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Best Practices for Effective Change Management Communications

2020 will forever be remembered as the year we experienced great change.

From “virtual-first” employee engagement, to fully remote work and geographically dispersed teams, strategic HR in our “new normal” evolved at a rapid – and unexpected – rate. With solution agility now seen as the key to solving the human capital chaos of these uncertain times, Avature’s change management team has been quite busy as more and more enterprise organizations leave behind their legacy HR software suites in favor of Avature’s flexible and highly configurable one-platform approach.

Earlier in the year we sat down with Avature’s guru of all things change management, Jacklyn Giannitrapani, for an in-depth interview on the topic. And while we covered a lot of ground in our wide ranging discussion, we mainly focused on the change management basics. Given the recent influx of customer interest on the topic, we decided to dig a little deeper into one of change management’s toughest challenges – effective internal communication. From timing, to intent, to channel, this blog post will take a look at some of Jacklyn’s recommended best practices for engaging, informing and communicating with employees in the face of imminent change.

Let’s dive in!

Best Practice #1 – Identify Target Audience

As there will be a wide range of stakeholders impacted by any change management initiative, the first step in effective communication is for organizations to identify and segment their target audience. Rather than traditional “top-down” messaging (i.e., where communications are almost exclusively drafted from the perspective of senior leaders), organizations should strive to segment their workforce and address the questions most pertinent to each specific stakeholder group.

To put it plainly, if an organization does not know WHO they need to speak to, it will be very difficult to deliver the right message via the right channel and at the right time. A thorough stakeholder analysis will prove invaluable in laying the foundation for a successful internal communication strategy, as it will assist in identifying and segmenting an organization’s workforce, as well as outlining the worries, needs and interests of each unique stakeholder group.

Best Practice #2 – Commit to a Purpose

Once organizations have identified and segmented their target stakeholders, they should next look to define the specific purpose of each communication (i.e., the WHY). Broadly speaking, the primary objective of any change management communication plan is to drive engagement in a way that leads to behavior change and ultimately results in a new way of working. And yet, most change initiatives are likely to involve a number of different messaging campaigns that focus on and are influenced by a wide range of factors and timeline-specific goals.

Whether the purpose is to generate awareness, set expectations or provide employees with a specific call-to-action (e.g., learning and development), organizations should define the intent and desired outcome of each communication prior to delivery. With a clear intent in hand, organizations will avoid superfluous messaging, effectively engage an easily distracted workforce and ensure consistency throughout each phase of the change project.

Best Practice #3 – Draft a Timeline

When it comes to change management and strategic communication, organizations need to know who is communicating what (see best practices #5 and #6 below) and WHEN. As such, time-bound communications play a key role in providing organizations with a framework from which to organize, execute and track their change management projects. In this regard, it is absolutely crucial for organizations to develop a robust stakeholder communication timeline that aligns with each respective phase of their change initiative (i.e., planning, execution, post execution, etc.).

In answering the inevitable question of when, communication timelines prove highly effective in providing employees with role clarity, in preemptively addressing workforce uncertainty and in aligning project stakeholders with organizational leadership to ensure on-schedule (and realistic) delivery. Periodic timeline revisions are encouraged as they assist organizations in eliminating communication silos and ensure the proper alignment of core project milestones.

Best Practice #4 – Employ Multiple Communication Channels

While many organizations tend to prefer email when it comes to company-wide communications, change management requires a more nuanced, diverse and strategic approach. With stakeholder communication preferences known to diverge across an organization, a multi-channel approach will ensure maximum exposure to a projects “must know” information. As the HOW of an organization’s communication strategy, choice of channel has the potential to significantly impact employee buy-in and adoption.

Looking at channel options, face-to-face communication (both in-person and via video conferencing tools) provides organizations with the highest value in terms of intimacy and engagement, while collaborative messaging/project management tools encourage partnership cross teams and departments. As a central repository for all relevant change resources and materials, employee engagement portals (such as Avature DNA) prove highly effective in stimulating autonomous learning and development, while internal newsletters go a long way in keeping employees informed.

Best Practice #5 – Create Relevant and Engaging Content

Our fifth communication best practice is the glue that holds a change initiative together – the quality of a communication strategy’s content. In addressing not only the “what,” “why” and “how,” but the WIIFM (i.e., the “what’s in it for me?”) of each change management stakeholder group, engaging and relevant content proves highly effective in taking employees off the sidelines and positioning them at the forefront of change. Organizations should invite employees to be thought partners in the success of an implementation, and this invitation depends on the quality and substance of an organization’s messaging.

Change communications, regardless of the complexity of the situation, should always be honest, clear and to the point. A stakeholder analysis will help ensure that the content of a communication is appropriately targeted (i.e., c-suite communications vs. recruiters, hiring managers, new hires, etc.), while a multi-directional approach will assist organizations in setting expectations, building trust and competing for the attention of their workforce.

Best Practice #6 – Communicate Through the Right People and With the Right Cadence

The final two pieces of the change management communication puzzle are the source and cadence of a given communication. In regards to the former, the source of a communication typically depends on a variety of factors, from the purpose/goal of a communication, to a communication’s target audience. While some communications should be sponsored by executives (e.g., those focused on long-term strategy), others should be authored by direct managers or team leaders (e.g., those focused on changes that will have an immediate impact on daily responsibilities).

Much like authorship, there is no universal, one-size-fits-all approach to cadence – it should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. As a reference to the optimal timing and sending frequency of a given communication, cadence also depends on a number of factors such as audience, intent and project timeline. Asking questions such as “Does this message need to be reinforced regularly?” and “Is this a one-time communication?” will greatly assist organizations as they look to reinforce call-to-actions, while at the same time taking care to avoid overwhelming employees.

To Conclude…

No one quite knows for sure what the future holds for strategic HR as we head into 2021. And yet, digital disruption and the ubiquitous need for agile and intelligent HR solutions in our “new normal” means human capital management is likely to see a spike in the need for large-scale change management programs. While there are many factors that need to be considered (again, see Jacklyn’s interview for additional information), those organizations capable of engineering a thoughtful, holistic and effective internal communication strategy in the midst of uncertainty will be one step closer to achieving sustainable change in these trying times.

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