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The ultimate guide to managing change through internal comms

The ultimate guide to managing change through internal comms

Vivian Zhou


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25 mins read

Wed, May 17, '23  

This week’s expert insights article is written in consultation with Jesse Bourgeault-Trickey, Global Deployment Manager at Happeo, and former Digital Communications Manager at ATB Financial and Digital Communications Lead at Shaw Communications.

Maybe you need to adapt to a new technology, react to a new competitor in your industry, or shift your branding to attract a new type of customer. Maybe you’ve always been an in-person organization, and need to adopt a new culture that’s suitable for long-term remote work after the pandemic.

Or maybe you started life as an ambitious startup with just a handful of employees, and need to adapt your systems, processes, and structure to reflect your new status as a growing organization. 

The point is, change is inevitable. But despite how often we experience it, it can still be confusing, stressful, and even scary for your employees. That’s why you need to make sure you’re communicating effectively about change so your employees understand not only what needs to happen, but why.

Read on for our full guide to managing change through internal communications — even if you don’t (yet) have a fully developed IC function. 

What is change management?

Change management describes the techniques, processes, and tools organizations use to implement changes to their structures, systems, and ways of operating. That’s a lot of words, so let’s put it more simply: change management is everything you do that enables your employees to understand, embrace and make change happen at your company.

Change management and internal communications 

Four out of five Americans have felt frustrated by poor workplace communication. And a recent Gallup poll found that only 13% of respondents strongly agreed that their company’s leadership team communicated effectively with the rest of the organization. 

The fact is, most organizations are not very good at communicating with their employees. And that could be one of the biggest reasons why 70% of organizational change initiatives fail to meet their objectives. 

When it comes to communicating with your employees, there’s always room for improvement. And effective communication is especially important when it’s tied to key changes in the workplace. 

So what’s the solution? How do you effectively implement change in your organization? Well, there’s no one answer — and there’s no magic button you can press to automatically get your employees on board with change. 

What you can do is work to incorporate internal communications principles into your change management process. After all, you need your employees to embody the changes you’re trying to implement — and that starts with making sure they understand them. 

A step-by-step guide to communicating around change 

To get us started, here’s our basic, step-by-step guide to communicating effectively around change in your organization (we’ll dive deeper with some specific tips to get the most out of the process below).

  1. Set objectives and develop key messages: First things first: determine what exactly you want to achieve, and how you’ll communicate that to your employees. This shouldn’t be done in a vacuum: make sure your goals align with the overall objectives of your organization, and consider different perspectives to make it easier to get buy-in from your key stakeholders. To make things easier, try to boil your objectives down to a handful of key messages rather than overwhelming your team with a whole manifesto.
  2. Get leader buy-in: One of the most important steps in the early stages of a change process is to get your organization’s leaders on board. They understand their audience better than you do, and will be able to help you communicate change more effectively by making the message relevant to them. To make things easier for leaders, consider providing a toolkit including your key messages, a timeline and information on how they can help lead the change. 
  3. Deliver your message: Next, deliver your message to your employees. This process should be led by your organization’s leaders so they can deliver the message in the way that makes the most sense for their teams. But you could also provide clarity by sending out an email, delivering a presentation, or creating an intranet page that explains what the change is about. 
  4. Build in opportunities for feedback: Make sure you incorporate tools for gathering feedback from your employees so that you can make sure they understand what’s happening and gauge their engagement with the project. For example, you could send out simple pulse surveys to your employees, asking simple yes/no questions like “Do you know [change] is coming”, and “Do you know why [change] is happening?”. This helps you to evaluate how ready your employees are for the change. If you feel engagement (or understanding) is low, you might need to deliver extra comms before moving forward with the change. 
  5. Communicate consistently and often: As the process moves along, be sure to continue communicating with your employees. This both keeps them informed about progress and keeps the project top of mind. You can do this by asking team leaders to regularly check in with their teams, and report their insights to leadership. If you use a modern intranet (like Happeo), you could also create a Page dedicated to the changes in question, where employees can see updates.
  6. Evaluate results and adjust: At the beginning of the project, it’s important to establish how you’ll evaluate whether it’s been successful. Then, you can return to those initial metrics throughout the project and measure your results against them. If the project isn’t working as expected, you might have to adjust your plans going forward.

