Despite the fact that we’ve all been adapting to change since the moment we were born, most of us still have a fairly visceral reaction to it. It feels like a risk or a threat.
Yet, over the past few years, uncertainty has become a common experience. With rocky economic conditions, ongoing geopolitical instability, new technologies, shifting work arrangements, and wellbeing concerns, change feels relentless.
That leaves many employers grappling with not only how to communicate and manage necessary changes within their organizations, but also how to minimize effects on the employee experience and engagement.
In a recent webinar, Devshree Bhatt, a Senior People Scientist here at Culture Amp, and Jessica Lancashire, Executive Manager of People and Culture at Legalsuper, talked about adjusting to disruption and how employers can ensure their people still feel anchored and supported.
How does change impact employee engagement?
You’d be hard-pressed to overlook one change many employers are currently dealing with: layoffs. Even high-profile organizations are navigating staff reductions and restructurings, and it’s understandably planting seeds of doubt for all employees.
“When you think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, security is number one,” explains Jess of the classic motivational theory, in which safety ranks only behind physiological needs like air, water, food, and shelter. “Things like change and layoffs entice fear, and that security is being threatened.”
So it likely goes without saying that layoffs directly impact employee engagement. Culture Amp looked at data from 146 customers that went through a layoff and did both pre- and post-change surveys. Comparing the data from both surveys showed that the following three factors drove the biggest decline in engagement:
- Company confidence is shaken
- Employees blame leadership
- Employees no longer see a future career path in the organization
Without acknowledging and acting on those drivers, leaders will see enthusiasm and commitment continue to wane – until people leave the organization entirely.
Listening: The antidote to change anxiety
While change provides an opportunity for growth, the process is still hard – particularly for employees. Employers may be tempted to cover their ears to avoid any hard-to-hear feedback from their workers.
However, listening is one of the most effective ways to help employees navigate periods of change, because it makes them feel heard, valued, and supported.
“You need to take on the feedback even if you don’t have the answers,” Jess explains, adding that Legalsuper endured a large amount of change at the end of 2021 and into 2022. Those changes included a physical move to a new office, growing pains as they figured out hybrid working, as well as personnel changes that meant parting ways with employees who had been with the organization for 15 or 20 years.
Through it all, the leadership team was committed to listening to employees via regular pulse surveys and a full engagement survey at the end of 2021 to get a solid understanding of employees' feelings. “That feedback was really helpful in helping us plan,” Jess adds.
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4 tips to navigate change (and preserve the employee experience)
Change will inevitably impact your employee experience and engagement. And while actively collecting feedback from employees is a critical step, there are a few other best practices that can benefit organizations leading employees through change.
1. Prioritize communication
You’ve heard that communication is key, and that’s especially true when looping employees in on an organizational change.
This is an area where a lot of leaders and employers struggle. “Often, when leaders are embarking on new visions for change, they under-communicate it by a factor of 10,” says Devshree. “People are hearing about it 10 times less often than they should be.”
That’s why organizations need to be intentional about communicating the change. Jess mentions that Legalsuper created a detailed project communication plan, scheduled Q&As where employees could ask questions, and encouraged leaders to increase the cadence of 1-on-1 meetings with employees to answer questions and address concerns.
2. Explain the “why” behind the change
When communicating, organizations can’t just share what the change is and how it will work. One of the most important aspects to communicate is why the change is happening in the first place. Explaining the reasoning behind the change will involve employees in the process.
Legalsuper had to “really draw out why something’s going on so that we can get them on the journey,” says Jess. “Get them on the bus, so to speak, so they really felt part of the change.”
3. Emphasize the constants
While there might be a lot shifting under employees’ feet, there are also things that will stay the same. Those can feel like life rafts to anxious employees, providing predictable constants they can cling to when everything else feels uncertain.
Your organization’s mission, vision, and values are good places to turn when employees need something to hold onto.
“We really wanted to remind people and anchor them to the fact that our vision hasn’t changed. Our values haven’t changed,” shares Jess. “Those are things that are holding steadfast.”
4. Model vulnerability
Change is a challenge for everybody, but oftentimes leaders feel pressure to paste on a smile and a strong face for their teams. However, being more vulnerable and transparent about their struggles is a great way to help employees cope with change.
At Legalsuper, the company’s employees knew that the leadership team was also going through these changes – and that it was tough for all of them. Leaders were encouraged to be vocal about the toll the changes were taking on them, even in conversations directly with their teams.
Jess explains that this seemingly simple effort made a big difference in helping people feel like part of a tight-knit organization. “It’s tough, but we’re going to get through it together,” is how Jess describes the spirit of the organization at the time. “People didn’t feel alone and isolated.”
5. Act on feedback
Whether it’s during times of change or not, listening to employees is crucial. However, plenty of employers have legitimate concerns about survey fatigue. Won’t employees become exhausted with constantly having to offer their two cents?
The best way to combat this exhaustion is to act on the feedback that employees share. “For organizations that are actually using the data to then help inform the work they’re doing, people don’t get sick of giving their opinions on things,” Devshree says.
At Legalsuper, that meant keeping the team updated on the results of any surveys they participated in. “We always did presentations back to the staff about the outcomes of those surveys,” Jess adds.
Navigating change: Less talking, more listening
“The impact of change can sometimes be relentless,” shares Devshree. But it’s in those moments that employees look to their leaders and their organizations to fearlessly light the way.
And making that happen? It starts with hearing, identifying, and understanding exactly where they feel like they’re in the dark.