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by Traci McMillan Beach
on April 20, 2021

Bolstering employee engagement during periods of change

In our work on restructures, mergers and acquisitions and changes to ways of working, we've seen a lot of what works and what doesn't work when trying to keep your employees engaged during times of flux. Our top seven recommendations for maintaining morale and motivation during these times include:
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1. Put yourself in their shoes: remember who you are talking to

By human nature, employees want to know how they will be personally impacted by change. In every executive communication, employees will be skimming emails and reading between the lines to find the answers to the questions that matter the most to them. Employers are well served if they recognize this, get ahead and make it easy for employees to get the answers they need. Put together employee-focused FAQs that answer questions like:

  • Will my role/responsibilities change?
  • Will there be adjustments to pay or benefits?
  • What does my career trajectory look like in light of this change?
  • What challenges or opportunities will this change present to me?

By entering the conversation prepared to give concrete answers, you'll alleviate unnecessary stress or rumors. Address employee concerns directly and get to the “what’s in it for me?”

2. Involve your managers early on

Managers can be your best advocates for a change, if they feel involved and have the confidence to help others understand its advantages. On the flip side, if managers feel blindsided by or unsure about a change, they can be your worst detractors. 

Bringing them in early in the process will garner their trust and ensure that, with their team insights, they can help make plans for withstanding the change. Provide those managers with support materials to ensure a consistent message.

3. Be human. Empathy goes a long way

The worst thing executives can do is sit in an ivory tower, removed from the experiences of the broader organization. Understand that colleagues are individuals, each undergoing various changes and stressors in their personal lives, especially during the current climate. Recognize the unknown can be intimidating and address how you will work together to ensure a positive future.

4. Tackle rumors, objections and scary stuff head on

Get ahead of water cooler gossip and proactively address anything scary. Ensure your team understands the impetus for change and why it’s necessary, as well as the future state you’re working toward. If layoffs are necessary, handle those early on and as swiftly as possible, and reassure your employees of their roles in the future-state of your organization. Provide open, honest answers to questions that arise, removing the possibility for false narratives to take on a life of their own.

5. Repeat, repeat, repeat

Studies have shown that in order for messages to sink it, redundancy is key. A study by Harvard business professor Tsedal Neeley showed managers who repeat key messages through various modes of communication were most successful in mobilizing team members and getting a desired response. Similarly LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, in an interview with Business Insider, says “a friend of mine once paraphrased (political adviser) David Gergen, saying on the subject of repetition, “If you want to get your point across, especially to a broader audience, you need to repeat yourself so often, you get sick of hearing yourself say it. And only then will people begin to internalize what you’re saying.”

6. Acknowledge that the change won’t happen overnight

Set expectations appropriately and touch base regularly. Define the scope at the beginning, provide a timeline of major milestones and ensure everyone is on the same page. Communicate progress toward milestones at regular intervals, celebrate wins and define the next steps and work to be done in the pursuit of the overarching goal.

7. Ask for feedback and provide a channel for questions

Keep a pulse on employees’ sentiments — employees need to know they are part of the process and not just bystanders. Consider anonymous surveys or a confidential email box, and dedicate time on team calls for questions. Encourage employees to ask honest questions and empower them to share feedback. Don’t be afraid to say, ‘That’s a good question — I don’t know the answer but will find out and get back to you.’ This not only helps with team alignment, but can also foster good ideas.

Organizational restructuring can shake a company and its employees. If poorly managed, restructuring has the potential to drastically lower or lose the engagement of employees, which trickles down into productivity and the ultimate success of the organization. If approached thoughtfully, however, companies can proactively foster employee engagement through periods of change.