they knew we had to make changes, but we needed to make sure we developed a narrative that was open about that fact. We also needed to make it clear that we didn’t have all the answers. Our staff are the people actually working in these buildings, so they’re the ones that know what things need to be considered. We wanted our message to emphasise the important role they had in making sure any changes worked for them as well as our budget.

Once we had got our story right we started thinking about the issues that people would be most concerned about from childcare, travel, work life balance and parking. We also looked at the data we had about our staff to see what other things we’d need to consider such as where people lived and what was their current pay scale. Gathering a mix of qualitative and quantitative data was a key part of our strategy, to make sure that our decisions were evidence-based and measurable. We then used our findings to create our key messages and map out the channels that would be most effective for reaching people.

The final key part of our plan was to make sure that we were linked into the project team managing the estate change programme as a whole. Being part of that wider team ensured that we had oversight of the key milestones across the entire project and could coordinate our communications with key developments. It also positioned us as a vital strategic service, rather than a team to be tasked with tactical communications after the important meetings had taken place.

The execution

The first stage in our communications was a video message from our chief executive outlining the narrative. Our staff satisfaction survey showed that trust in our senior leadership was very strong so we wanted to use that to best effect by having our chief executive make the initial announcement.  This helped to show staff that the estate changes were really going to happen, but were being planned out at the highest level possible.

Senior leaders and managers were key to our communications throughout this change programme. We recognised that line managers play a vital role in cascading information about the organisation to their teams so we delivered face-to-face briefings and developed manager briefing packs that contained all the key messages leaders needed to tell their staff as well as guidance notes to help them answer the questions we expected staff to ask. Directors from our management board had overall responsibility for ensuring that their directorates understood the change programme so the project was positioned as something at the very highest level of the organisation. For us it was vital that all our employees saw how seriously we were taking changes that we knew would impact on their day-to-day lives.

Another critical part of delivering our strategy was directly involving our employees in the process. We surveyed employees about what they thought of the announcement and asked for their thoughts on the logistical things we needed to consider. We offered free text fields for employees to make suggestions on how to fix the issue rather than simply highlight the problem, so that everyone could feel part of the process of changing how we worked across the Council. We also ran 12 employee ideas workshops across three sites to discuss the issues with staff and get their views on the next steps and published updates and answers to FAQs on the intranet.

We also ensured that we released a constant stream of information about the change programme to keep staff informed on all the latest developments. We even told people when there were no updates so that staff didn’t feel silence was a bad omen or fill the gap in communication with rumour and speculation.

The impact

The impact was huge. More than 200 people attended our ideas workshops and we had 1095 survey responses back – bigger than any survey we had ever run. The anecdotal feedback from employees and managers was also extremely positive. People said that they felt actively involved in the process and are feeling well supported and informed as we head into our formal consultation process. It was picked up as a success in our recent Investors in People Survey and has helped us to create a blue print for the way that smaller change messages should be handled across the Council.

Why it worked

Training played a big part in the success. We didn’t just run workshops for managers and directors, we trained them and our project team on the principles of change communications so that they better understood the theory behind our advice. We outlined how people respond to change, the things you need to take into consideration and the milestones you reach during the change process. This not only helped to put some ‘science’ behind what we in the communications team were saying, it also helped everyone involved in the programme to keep our employees in their mind when talking about the logistics of the operation.

Aligning our communications to a project management model also helped ensure that we were joined up with the other parts of the council and maintained our position as a strategic service.

Lessons learned

The importance of transparency was a key lesson. Our staff definitely responded better when we were honest about what we knew and what we didn’t have the answers to. Our teams were sometimes nervous about being as open as we were recommending but the impact that plain English, honesty and fronting the programme with someone who our employees have huge trust couldn’t be ignored. We also learnt the importance of making sure that communications is involved at the start of the process. We were much more effective when we were aligned to the rest of the project and we may have been even more effective if we had been part of the group from the very beginning. I think our colleagues across the business also learned more about the value and insight communications and effective employee engagement can bring to projects like this.

Want to know more?

For more information on how Cheshire West and Chester engaged their employees in change please contact Carl Holloway or Jill Flynn.