Culture & Change

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Critical success factors at the sharp end of communication

It is difficult to think of a time where there has been greater risk and turmoil in the world, especially in the last 50 years, and this creates a difficult position for those charged with communicating to employees, partners or clients.

Of course, Coronavirus is just one example of business disruption, anyone remember Brexit? Highlighting why the ability to communicate in tough times is so important.

The damage and cost in terms of lost clients, talent and reputation of poor communication practice is unquantifiable. High performance businesses know that clear, consistent and timely communication is key to business resilience and even more so during times of rapid change. Here are my top five critical success factors for communicating successfully, now and as we move through the downturn:

Don’t stop communicating

Never stop communicating, that’s it. Whenever faced with ambiguity there’s a natural reaction not to say anything until we are absolutely clear on our response. Employees and clients will usually already be aware of the issues, starting to worry about the impact and hypothesising on how best to deal with the situation. Even if you can share very little factual information, employees need to know their leaders are scenario planning and working on solutions. When things are uncertain that is when communication is most important. If there’s silence from the top, people will fill in the gaps themselves and it’s unlikely to be in a positive way.

Never speculate

Be as transparent as you can be. No one will expect you to have all the answers, but they will need to feel that you are sharing what you can and being honest about what you don’t know yet. Of course, the flip side is that it is equally important that you don’t feel pressurised into communicating something that you’re not totally confident about. If you are not 100% sure something is true, don’t share it. Validate your information before communicating it – never speculate! Let people know that you’re working on getting an answer and will come back to them as soon as you have it. Drip feeding progress updates is a good way to minimise frustration and provide reassurance to your team, clients and prospects whilst you fully understand the situation.

Show empathy

It’s important that communications are as much about giving people the information they want to hear, as it is about the information you want to tell them. Understanding where the areas of highest concern are, and ensuring you are providing people with the information that you can around those areas, will demonstrate understanding, empathy and ensure your comms are authentic. Have a plan and be upfront about when they will receive further information to keep them informed.

Take the information to the people

Too many organisations hide behind email. Although it is an effective channel of communication it should not be the default for everything. 

When people are worried, face-to-face is the best way to engage and when that’s not possible you need to think about how you can use tools like video conferencing to ‘bring people into the room’. The use of video conference has vastly increased since COVID-19 and as human beings we rely on sight more than any other sense so it’s not surprising. People are far more likely to trust a message when they can see the person delivering it and it can offer the opportunity for QA and sharing ideas that will help you plan further communications and really understand what the concerns are for your people or clients.

Digital channels should be understood and used to reach key audiences to enable effective communications. Comms leaders need to become masters of data and insight so they can understand performance through reporting on engagement across digital tools including email and collaboration tools such as teams, slack and intranet traffic to underpin recommendations for the next wave of comms or tactics to improve results.

Build in agility

Resilience and flexibility are key. As we all know, situations can change quickly so your communications planning needs to be agile. Introduce new ways of working so that your comms team and key stakeholders in the business can work as a cross functional team to adapt quickly, respond appropriately to ever changing situations and developing a test, learn and improve culture. Use data and insight to understand the performance of key channels, how well you are reaching your audience and inform your next communication activities to adapt your plan and ensure those that need to be informed and act on critical information, do so.

Of course, there is still the challenge of a recession ahead and those businesses who have the greatest agility and ability to adapt at pace will be most likely to survive and thrive. These are interesting times for everyone and having the right narrative and communicating with clarity so everyone understands key information, the role they should play and the actions needed is going to be critical in determining how well your organisation will be able to navigate through the downturn.

Tough times don’t last but agile businesses do. Find out more about agile marketing and communications and how it can help you.

Alexandra JefferiesAre you getting through?
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Transformative communications

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Why comms needs to be factored into your business transformation plans, right from the start

There can be few large businesses around the UK and beyond that have not already been through, or are currently going through large scale business transformation programmes. But how many have developed their transformation plans with communications factored in from the start? And how many add it as an afterthought when they are already some way down the line, having realised that change can’t happen without employee engagement? Communication is critical to any form of organisational change. Embedding clear processes around how and when you should communicate from the start will help get your transformation off to a flying start. 

There are two key areas where effective comms can make a real difference to the success of a transformation programme. The obvious one is when it comes to communicating out to the rest of the business and getting employees to change behaviours. But comms can also help in bringing together cross-functional teams and getting them working more effectively towards the same goal. 

Engaging your employees 

Communication plays a vital role when it comes to engaging employees around a large-scale business change. If you fail to communicate your goals and how you plan to achieve them, how can you expect employees to support and adopt the changes you are implementing? Many a digital transformation program has been viewed as unsuccessful because employees have failed to fully adopt new tools and technology or processes. 

