We all thought the pandemic was waning and we’d return to some sort of normalcy last year. It didn’t happen. Now in 2022, we are still dealing with the uncertainty of COVID variant outbreaks, and the added anxiety of an unsteady economy and a war in Ukraine. It’s unsettling. The workplace is equally unpredictable with changes due to hybrid work, employee attrition, and depression of real wages due to inflation.
This is a tough time to make organizational change happen. Employees feel like there’s so much out of control in the outside world that internal company changes are just unwanted. Whether it be a business transformation or a simple process, change can bring up feelings of doubt, fear, and ‘enough already.’
Organizational changes feel arduous when the world outside is shaky.
Inspiring people to make changes has never been harder. It’s time to rethink how we communicate change for 2022 and beyond. Here’s what rings true for me:
- Seeing the same big picture is more important than ever.
The big picture holds meaning in peoples’ minds and hearts, and it must be congruent with the company’s purpose and values. A recent Gallup survey found that burnout drops 58% when leaders connect organizational purpose to employees’ individual work.
The big picture can’t be only about what’s good for the company. It must help employees envision a positive future with the company. There must be absolute clarity about how people and teams will benefit from this change. Employees are leaving jobs in record numbers for higher pay. Burnout ranks second for job quitters.
If the big picture doesn’t link to better working lives for employees, it’s unlikely to rally anyone to change for the cause.
- Hybrid work makes communicating change much harder.
Hybrid work can be tough on employees. When employees solely connect over video meetings and messaging channels, the work becomes more transactional. Relationships are harder to establish and personal connections are dimmed. Employees that feel disconnected from their colleagues and teams will also feel disconnected to change. The social pressure to adopt change is lessened in remote environments.
Hybrid work is stressful to many employees because they feel isolated and uncertain about what’s really going on in the company. Studies show that people under stress become good at processing the bad news, while ignoring the good news. Employees are yearning for predictable, succinct communications that tell the story of what’s going on throughout company ranks.
Employees are exhausted by the constant routine changes of hybrid work.
When it comes to communications, employees become frustrated when they don’t get quick replies to questions they have. And, it’s harder to find reliable sources of truth when two years after the pandemic, connections have become dispersed, and influencers are harder to reach. Employees are yearning for predictable, succinct communications that tell the story of what’s going on throughout company ranks.
Asynchronous communications are more important than ever because teams are increasingly comprised of people in different time zones. Good communicators will take the time to go beyond messaging platforms and craft complete, detailed communications that can be delivered via email and posted on company intranet sites. Don’t be afraid of a long message, as long as it’s relevant. Employees don’t have the same context for messages if they’re not in the office every day. Take your time, carefully review before you publish, and make your intent clear. Any actions that need to be taken must explicit. Give employees adequate time to respond, as global teams can be working 20 hours ahead or behind of the message posting.
Create some commonsense rules for communications and stick to them. Any brainstorming session, strategy meeting, or decision-making session needs to be documented, made available to everyone involved, and archived on a platform that team members can easily access, regardless of where they work. Don’t become sloppy with your communications and inconsistently document the important decisions. You’ll quickly lose credibility with your employee audience.
There’s a golden opportunity for change communicators to break through this stress fest that hybrid workers are feeling right now and become the single source of truth in a company. Communicators can gain the trust of hybrid workers if their messages are clear, delivered consistently through the right channels, and spoken with unabashed truth.
- The tone of voice must resonate with employee sentiment now.
Change needs its own voice. Communicators must shift their voice to reflect what’s important right now to employees. While most employees welcome the autonomy of hybrid work, what’s missing is feeling connected to their co-workers and the company itself. Communicators must squash the fluff and speak with candor and an instinctual, heartfelt humanity to establish an emotional connection with employees.
Executives are not used to communicating from their hearts. It’s critical that executives speak with an empathic, unfeigned voice that emotionally resonates with employees to gain trust. Trust is fragile, hard to gain, and easy to break. Leaders who communicate consistently with an openness that may at first seem unnatural to them, can quickly become the leader to trust. As leaders are being asked upon to open up and show their true feelings more often, tone of voice is critical.
