Communicating organizational change (with minimal meltdowns)
Updated: Jun 30, 2022
This is a time of disruption for many companies, and even in the best of times, organizational change is inevitable. Maybe your historically-flat start-up is straining without layering. Maybe you suspect there will be greater efficiencies if you bring two distinct teams under one leader. Or maybe you need to cut costs by reducing force. Regardless of the circumstance, organizational change is among the trickiest tasks of communications. Here are a few best practices that can guide you.
Your basic plan
For any communications activity, I recommend starting with audiences, messages, and channels. Who are your audiences, what do they need to understand, and what are the best channels by which to reach them? Knowing this should help you create three important documents that you will socialize with your key stakeholders:
Your core messages: The three to five things you want anyone reading the communications to know. For example, you may explain the strategic rationale / necessity for these changes, how this will impact employees, and any next steps.
Your timeline: What messages and materials need to be distributed to what audience and when. Get this down to the minute and note who is the communication sender (additionally, the sender should be made aware that they will need to participate and when!). Work backwards and be detailed. If All Hands when you announce the change company-wide is Wednesday morning, then when do impacted employees need to be told before that, when do their managers need to be told, when do the actual meetings happen, when are the meeting invites sent, when are the follow-up emails and chats for those meetings sent, and so forth...
Your bill of materials (BOM): This is a simple list of all the materials from the timeline, with links to each draft. The employee FAQ, the manager FAQ, the email from the CEO to the extended leadership team, the talking points for the town hall, the reactive media statement, and so forth.
Who gets told when
I follow a simple principle that the great Pam Edwards (Internal Comms at Zoom) taught me: impacted people get told before non-impacted people, and they get told in the most personal manner possible. So, if an employee’s team is getting a new leader, they are told this before the town hall where everyone else is told. And ideally they are told in a small group by an executive, with their manager present, instead of via email (however note that following up any verbal comms with an email, chat, and FAQ is an important best practice).
You can’t always meet in person, but a Zoom is better than an email, and 1-1 or small groups are better than an 800-person webinar. This is less convenient for leadership, and is not always even feasible, but it's important to at least consider how to make the experience as personal as possible.
Additionally, take a top-down approach to sharing the news. Senior leadership (CEO and direct reports), as well as relevant department head(s), should get a few days notice. Impacted people managers get some notice too. Often this can only be a couple hours before their employees because at scale this is just too many people to keep a secret. But managers do need to know before their employees, because their employees will immediately turn to them with questions. Managers need a little time to get up to speed, buy in to the rationale, and study the FAQs. This will help them make the employee experience better.
It's a team effort
In this case, you in comms are acting as a service provider to your leadership and people experience teams . They need to give you the info: what exactly is happening, when, why, and so forth. Insist on this before you start drafting. They also, along with legal and perhaps IR and PR (in case of leaks), need to do a thorough review of your comms once drafted.
Leadership also needs to deliver this message, whether it’s email, chat, or in-person. The most senior relevant leader, often the CEO, needs to press send – this one can’t come from the comms team.
Prepare for leaks
Leaks are a reality of life. Maybe your company has never had a leak, but there is a first time for everything, so you need to be prepared. First, all of your comms need to be viewed through the lens of “What if this ends up printed in the New York Times?” Would it paint the company in a positive light? Does it demonstrate that the company is still poised for long-term growth, despite any current challenges? Does it show respect for your employees?
Second, you need to prepare external comms, even if you don’t plan to use them. If this leaks, what is your reactive media statement, customer statement, social statement, and investor statement? I would often carve out a subset of the internal FAQ that could be used externally as well if needed.
Put yourself in their shoes
You may be looking at this situation and thinking it’s not a big deal. You’ve had some time to digest it, you see the strategic rationale, maybe you see that it won’t realistically impact most employees. But the thing is, most people take their jobs very seriously and very personally. Organizational change can make them feel like they have no control over this very important aspect of their lives. You need to do what you can to make sure employees understand why something has to change and what it means for them. Better to over communicate than under communicate here. For example, provide them with a robust FAQ, offer an optional town hall, and tell them who the best point-of-contact is for questions (their manager, their department head, their PX business partner).
I hope this helps you develop your organizational change communications. Even when change is for the best, it is often a hard pill to swallow, so just do your best and keep your eyes on the horizon.