So how do you engage employees? Firstly, it is vital that you understand your internal audiences. In a large organisation there will be different types of employees with their own challenges and requirements, so you will need to tailor your communications to different employees. There isn’t always a one size fits all solution.  

Avoid over reliance on email and make use of existing business collaboration tools. You should always make sure you are communicating via different channels to ensure that your message has reached everyone in your organisation. 

Two-way communication is crucial when it comes to engaging employees. Give your employees the opportunity to ask questions and to share their thoughts and feedback where possible. Face-to-face communication is always the best way to engage.

Louise Fisk, Communications and Marketing Director at BAE Systems suggests,

When that’s not possible you need to think about how you can use tools like video conferencing to bring people into the room.

Helping cross-functional teams work effectively 

During large scale business transformation, it is often the case that teams which don’t usually work together, will have to come together and form cross-functional teams. Open and transparent communication between both leadership and team members is crucial here.  

Hannah Bamberger, IT Communications Lead at Boston Consulting Group comments,

Where teams are cross-functional and often working remotely, it’s important to have transparent communications from the beginning to avoid any misunderstanding which may arise from not being able to see each other face-to-face each day and ask questions.

Matt Perry, Director at Transition15 suggests that,

Cross-functional team communications need to be built into the ways of working from the start. The mechanisms for regular communication should be agreed by the team so that they feel they are owning this process, rather than being told how they should do something.

It’s also important that leadership are clear in their goals and communicate them to their teams from the start so that they unite to achieve the same goal. A lack of communication coupled with an unwillingness to come together to work as a cross-functional team, can happen when leadership hasn’t communicated well around what is needed, and what the goals are from the beginning.

Hannah Bamberger comments, 

You often end up with the wrong thing being delivered or half way through a big transformation programme you realise it isn’t going in the direction it should be. At that point it’s much harder to recommunicate and get people to change direction.

There’s a high likelihood that change will fail if you do not communicate from the start. Employees need to feel part of the change as its happening and you will need to support people through the change curve, which can take time. If you get this right, then any future change is likely to run more smoothly and be successful. 

If communicating around change sounds like something you are currently struggling with, get in touch to arrange an employee engagement workshop, or a planning session for how to support cross-functional teams in working together more effectively. 

Alexandra JefferiesTransformative communications
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Smoothing the change curve

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Benjamin Franklin said nothing is certain but death and taxes, but if he were alive today, then he would probably include “change” on his list. At home and work, our lives are being transformed primarily through technology; the Internet of Things, new phone upgrades, smart electric meters, hackers, phishing, the cloud, artificial intelligence…

Is it any wonder that with all this change, people are fatigued? Is it a surprise that employees don’t understand the business need for change, they worry about their job security or just feel overwhelmed? Technology is inarguably driving such a rapid pace of change and such potentially transformative outcomes in all industries, that it is essential employees understand the benefits to the business and to them personally, and are engaged with the change journey.

Any change programme must lead employees through the change curve and explain why the change is taking place, create alignment across the business and make the most of the crucial part that employees play in any transformation. In other words, communication is vital. It can make the difference between success the first time, or a costly and underwhelming outcome that undermines the credibility of your leadership, your team and the change programme.

Time and again, in our work with clients, we see four stages in any change or transformation programme: status quo, disruption, exploration and rebuilding. They correspond with common emotions: shock and denial, frustration and depression, acceptance and finally, with commitment, the change becomes normalised. Expert communications can help to smooth the proverbial rollercoaster ride.

Every organisation has its status quo, a legacy system that everyone understands, but that badly needs upgrading. There are undoubtedly potential opportunities for many organisations to embrace the digital revolution or fully integrate disparate parts of the business. Early communication and honesty are imperative at this stage to bring employees on board from the start, calm unnecessary fears and, most importantly explain why the change needs to happen. Employees need to catch up with the leaders, who have been preparing for this change for much longer and are much further along the curve than they are, potentially creating a disconnect that will only grow the longer it goes unaddressed. This stage is also an excellent point to identify those who are excited about the change or early adopters to ask them to be project or change ambassadors in the next stages.

The disruption stage marks the point that everyone knows change is coming, the implementation plan is in progress and employees could feel vulnerable, frustrated and potentially distant from the new direction of the business. Throughout this phase, it is more important than ever to have a clear message and defined next steps. Maintain regular communications, even if it’s just to confirm when there will be an update. Start a training programme and have two-way feedback channels. People must feel a part of the change.

