Employee Communication in a Time of Change: Views from the Trenches

Last week, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel on How Employee Engagement can Drive Organizational Change at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Strategic Communications & Change. The session provided participants with expert insights and lessons from the trenches from the following distinguished panelists:

• Renée Légaré, Executive Vice President & Chief Human Resources Officer – The Ottawa Hospital
• Janemary Banigan, Manager of Internal Communications – Export Development Canada
• Heather Rourke, Director of Employee Communications – Bank of Canada

Here are the key themes that stood out for me from the conversation with this dynamic trio:

1. Trust is a precondition to engagement. A critical success factor to any organizational change is trust. Authentic, respectful, and transparent communication during change both increases the trust equity of executives, and builds buy-in from employees. By being honest about the challenges that lie ahead, and providing psychological safety, employees will be better equipped to thrive through transformation. One of the best ways to design communication to dial up trust levels is to adopt a listening, rather than a telling posture. Panelists emphasized the use of face to face communications through Town Halls, as well as employee surveys and quick “Pulse Checks” to draw in employee feedback.

2. Change is about emotion. A unique characteristic of employee communications during change is that it must reach employees at an emotional, rather than an intellectual level. The panelists shared how they considered opportunities for staff to shape the experience of the change, and have a sense of agency, even through small gestures. For example, during a move between offices, a simple exercise of providing options for new desk chairs helped employees feel a sense of influence on their new work environment. What struck me is that while the panelists represented very different types of organizations, a common theme between them was the importance of communicating to employees as people first. They all underscored the value of considering intrinsic motivation and reaching audiences on a personal and relatable level. One suggestion was to use the Intranet to humanize employee communication, by including photos or fun features that put the spotlight on staff.

3. Email is not the solution. The discussion made it clear that while executives often want to rely on all staff email as the backbone of internal communication, this approach is never effective. Instead the suggestion was to leverage the traditional toolbox of communications tactics (intranets, TV monitors, campaigns, newsletters etc.), and sprinkle new ideas for engagement in order to break through the barrier of information overload. Another successful way to connect is to hold an all-staff town hall or conference inviting all employees to come together for 1 day, listen to peer presentations and have conversations across the organization. Using applications such as the Slido question tool for employee engagement during large Town Halls or events also provided positive impacts, giving employees a voice in a forum that fosters authentic communication.

Thank you to everyone who attended this engaging conversation! If you’re interested in learning more on these themes, check out the Institute for Strategic Communications and Change’s certificate-based program. Applications are now being accepted for the fall cohort, beginning November 15, 2017.