How to use internal comms to smooth the change process

There’s no one correct way to communicate about organizational change. You need to account for your organization’s particular industry, size, challenges, culture, and quirks, and develop a communication plan that makes sense in that context. 

It’s also a good idea to consider previous enterprise-wide changes that have been implemented — successfully or otherwise. By reaching out to the people who led those changes, you can borrow techniques that worked well, and make sure to avoid those that didn’t. 

Here are our tips for effectively using internal comms to manage change in your organization.

Think about communications early in the process

Too often, internal comms aren't considered until way too late in the change management process. This is because many organizations think of internal comms’ role as tactical and implementation-focused. In other words, they’re just the messenger, responsible for distributing pre-determined information to your employees. 

But if you’re thinking this way, you could be missing out on a big opportunity. Thinking about how you’ll communicate about the change early in the process means you can make sure that communication is effective from the get-go. This helps you to get your employees on board with — heck, excited about — the changes you’re trying to implement.

So, how does this work in practice? Try it this way: early on in the process, sit down with your leadership team, and have a conversation about the best way to implement your planned changes. 

If your organization has an internal comms manager, they should be invited to the conversation too. But even if you don’t, you can still work with leaders to determine the best ways to deliver your message — and how to make it relevant to each group of employees and stakeholders. This way, communications will be baked into the process — rather than considered as an afterthought once your plans are underway.

Build a plan to communicate about change (and get employees excited)

Working with your leadership team, build a plan for communicating your planned changes to your team. It’s important to remember that communications around change aren’t a one-time thing: you’ll have to repeat, reiterate and build on the message throughout the process. Having a concrete plan from the start helps you ensure everyone is aligned on the key messages and how they should be delivered. 

Here are some of the things an internal comms plan should include: 

  • An overview of the planned changes to ensure all parties are aligned
  • A list of key messages, including the “why?” behind the changes
  • The purpose of communicating the change to your employees, and the outcome you hope to achieve
  • The metrics you’ll track to measure success
  • A timeline of key dates related to the project 
  • Any training and measurement details

Tell a compelling story

Humans have always loved a good story. It was true thousands of years ago when our ancestors traded word-of-mouth stories around the campfire. And it was true last night when you stayed up past your bedtime to squeeze in just one more episode of that Netflix show. For our purposes, that means that if you want to achieve meaningful change in your organization, you need to craft a narrative to go with it. 

If that sounds intimidating, think of it this way: every change has a reason behind it, and explaining that reason to your employees is the first step. You don’t have to meticulously outline every single detail about what you’re trying to achieve. After all, hit TV shows don’t show the protagonist putting their socks on or deciding what to have for breakfast. 

But you do need to come up with a compelling narrative that tells your employees how you’ll get from where you are now to where you need to be — and why it’s important that you do. If you do it right, your employees shouldn’t just understand the change you’re proposing — they should be invested in it and excited for the future.

Think like marketing to engage employees

In a 2020 episode of our Internal Comms Podcast, we spoke with Rum Ekhtiar, founder and partner at Rum & Co, a collective of brand consultants that get s**t done. Rum spoke about a campaign he led for CitiBank, which brought together more than 1000 employees from 50 countries to create a video arrangement of the song Proud.

FYI: the result is super cool and well worth four minutes and thirty-seven seconds of your time. If you do watch it, you’ll notice something interesting: it doesn’t look like an internal comms project. It looks like something a creative agency would come up with.

“I think about the way I communicate to employees the same way I would create a marketing campaign for a consumer brand,” Rum says. “How do they want to hear the message? What format do they want to see it in, and what’s going to trigger that change? How do I hit them more than two or three times, so they remember?”

The point is, when we’re talking about something as important as implementing organizational change, it’s not enough to send out a few reminder emails and stick a poster on the staff noticeboard. Instead, you need to get inside your employees' heads and think about their pains, thoughts, and desires — just like a marketing team. 

This gets much easier when you reach out to employees at the beginning of the process and communicate continuously throughout. This way, you’ll start a feedback loop that extends throughout the project and beyond.