Once the software or structure is in place or the new way of working is in its final stages, there is the opportunity to embed the new normal into the workforce. The communications plan must help employees accept the change through demonstrating the benefits that were just theoretical before. Utilising ambassadors to model behaviours and provide peer-to-peer support, sharing successes, as well as addressing any feedback, should also form part of any comms plan.

Finally, the change becomes business as usual and accepted. There will be some on-going support needed, including any upgrades if it is an IT system, and continuous improvement, as well as onboarding new employees into the company’s culture. For some time afterwards, when planning new projects, it is essential to bear in mind that everyone just went through a significant change and it could affect employees’ appetite for more.

Of course, the scenario described here is the ideal. Things can, and do, go wrong from a technical or business perspective. However, with proper communication, and working with an experienced change communication specialist from the start, it is easier to engage employees and keep them engaged, smoothing the way to a successful endpoint and the next stage in the business’ evolution.

For more information on how change communication experts can help your business, contact Emma Sinden.

Alexandra JefferiesSmoothing the change curve
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Assemble your communication to succeed

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Primary school assemblies used to be a forum where you were seen, but not heard; where you were told what you needed to know according to the doctrines of whomever was hosting the assembly.

Primary school methodology

Primary school assemblies today are demonstrations of what has been learnt, they are demonstrations of how enjoyable learning and discovering are and they also demonstrate that some lessons have not been learnt fully – perhaps mistaking continents for countries. But it’s from mistakes we learn.

Today’s primary school assembly is a far better model than that which we children of Thatcher grew up with. I write this guest column enthused by what my youngest and her peers have learnt, I write this knowing what my child has been studying for the last six weeks (despite asking every day – the standard response is “stuff”), but now I know. More than that I know she enjoyed it, does understand it and that as a result her understanding of science, history, geography, mathematics and most importantly communications has been successful and enjoyable.

Assembling and communication

Assembling and communicating as a community is vital not only to a primary school on the North Downs, but also to the modern CIO and CTO. This term’s theme incorporated as I state above science, history, geography, mathematics as well as English and the arts. Any technology project in a business covers all the core subject matters of the business term – profit and loss; order and deliver; payroll, human resources, recruitment, supply chain, marketing; research and development and many more. Many of the UK’s leading CIOs have made it clear to me that there are no such things as technology projects, only business projects.

So with technology and in particular technology change touching all the departments and all the staff, regular assembly and communications are essential. Over the last nine years of daily dealing with CIOs and CTOs face to face I have seen how those that employ communications have succeeded in delivering major change in organisations. No matter the vertical market, communicating and discussing the change ensure it succeeds, whether you lead technology in an airline, NHS trust, automotive giant, retailer, charity or government body.

Methodology and delivery

We humans have developed a plethora of ways to communicate and thanks to technology continue to develop new ways to communicate. All methods are right, it is the context of your organisation and its culture that matters. Whether it is sitting in the staff canteen, having a major innovation event, using social media, bookmarking Friday afternoon as a chance for anyone in the business to visit your team and share cake, coffee or perhaps even a stronger beverage. All of these methods work.

For a transformation project to work; for a business to be able to continually adapt to the needs of its customers technology leaders must continually engage in communications. Effective communications takes time and effort. A continual slew of lists telling people the best things, the worries etc will eventually lead to the channel losing impact. For communications to be successful it must reflect the community it seeks to communicate with.

Good communications cannot exist alone – delivery is critical too. If an organisation is diverse in its services and markets or geographically dispersed then the methods from the world of marketing are essential to ensure the message lands on every desk and device in an engaging manner that triggers a response.

Alexandra JefferiesAssemble your communication to succeed
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Why effective communication is vital In any change programme

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In today’s fast moving world, where the latest trends in technology are transforming everyday lives for both consumers and businesses, many forward-thinking organisations are already fully on-board with implementing digital transformation programmes aimed at encouraging more collaborative and digital ways of working.

However, some of these organisations will have invested significantly in new technology, such as business collaboration tools or video enabled conferencing, but found that adoption levels can be lower than anticipated. That is why many organisations are discovering that working with communications specialists can help ensure that the change is properly communicated to their employees. If people understand why the change is being introduced and how it will benefit them in the long run, the rate of adoption can improve.

Change in traditional organisations

But what about more traditional organisations which are slower to see the value in digital transformation and are more apprehensive towards change generally? Of course, traditional organisations are going to be slower to adopt this type of change programme. Some may be about to embark on a smaller digital project, or could be in the early stages of considering what an enterprise wide digital transformation programme might look like for them.

If the organisation has a strong concern around the privacy and security of its data, it can make the pace of change even slower. Many social collaboration tools such as Yammer and Chatter are cloud-based and have been deemed by some to be vulnerable to hackers. However, there are solutions that can be hosted on-premises which can allay some of these concerns.

