The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) faced strike action and media backlash last week when announcing the closure of its largest office outside London, with the department’s permanent secretary Martin Donnelly informing 247 staff that the St Paul’s Place offices in Sheffield were to close by 2018. As a “final insult”, the news was delivered via the department intranet at 11am on Thursday, 26 May.

Ahead of the proposed announcement, we polled Interact customers and the public on the appropriate channels for distributing ‘sensitive’ business news, posing the question:

communication poll results

A majority response put a cascade of information via managers as the favoured channel of choice, amounting to 69.4% of votes. This was followed by a town hall announcement at 24.2% and intranet announcements, which received 6.6% of the vote.

Arguably, all channels have a place and value within business. However, the controversial decision by BIS triggered debate. When it comes to communicating change in your business and particularly when delivering potentially sensitive business news, what is the role of management and what communication channels are acceptable to use? Is there a place for the modern-day intranet in crisis or sensitive internal communications, particularly given the potential repercussions?

Is there any “right” way to communicate change?

What type of announcement?

Modern-day technology has triggered an abundance of avenues for getting our messages out, whether that be via email, text, tweet or carrier pigeon: however, for the sake of company-wide announcements, let’s stick to the 3 key channels in use for internal communications.

Town hall announcements

Town hall announcements typically take the form of an organization-wide business meeting in which senior representatives will deliver the announcement or news, after which employees have the opportunity to pose questions and engage with those delivering.

These have particular value for organizations that are based within a single office and can remove the potential for rumors or misinterpretation by ensuring each individual hears exactly the same message at exactly the same time. For positive announcements, they can lend atmosphere and embed a sense of belonging or engagement, with individuals feeling part of the “bigger picture” alongside colleagues, team members and leadership.

However, they can prove daunting due to their size, deterring certain individuals from speaking out. Their scale also makes for a more impersonal approach, which can rouse discontent in an audience that already feels ill-treated. In a crisis situation when emotions run high, they can actually pose a threat to delivery: ‘protected’ by the crowd, some individuals feel more confident interrupting, shouting or causing disruption. When delivering the initial announcement back in January, the BIS faced negative feedback for these very reasons; calling for a review of options ahead of the final decision in May.

Manager cascade

Manager cascade was the champion for our poll, and arguably has the strongest case when delivering business-critical information. In most instances, it is impossible for a CEO or MD to speak with every individual; nor would many elect for that as an option. An employee’s direct line manager is likely to be someone they have a working relationship with and are comfortable communicating with, making the delivery of potentially sensitive news more tailored and personable.

Managers will understand the priorities for their team members and can adapt delivery accordingly, focusing on the potential impact for that particular member of staff and what their concerns are. They may choose to be selective, taking the most relevant points of information from the top-end message and ensuring these are translated into a dialogue the individual understands. The more comfortable nature of a cascade delivery will engage the individual more, allowing for questions and two-way dialogue – a key objective for any internal communications manager.

Arguably, the very points that make this method of communication beneficial may also undermine it. By allowing managers to adapt the delivery of information, we can quickly lose or dilute the key message. Never underestimate the relationship between manager and employee; this may make it difficult for some individuals to deliver certain information, or cause a “brush over” of facts in order to soften the blow of bad news. If a manager is ill-prepared and unable to respond to questions or outline next steps, this will also lead to frustration and employee disengagement with the business as a whole.

A manager can’t deliver one-to-one cascaded information to all individuals simultaneously; unfortunately, it is the nature of any workplace that the moment one individual is called aside into a room, the rumor mill will start. In addition, relationships that translate beyond the office often see information ‘leaked’ before it is officially communicated. As water-cooler conversations initiate, if not all individuals have received the same information or have perhaps interpreted it differently, this can rapidly escalate into disgruntlement, ill-feeling and long-term issues for the business (and HR in particular).

Company intranet / internal communication platforms

Company intranet platforms are now increasing in popularity and use, particularly within a globalized economy in which staff members may be dissipated across a number of locations, making the decision to opt for town hall announcements or manager cascade communication options logistically unachievable.

Having information presented in a written or recorded format allows for preparation, review and amendments if necessary, ensuring consistency and the correct language, tone and information during delivery. An intranet system can enable staggered communications to allow for time differences or provide priority to different groups, departments or individuals in its own form of cascade; alternatively, it can be set up for a en-masse company-wide communication to provide the information to all individuals simultaneously.

Managers may choose to use different mediums to embed the message and cater to different individuals; for example, using a video-ed announcement from top management with a written document to support the ‘nitty gritty’ details and a forum, discussion board or similar for questions and contributions from staff. The use of an intranet supports a culture of transparency and equality amongst employees.

This mode of delivery is only going to be successful for communicating change in those organizations where a culture of communicating via the intranet is already embedded, presenting a catch-22 for internal communications and managers alike. If your business is seeking to embed the company intranet as the primary communications tool of choice, the decision to revert to alternative ‘traditional’ methods such as town hall announcements or one-to-one meetings for important announcements may seem to undermine the objective.

“One of our targets for this year is to increase collaboration on our intranet and make it THE main internal communications tool […] how can we make it the go to tool if we continue to spoon feed information in a variety of other ways and just regards the intranet as a ‘back-up’ option?” David Giblin, MHS Homes.

However, in an environment where engagement with the intranet is limited, the decision to fall on this mode may be perceived as ‘hiding’ behind the platform, impersonal, cold or even cowardly. It is difficult to tailor to individuals, making for a blanket approach that can be ill-received. Some individuals will receive too much information, overwhelming or isolating them; others may not receive enough, causing panic or misunderstanding. In a crisis situation or environment that is already toxic, electing for the intranet as a go-to tool may only make matters worse.

What channel should I use for communicating change in my business?

The conclusion may be reached that delivery of news is very much dependent on the culture and structure of the organization in question – alongside the nature of the news to be delivered. Despite protests that the decision to deliver the news via the department intranet followed a period of consultancy with staff about the proposed closure, Marion Lloyd of the PCS union stated that the decision had triggered ‘shock and anger’ amongst staff members. In a culture that was arguably already toxic and experiencing frustrations, BIS called it wrong.

Many organizations recognize that no single channel is the holy grail for communicating change; nor will any decision please everyone. Instead, a multi-faceted, multi-channel approach may be the best option to ensure information is received and interpreted by individuals as consistently as possible. Perhaps this is the form of a manager cascade followed by a town hall ‘open forum’ to address initial questions and concerns, with follow-up communication on the intranet to embed the message and provide more specific information. Fundamentally, whatever option your business elects to use, it requires forward-planning and preparation. Taking shortcuts when communicating change will only cost in the long run.