Change communication in a time of uncertainty
Brexit. The US election. Fake news. Climate change. We live in an age of considerable uncertainty, where the pace of change makes it impossible to plan ahead. How can you communicate change when you have no idea what’s around the corner?
There may be trouble ahead… But then again, things might also not be so bad. In many situations, we simply don’t know what the next twist in the tale will be. Either way, when you’re in charge of communications in your organization, you need to be able to disperse information in a timely, calm, and comprehensive manner — even if every next second is as unpredictable as the last.
We’re all looking for a definitive answer, a solution to the problem. A business relies on keeping employees informed, being as up to date as possible, and trustworthy enough to supply news as and when it comes through. When no one has an idea of what the future holds, it’s internal communications that galvanizes an organization. So, when you can communicate uncertainty successfully, you’ve mastered the art of comms.
“Uncertainty is bad for business”
As life ever felt as uncertain as it has done in the 21st century? Catastrophic events over the past few decades have shaped the way we live, our identities, our levels of trust, and fear. Cyber attacks, terrorism, political division, social unrest – we’re living in an age of uncertainty. The more we feel we have control, the more we realize how fragile our infrastructure is.
We cannot shepherd our workforce under the belief that everything will be fine. It might not be. And if it isn’t, people quickly find out. It is an organization’s responsibility to provide one source of truth for any news, internal or external, that could affect the business and their careers within that business. No one thrives when they’re feeling insecure – your organization should provide as clear a picture as possible in order to guide and inform the employee.
Communicating is always better than staying quiet
A defining moment is on the horizon. It could go two ways. One allows you to carry on the status quo. The other brings huge change, which will almost definitely impact your workforce. You want to prepare your people, but you also want to steer away from drumming up fear. The tendency in this situation is to stay quiet; after all, you’re no wiser than the next person. However, when there is no communication in an organization, gossip and rumor take its place. People pass on opinions, suspicions, and theories that can spin out of control. The fallout from this can be complicated. That’s why it’s essential to have a change comms strategy in place that protects your department and helps your people, regardless of what situation you find yourself in.
Creating an effective internal crisis comms plan
So, how do you communicate when the future looks so uncertain? While you can certainly anticipate that change may well happen soon, it’s difficult to put anything in place to mitigate the problems that could arise. When it comes to your organization and the people within it, the best thing you can do is to have an internal communications strategy in place.
But how do you plan for the unplannable?
Planning for… what?
Extreme weather, political conflict, cyberattacks: your organization may not be responsible for a crisis, but it is responsible for how it chooses to communicate and respond to it.
So, it is an essential business strategy to form a framework for best practice to ensure information is distributed effectively, safety is upheld, and impact is minimized.
Take Brexit, for example. One referendum, two elections, three prime ministers, and four years later – the UK is still recuperating after a period of chaos, confusion, and division. The referendum to leave the EU took place in June 2016, and the UK officially left in January 2020. But while Brexit ‘happened’, it has done little to ease uncertainty. The transition period over the rest of the year will reveal what lies in store for businesses and the people living and working in the UK. Working visas look to be replaced by an expensive, bureaucratic and restrictive system forcing foreign nationals to leave the UK. There could be an immense skills shortage that could devastate countless industries. Delays in goods and supplies from overseas could end many small to medium businesses.
“When we have no idea what’s around the corner, it’s always wise to hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and be unsurprised by anything in between.”
When Operation Yellowhammer – the UK government’s contingency plan in the event of a no-deal Brexit – was released in the summer of 2019, it painted a bleak picture. One where the UK faced widespread poverty, extreme shortage of medical supplies, protests, and soaring crime rates. It was a vision every bit as dystopian as science fiction. While things may not look as catastrophic as they once did, there is every reason for the British public to be concerned about the future.
But at the same time, nothing could happen. Negotiations could go so well that there is little impact on business and society. A deal could be signed that meant businesses experienced nothing more than an extra customs check and a tariff with their supply chains. Foreign nationals remain employed and barely affected by new rules. Trade deals with other countries are cemented, bringing even more benefits to UK businesses.