Change doesn’t have to be digital

Others may be looking to make changes to their organisation that aren’t necessarily digital. Of course, change doesn’t always have to be digital – it can be related to a change in company strategy, relocation, company restructure or even (in the worst case) redundancy.

Communicating any type of change effectively is important, particularly in situations such as the above. If the majority of a workforce fails to embrace a strategic business change it could potentially have a damaging impact on the organisation’s profitability. It is crucial that you engage your workforce and ensure everyone is working towards the same goals and communication is the key to this.

The same rules apply

Communications should always play a key role in any large-scale change programme. Firstly, it is vital that you understand the mindset of the audience you are communicating to. In a large organisation you will need to tailor your communications to different employees as there isn’t always a one size fits all solution. Give your employees the opportunity to ask questions and to share their thoughts and feedback where possible. When communicating to your employees it is important to demonstrate that you have listened to them i.e. ‘you said x so we did y’.

As in our day-to-day lives, in today’s business environment it is likely that different people have a preference for using different channels. Some may like to communicate face-to-face rather than over email, others may prefer to avoid email and make use of business collaboration tools. In an ideal (albeit time consuming) scenario, you should make sure you are communicating via different channels to ensure that your message has reached everyone in your organisation.

Talk to the experts

Whether it is a digital transformation programme, or a change of strategy which your organisation is embarking on, working with communications experts can add real value in helping to shape your change communications. An effective communications strategy can mean the difference between an employee making a positive decision to adopt that change, adopt it half-heartedly or in some cases reject it entirely.

Alexandra JefferiesWhy effective communication is vital In any change programme
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Getting your team on-board with digital change

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When you think of internal comms, what immediately springs to mind? Perhaps a monthly company newsletter announcing new hires, leavers, births or Sally in HR getting married. Or that repetitive monthly email reminding you to cast your vote for ’employee of the month’. Not particularly exciting or inspiring. However for today’s businesses, internal comms is fast becoming a cucial tool. Especially when it comes to communicating and managing digital change within a business.

I’m sure ‘digital disruption’ must be the most over-used business phrase of the last two years but there is no denying that digital transformation is now taking root in even the most conservative of organisations. Digital transformation, whether it’s implementing a specific new technology solution or an entire organisation wide digital strategy, needs to be communicated to employees. And, crucially it needs to be adopted by them to ensure that your programme isn’t one big expensive failure. Enter internal comms.

From Partner to Graduate and everyone in between

First and foremost, any internal comms strategy needs to have a pretty good understanding of who it needs to communicate to. In most large organisations the employee audience can be pretty diverse. From Senior Management or Partner level, who may have been with the company for most of their careers, to young graduate trainees fresh out of Uni.

There may also be specific job roles within an organisation that will be particularly affected by the change. Tailoring your communications and messaging to highlight the key benefits of the new solution or strategy to certain employee groups is crucial. Understanding where you are most likely to come up against resistance to change and ensuring that they feel involved in the process from early on can really help overcome any grumbling. A little extra hand holding goes a long way.

Channels and Champions

Of course you’re going to need to explain why you are making the change and inform employees what actions they need to take as part of this. Inevitably, for most organisations, email will play its part. However, the snag being that we’re all guilty of ignoring emails that don’t need our immediate attention and then forgetting to look at them again, so don’t rely too heavily on this. Consider other channels such as impactful short videos, micro-sites to host more detailed information, desk drops and office launches to grab peoples’ attention and get them engaged and listening. That way when emails with important information do come through, they’re less likely to ‘file’ them in the trash folder.

Having said that, the most effective vehicle for communication are your employees. Find your champions, people on the ground who are engaged and enthusiastic, get them to act as ambassadors for the change. Despite all the different channels at our disposal today, word of mouth is still the most effective form of advertising.

Internal vs External

It is one thing to recognise the value of internal comms, but another to ensure it is carried out effectively. Many organisations may not have an internal comms function. If they do, it may be one person in the marketing department and it’s pretty unlikely that they have a good understanding of what it means to successfully implement technological change within a business.

For organisations looking to implement digital change, internal comms can be a real blocker. So, in many cases they are looking outside of their organisations to external communications experts, who approach an internal comms project in the same way they would an external comms or marketing campaign. In fact, both your internal and external comms strategy and objectives should closely align to be truly effective.

Ultimately the success of any digital transformation programme comes down to whether employees embrace and adopt that change. Businesses must go beyond engaging with their employees, to compel them to change their working behaviours. Effective internal comms is the key to effecting that change.

Alexandra JefferiesGetting your team on-board with digital change
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