Employee engagement: The importance of effective internal communication and engagement during change

Leaders play a critical role during times of change, they need to create a line of sight and guide employees through what’s ahead. Rachel Miller, Director of All Things IC, explains.

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Key points

  • Organisations need to be mindful of change being done to employees as opposed to being for and with them.
  • Internal communication is too important to be left to one individual or team, it is everyone’s responsibility.
  • Look for the knowns and communicate them, identify the unknowns and be honest and transparent in your communication.

Engagement for success

Failure to focus on effective internal communication during change means change will not succeed.

A strategy is “a cohesive response to an important challenge.” However, when it comes to internal communication and engagement during change, it’s often the lack of cohesion that leads to disaster.

The latest McKinsey Global Survey on The People Power of Transformation (2017) revealed companies are no more successful at overhauling their performance and organisational health than they were ten years ago. A particular blind spot seems to be the failure to involve frontline employees and their managers in the effort.

What really sets the more successful transformations apart, according to the results, is the involvement of frontline employees and their managers. Many companies seem to miss this: respondents rate these groups (along with their human-resources leaders) as the least engaged in transformations. At successful companies, though, respondents are much likelier to report visibly engaged frontline employees: 73 percent do, compared with 46 percent of all other respondents.

So, what can be done?

Leaders play a critical role during times of change, they need to create a line of sight and guide employees through what’s ahead. Organisations who do not take change seriously, which means investing in professional communications support and everyone being clear on their roles, can expect a higher rate of failure.

Involving frontline employees is vital to enable change to be successfully communicated by amplifying and listening to their voices. You need to constantly check for understanding, and ensure leaders are equipped, empowered and enabled to understand the relevancy of their roles when communicating change.

Engage for Success’ four drivers are a useful benchmark to bear in mind. The MacLeod report (2009) found companies with the highest levels of employee engagement have these four enablers in place:

  1. Strategic narrative – the story of what the organisation stands for and where it’s going
  2. Employee voice – employees can speak up, challenge and are listened to.
  3. Engaging managers – managers who understand their role in communications and how to do it well
  4. Integrity – leaders living the values that are on the wall and acting as role models.

Over the past decade we’ve seen expectations shift in organisations, with increased demand on transparency and authenticity, and rightly so.

In terms of change communications, it means employees are not passively waiting for news of change to happen and to be informed. They have their own internal networks of influencers and the ability to make previously invisible conversations visible, not least through the rise of enterprise social networks and collaboration channels.

Organisations need to acknowledge this is the case and be mindful of change being done to employees as opposed to being for and with them.

Your workforce knows and feels the difference when they’re actively involved in helping to shape decisions and contribute to change. This could be something practical e.g. naming meeting rooms in new office buildings or choosing the chairs. Or it could be proper consultation where views are actively sought and acted upon during restructures.

McKinsey undertook a global survey on change management which showed that the most successful business transformations occur when leaders mobilise and sustain the energy of employees, paint a compelling picture of the future, communicate their objectives clearly and creatively and engage hearts as well as. Internal communicators are well placed to advise on the best way to do this for your organisation

Whose job is it?

So, who should be responsible for overseeing change?

According to the latest Inside Insight research by the specialist comms recruiter the VMA Group, the most important skills/competencies for an internal communications professional to have are:

  1. Communications planning (86 per cent)
  2. Employee engagement (76 per cent)
  3. Change communications (74 per cent).

The new entrant at third place is change communications, which reflects the trend of an increase in the need for organisations to communicate business or service change.

This trend is also reflected in the interim market. Across organisations of all sizes, over 45 per cent of internal communications teams are supported by at least one or more internal communications interims, and 80 per cent of those contracts are driven by the need to communicate business change, particularly the impact on people, systems, processes and technology.

Organisations are starting to invest in internal communication and engagement, particularly during change.

But internal communication is too important to be left to one individual or team, it is everyone’s responsibility. During times of change, the way your organisation communicates and listens to itself should be top of the agenda.

Within the world of internal communication, we talk a lot about auditing. To audit – from the Latin auditus - means to listen, and it’s that mindset that serves organisations well during change.

In my experience, companies fail to prepare adequately for change. To future-proof our organisations we need to have an eye on what’s ahead.

How to manage opportunities and risks

A reactive, unplanned and uncoordinated change communications plan which is based on how the organisation would like to be, rather than the reality of where they are, results in these typical scenarios:

  1. Employees feel change, and therefore the communication, is done to them, rather than for or with them. This impacts engagement and morale.
  2. The Comms team/lead is brought into the decision making too late, which means opportunities are lost both in terms of helping to shape the conversations and bringing their knowledge of the organisation into consideration.
  3. Leaders are out the other side of the Kübler-Ross change curve and fail to understand their role of guiding employees through the required stages to bring everyone into alignment.
  4. The lack of planning means opportunities are missed e.g. communications channel deadlines and chances for proper face-to-face engagement.
  5. A lack of lessons learnt. Failure to analyse what has worked well in the past hinders organisations. Organisations lurch from change initiative to change initiative, without stopping to understand what works well, what doesn’t and what they need to start/stop/continue.

Every organisation is unique, with its own culture and ways of working. Understanding what makes your organisation special is critical to help guide you through change.

I see organisations getting so caught up in communicating what is changing, they forget to communicate what is staying the same. Even if you are merging with another council, or having to make headcount reductions because of budget pressures, there will always be something that stays constant. This is typically your culture, values or even leaders.

Look for the knowns and communicate them, identify the unknowns and be honest and transparent in your communication.

Investing in mental health for change

Change champions, or agents, are a common occurrence in organisations. The role of champions is multiple, from focusing on the power of peer-to-peer communication, to checking for understanding, piloting new ways of working and ensuring there are proper two-way channels in place so employees can have their views heard during the process.

I expect to see more Mental Health First Aiders starting to appear in businesses. Organisations such as Sheffield Hallam University and Southampton United Football Club are already training their people to be Mental Health First Aiders.

During periods of change, we need to ensure we are focused not just on change, but transition. Change happens quickly, but transition happens slowly.

Could there be opportunities for our Change Champions of the future to be trained as Mental Health First Aiders? Therefore, they are not only focusing on the change, but the transition too, providing first-line help and support for our workforces?

Whatever the future holds, it’s certain to involve change.

Further reading