Tone of voice is often misunderstood. Tone of voice includes both the words you choose to describe a situation or a feeling, and the affect in your voice as you deliver these words. When you’re writing messages, the tone of voice is limited to the words you choose which can convey a depth of emotions. Imagine you are speaking to your audience, or pick a person in your audience to speak to as you write. It helps to convey the emotion, and the meaning, behind your words.
Leaders are now routinely called upon to deliver their messages personally in a video format to remote employees. There was a famous study done in the ‘70s by UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian about how people weigh the importance of spoken and unspoken language in deducing meaning from personal messages. He developed a messaging meaning pie chart, called the 7/38/55% rule for speakers talking about feelings. When someone is talking about their feelings, 7% of the meaning is deduced from the words, 38% from the tone of voice (inflection versus the word choice), and 55% from body language.
Mehrabian’s findings are highly relevant for leaders delivering messages about change. In later years, he furthered clarified his findings to reiterate that the 7/38/55% equation was derived from experiments dealings with communications of feelings and attitudes, like and dislike. He described his equation this way:
Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking.
As remote employees seek to unravel the meaning behind video presentations given by their leaders, body language is the critical clue to understanding. Not all body language is overt. Even eye contact can have a huge impact on how a message is received. Here’s 10 tips for improving video body language that’s worth a read.
4. Leaders must be storytellers and story gatherers
People bring their own stories, experiences, and feelings to any organizational change. An emotionally connected narrative helps build trust and establish a shared vision of what the future change holds for everybody. Relatable stories are important because they demonstrate to people that they’re not alone in what they’re experiencing. As employees are seeking more connection in a hybrid work world, memorable stories help draw the big picture and build connection.
Change communications must be supported by engaged, visible leaders who’re visible working in, not just on, the change.
Leaders can be powerful storytellers when they show their vulnerable side.
Leadership storytelling can reinforce the purpose of the change being considered and connect it to individual’s work, answering the question ‘why am I working here?’
The most effective storytellers truly understand and care about their audiences. Leaders can get to know their employees better by listening to their stories. Empathy is a two-way street. Most companies have a version of a virtual Ask Me Anything meeting in which employees ask execs questions in real-time. The ridesharing company, Lyft recently turned the tables on this format and introduced Flip it Fridays where executives get to ask people questions instead of just answering them. Bidirectional communications helps create those interpersonal relationships that employees need to feel connected to a company and its purpose.
5. Be in it for the long haul.
Change is uncertain by its very nature and the course it takes always has twists and turns. In the fragmented environment of hybrid work, change initiatives are bound to take longer. The key is sticking with it for the long haul with a connected storyline. As change progresses, make sure the big picture remains intact.
Burnout happens when employees feel their work doesn’t matter.
Take an agile approach to communicating change. Listen to employee feedback and adjust your communications accordingly. People hear things differently and what you think may be crystal clear isn’t. Communicators may feel like broken records framing and reframing the big picture, but it’s essential because the same audience won’t be intact throughout the journey. A recent Ernst & Young survey found that nearly half (43%) of employees plan to leave their employers this year.
Organizational changes can add stress to already stressed-out employees. What’s important is to be persistent and bring people in to the change proposition versus taking the attitude of it happening to them.
Don’t just communicate milestones, give people insight on what’s being worked on now, the progress that’s being made, and what still needs to be worked on. Don’t over-rationalize what didn’t work. Be realistic about the proposed change, the risks, and what the future holds.
The good news is that employees are ready for change right now. People want to be happy at work. The outside world seems hard to grasp. Perhaps that’s one reason trust has shifted from governments to organizations in the past two years. Companies that prioritize people right now and have a promising vision for the future will win in this tight job marketplace.
Change communications experts know that employees are seeking positive change at work, and can make change happen with messages that resonate in today’s workplace.