Explain the “why” behind any change 

What’s more effective: a boss that commands their underlings to get things done “because I said so” or one that takes the time to explain why a task is important and what it will achieve for the business? Sure, employees might do the work either way — but they’re not going to be invested in it or excited about it if they don’t understand the reasons behind it

Unfortunately, not all organizations seem to understand this. A 2017 Quantum Workplace survey found that almost one-third of employees were uncertain about the “why” behind the changes at their organizations. 

To properly get employees on board, you need to present a viable, positive vision of the future. Then, use storytelling to help them to connect the dots between your organization’s current situation and that ideal vision of the future.

Tell your employees what’s in it for them 

Listen: we’re sure your employees are good people, and we’re not here to call anyone selfish. But we all have to think about our own workloads, processes, pains, and challenges when it comes to our jobs. So instead of just talking about broad, high-level outcomes for the organization as a whole, try to dig down further and determine exactly what will change for each employee. We call this the “WIIFM” factor, which stands for “What’s in it for me?”

To do this, you’ll need to segment your audience (your employees) and figure out what will change for each group — then use that to drive your messaging. After all, an employee is much more likely to get fully on board with a project if you make your messaging as relevant to them as possible — so they understand how it’s going to make their life easier in the long run.

Incorporate feedback opportunities wherever you can 

Organizational change projects are usually led from the top down. And while senior leadership teams can be great at shaping the overall direction of an organization, they don’t always understand the granular details of its day-to-day operations. That means that you could be missing out on crucial insights about how your organization actually works if you’re not talking to the people who understand that best. 

Also, unforeseen circumstances that arise during the roll-out of a change might mean you have to shift your approach — but you’ll never know about them if you’re not asking for feedback on how things are going. That’s why it’s a good idea to include regular surveys from the very beginning of your change management process, so you can understand: 

  • Whether employees (fully) understand the reasons behind the changes
  • How invested in the change your employees are
  • How the change is working in practical terms 

One way to think of this is through a know/feel/do model. Employees have to know about the change in order to feel excited about it and do what’s needed to bring it about. If you spot that one of these elements isn’t being fulfilled (e.g. your employees know about the change, but they’re not feeling excited about it), you might have to shift your approach to get the results you need. 

Of course, surveys aren’t the only way to gather feedback. And they’re probably not the best way to determine engagement in a project, since those who are less engaged are less likely to respond. Depending on your situation, you might want to experiment with one-on-one meetings, focus groups, town halls, and intranet discussion forums. 

Communicate continuously…not just at the start

Have you ever been part of a big, ambitious project that just… fizzled out after a while? Even when your intentions are good, it’s easy to forget about the radical transformation you’re supposed to be making to your work practices if you’re not being reminded. 

That’s why communication about change is not a “one-and-done” situation. You need to build opportunities for continued communications into the change process, keeping employees informed and making sure that the transformation stays top of mind. And there’s hard evidence that this works, too: a McKinsey study found that company-wide change efforts are 12.4x more likely to be successful when senior managers communicate continuously with the workforce. 

So, what should this look like? You should repeatedly bring employees back to the story you’re trying to tell so that they can more easily see the impact of the changes they’re making. For example, you could highlight employees who are already embodying the change in your regular newsletter or on a dedicated intranet page for employee shout-outs.

Using your intranet to manage change

So, how exactly should your communications around change go out to your employees? There are a few answers: you could send information, surveys, and documents out by email. You could use your regular all-hands or team meetings to share progress updates. And you could even provide information to your in-office colleagues via physical notice boards and virtual signage. 

But if you’ve visited this blog before, you’ll know that we’re firm believers in the company intranet as your main method of communication, collaboration, and connection with your workforce. With a modern intranet, you can create a Page dedicated to the change you’re trying to implement. Then, you can feature the page in articles and high-traffic areas, like your homepage, and use this area to store and share all of the documentation, guidance, and information that teams will need. This way, your teams can easily refer back to the information they need without having to search through a cluttered inbox. 

And remember how we said you should communicate continuously about your change project, and regularly ask for feedback along the way? Both of these can be done through a dedicated communication Channel, where employees can come together to learn about progress, discuss the future, and provide their feedback on what’s happening so far. 

Want to find out more about how an intranet solution like Happeo could help you to manage change? Book a demo or start your free trial today.