At some point, virtually every business goes through a reorganization of some kind. New technology, new or changing laws that affect business, and actions that competitors take can mean the company must change or lose its competitive edge. It's up to human resources professionals to help everyone in the company come through the transition successfully.
Changes might take the form of:
- Mergers, acquisitions, or joint ventures
- Breakups, spinoffs, or divestitures
- Downsizing and layoffs
- Expansion into new locations, markets, technologies, or offerings
- Leadership revision
Any of these changes can cause major confusion, disruption, and anxiety among employees. What can you do to support the process and make the best of the situation? As with any change, the answers are to:
- Understand how employees are likely to react to change.
- Know what to do to help make the transition a smooth process.
How employees might react to change
At some point during a transition, employees are likely to experience one or more of these feelings:
- Uncertainty about what to do next
- Anxiety about the future
- A feeling of no control
These emotions can lower morale and affect productivity. On the other hand, some employees might embrace change, seeing it as an exciting new opportunity. You are better able to help everyone get through a transition if you understand that a wide range of responses is completely normal. Remembering this fact also helps you withstand the inevitable negative reactions of a few employees.
Making the transition a smooth one
How can you help employees through the changes? Here's a list of steps to consider. Remember that not all steps apply in every situation:
- Help employees understand the reasons for the change Employees tend to focus on how the change affects them personally — "what's in it for me." You can help them see the big picture by communicating business reasons for the change as well as the advantages to the company and to them. This can help take away the sense that the change is directed against them personally and might lead to greater acceptance on the employees' part.
- Communicate clearly and often If you fail to do so, employees might assume the worst, leading to needless anxiety and confusion that interferes with work getting done. You can help build morale and minimize disruption by providing clear, honest, frequent communication throughout the transition.
- Be sure it's two-way communication Companies often rely on "top down" communication from management to employees, but this might leave unanswered questions — as well as resentment and frustration. You can help by providing true two-way communication opportunities such as brown-bag sessions, which allow employees to ask questions in an interactive setting.
- Understand the varying needs of different individuals and groups If the change affects various people or groups in different ways, try to understand the specific needs of each group. For example, if your company is laying off employees, individuals will have very different experiences and attitudes about the change. On the one hand, the laid-off employees need to have information about things such as what happens to their benefits after they leave and how to apply for unemployment compensation. The laid-off employees might also have an emotional need to vent.
On the other hand, the "survivors" in a work group that has been hit hard by layoffs might feel guilty, sad, or overwhelmed by new workloads. The result can hamper productivity and undermine their commitment to their employer.
Understanding such diverse needs among the employees allows you to tailor the way you communicate and interact with each workgroup or employee throughout the reorganization. Your goals are to support their needs, manage expectations, and prevent undue disruption.
- Create opportunities for learning Both during and after reorganization, employees might find they're doing their jobs very differently than in the past. They might be using new tools and technology or working with fewer or different resources. They might also be expected to make big changes with little or no training or support. You can help by noticing stumbling blocks and setting up classes, tutorials, and other training.
- Provide ways for people to let go of the past Employees might need to mourn the old company. One organization did this with a luncheon at corporate headquarters, where executives recounted stories of the early days and the president handed out mementos such as framed pictures and stock certificates. This "funeral" gave people a chance to say a fond farewell to a company they had been part of for years, and it also allowed them to move on.
- Develop a process to solve problems You might find yourself fielding many more employee issues, comments, and questions than usual during a transition. It's a good idea to create a triage system or problem escalation process for the more challenging situations. For example, what if an employee threatens legal action or has a dispute with a coworker? Plan to escalate problems automatically to someone with the right background and authority to intervene.
Having a process in place for handling situations as they arise ensures the serious problems are investigated carefully by more than one person, which can protect you and your company. In addition, it can help defuse the employee's anger because they feel they're being taken seriously.
- Use feedback to confirm ongoing communication needs You can support a successful reorganization by listening and getting feedback on what's working as well as what isn't. Formal methods include surveys and focus groups; more informal approaches include chatting with individuals, managers, and small workgroups.
By taking the time to do some careful planning and by using these commonsense techniques, you can help guide employees through the disruptions that reorganization is bound to cause. You and your employees will end up feeling more comfortable with the process, and everyone will be more prepared to go to work within the new structure.
About the author Mercer Human Resource Consulting assists clients in understanding, developing, implementing, and quantifying the effectiveness of their human resources programs and policies. Mercer Consulting also assists employers in creating measurable business results through their people.