At the time of writing, we just don’t know what will happen. The only thing businesses have over the next ten months is time to take stock, plan, and make sure they can ride out the wave. Which makes Brexit a perfect example to highlight how a business can prepare in times of uncertainty. And while we can’t control the political landscape when it comes to these matters, we can control how we operate if the worst-case scenario happens. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, when we have no idea what’s around the corner, it’s always wise to hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and be unsurprised by anything in between.
How to form an internal comms plan for uncertain times
The best form of protection is preparation, and this can be done through the creation of an internal comms plan, which will cover a range of situations that your organization could possibly encounter. This plan is to be put into action as soon as it appears likely that external problems could have an impact on your staff. It is a strategy that should be revisited regularly and kept up to date. Any situations that have been experienced and dealt with should be documented as case studies to be learned from.
But how do you go about creating an internal comms plan for uncertain times? Here are the steps that you should take to ensure your business is prepared for anything.
Brainstorm and anticipate change
Organizing a session where crisis scenarios are thought up may sound excessive, but it is a really valuable way of raising questions and identifying weak spots that need addressing. While this would normally be interdepartmental, but this type of session could be opened up to staff to broaden the scale of ideas.
This will also increase the likeliness of the early recognition of issues. It is essential that events are carefully monitored. Early indicators of developments on a political, environmental, economic, and organization scale can give you a head start on matters that could profoundly impact your workforce.
Creating an effective internal crisis comms plan
Define your taskforce
While internal communications will take on much of the responsibility, when it comes to significant change, you need the help of your CEO, VP, or similar as a mouthpiece. After all, when bad news comes in: office closures, cuts, redundancies, your employees will want to hear updates, guidance, and counsel from a senior figure. A memo breaking the news from the same department that usually informs on parking, new initiatives, and office rules won’t be as warmly received.
Identify communication gaps
Most businesses will have a diverse range of staff, ranging from office workers to warehouse staff. Some may work outside the core hours; others will out in the field, visiting customers. You might have a vast percentage of employees with no access to computers, or even a corporate account. You may already have a map of where your people are and the best way of contacting them. Depending on what the news you have to circulate is, you may need to include your employee’s families, your customers, suppliers, and more.
Customize your comms
In times of uncertainty, it’s crucial to be able to customize your comms quickly. This enables you to send the message that suits the audience you’re targeting. Bad news (or equally, good news) can impact different ages, departments, offices – make sure you can hone the message you are sending out to suit the people you want to speak to.
Check your communication channels
When was the last time you carried out a check of your communication channels? Making sure employee’s phone numbers, email addresses, and other contact information is up to date is critical to the running of effective internal communications. Keep. Your channels in check, carry out a trial run in test conditions regularly to make sure your operation is ready to trigger as and when needed.
Be quick – and as accurate as possible
When a development occurs, it is so important that you aim to be the first one to tell your workforce. It can be very damaging when an employee hears the news first from the news or a family member. Desk alerts and text messages are direct ways of delivering news fast. In some cases, phone calls might be the most effective medium. Ensure you understand the quickest way of contacting all teams and their members regardless of whether you’re in office core hours or not.
“It’s essential to communicate, even when you don’t have an answer.”
Visibility, honest and openness
It’s essential to communicate, even when you don’t have an answer. Making sure your people know that you’re continuously trying to find out more information is reassuring and limits the level of hearsay within an organization. And be open to any questions your teams may have. Make sure that those leading the comms can be open to discussion, correspondence, and replies.
This can be promoted further with the use of two-way comms. While change communication is traditionally top-down information, with a range of digital tools, you can enable feedback, comments, and questions from your workforce. And nowadays, employees expect to contribute to the conversation. This involvement drives engagement but also enhances trust and understanding of the situation. You can help to do this in a number of ways:
- Enable commenting on blogs
- Employee forums
- Q&A sessions
Under this umbrella, of course, go drop-in sessions, stand up meetings, one-to-ones, and other face-to-face comms.
Uncertainty is bad for business
Navigating through uncertain territory can test the most seasoned comms professional. Not only could the outcome affect your staff, but the lack of clarity can be bad for business.
It is only through clear, honest and direct communication, that you can protect your business, motivate staff and drive your organization forward. That’s why a rock-solid change comms strategy is an essential armor in your communications arsenal.