Even though there are many excellent reasons for putting a company through the stress of a reorganisation process, it’s never an easy thing to accomplish. Yet occasional reorganisations are essential, whether to restructure the business to reflect changing markets and innovation, or simply to ensure that the company retains an appropriate management hierarchy for its size as it grows. Nevertheless, irrespective of the outcome, a reorganisation will always create two problems: a “winners and losers” scenario, and an information vacuum. This article will look at some ways of mitigating the tensions these problems inevitably create.
It is surely rare for a reorganisation to be welcomed by every single person in the company, because there are bound to be promotions and re-allocations of responsibility or maybe even job relocations or redundancies. Some people will be happy; many will not. Omelettes, eggs, etc.
In a way, the situation is a little paradoxical: what’s good for the organisation as a whole may be very bad for a number of its individuals, and the tension is exquisite; really, it would be hard to find a more difficult corporate balancing act. Now, some organisations will deal with the issue in a manner which might have found favour with Genghis Khan: plough on regardless with brutal efficiency, get it over with quickly, and take any hit in employee morale on the chin. Others will see merit in taking a more nuanced approach, valuing their reputation as a good employer even during bad times. And it’s process that makes the difference, although even the best-planned reorganisation process can suffer unexpected turbulence.
Ideally, we’d like to see the process operate as follows:
- Secret plans drawn up
- Big announcement
- Questions asked and satisfactorily answered
- Everybody accepting (if not actually happy) and ready to move forward
- Smooth transition – and breathe out.
But we all know it doesn’t work like that. The rumour of a pending reorganisation always slips out, and is usually officially denied, until the announcement is made. Town Hall meetings don’t answer people’s questions (and people are often afraid to raise truly contentious issues – who wants to be seen as a troublemaker in times of uncertainty?) Middle management aren’t given enough information to answer the contentious questions they do get asked; all they can do is promise to pass the enquiry up the chain, which is rarely satisfactory. The transition still goes ahead, but with much gnashing of teeth and confusion. Even in the most surgical transition, there is always collateral damage; the danger is that you just don’t always see it.
So what can we do to ease the progress of change? There is no magic bullet, yet there are things which can make a difference.
Managing the Information Vacuum
If there’s one thing that well lubricates the office’s social fabric, it’s gossip. And what gossip could be more interesting or valuable than big, secret news? The thing is, rarely does enough information escape for people to draw accurate conclusions, which means they need to make all sorts of (often bogus) assumptions to work out the possible meaning of the snippet they’ve heard. The worst thing that can happen is that an otherwise detail-free rumour of an impending reorganisation involving a reduction in staff numbers starts making the rounds. Instantly, the entire workforce start fearing for their job security; productivity flies out of the window.
And, if there really is a reorganisation waiting in the wings, the worst thing that management can do in response is to deny it, because they are simply banjaxing their own long-term credibility. It’s far, far better to be honest with staff, to the extent that you are able (you may, of course, not have the details fully worked out). They will respect you for it, even if the news is unpalatable.
A similar tack can be taken with ongoing rumours; encourage staff to seek clarification where the quality of information is doubtful. Do this through a single point of contact (rather than through the line management structure) and you’ll get to hear much of the gossip, and you’ll also be able to ensure that responses are consistent and accurate. If you can provide anonymity for enquirers, so much the better; you’ll get many more enquiries. This approach makes it possible to manage expectations and correct any misconceptions, trumping silence and denial as a strategy.
Winners and Losers
Clear, concise, accurate communications with staff can go a long way towards easing anxieties and preserving morale during difficult periods. Explain why a reorganisation is necessary, and what you hope to achieve. Actively seek to engage staff in helping to make the transition successful. Solicit their ideas – it’s not just management that have imaginations or can think creatively – and implement them where it makes sense. Communicate early, and communicate often. Respond to feedback. Try to build up a picture of where in the company the reorganisation will go smoothly, and where the sticky points will be. No information of this sort is ever useless.
Of winners and losers, for there are likely to be both, the following can be said: winners probably don’t need much attention, as long as they are happy with their win; it’s the losers who need looking after. This includes not just the actual losers, but those who are worried that they will become losers. Management of expectation here is vital, and indeed it’s well worth finding a way of reassuring those who are worried quite unnecessarily.
Those whose worries are well founded need handling differently: honesty helps, as does not making vague promises that things might work out. If the worst comes to the worst, try to soften the blow in a way that helps each affected individual, which may mean a flexible approach, depending on personal need. Don’t assume, for example, that providing “outplacement advice” is all you need do; whereas some people may welcome it, others will be indifferent, and still others will find it patronising. You may have to deprive people of their jobs, but if you do it in a sensitive way, you will limit the possibility of reputational damage.
An Alternative Strategy
But is it worth even trying to keep reorganisations secret? There is another way of approaching this whole area, which is to move away from the sesquiannual “big bang” reorganisation, and aim for smaller, more frequent restructurings. It does mean that the company will be in a state of change most of the time, but then so are your markets and your competitive landscape. This way, the reorganisation becomes less like some occasional monstrous disruptive intrusion into an otherwise unchanging company, and more like a series of small corrections to the company’s course. Make a policy of continuous improvement in structure as much part of the company’s way of doing things as policies of continuous improvement in process or staff capabilities already are (or should be!)
The advantages of this approach are many: less secrecy is required; reorganisations are smaller, more frequent, and less of a surprise; communication is simpler, the information vacuum is smaller, and the stress is reduced. There will be times when this isn’t possible; sometimes restructuring will affect a large proportion of staff – and in these circumstances, keep change as simple as possible. You can always make further adjustments later.
Technology Can Help
We don’t always make best use of the technology at our disposal, which is understandable considering that the speed of innovation these days is very likely to outstrip our ability to use it effectively. But there is one recent innovation that can make a huge difference to any reorganisation initiative: the always-on survey, which replaces the pedestrian and thoroughly outdated annual employee questionnaire with a new and far more versatile staff feedback system. Typically, an always-on survey will be quick and simple to use, offer real-time analytics, and provide a new anonymous communications channel perfectly suited to dealing with the information vacuum issues outlined above.
A well-designed always-on survey will give you remarkable new capabilities, for example:
- It can show you how staff opinion changes between any two dates
- It will tell you which parts of the company have problems, and the relative priorities of any issues
- It can help you to address rumours, to answer awkward questions, and will give you a way of responding in a consistent manner to all enquiries
- It will allow you to track the views of groups of staff over time (to monitor the effectiveness of any intervention you may make)
Companies still using an annual survey mechanism won’t get any of these benefits as they are unlikely to include an adequate anonymous communications facility. Contrast this with the always-on survey, increasingly recognised by HR and other industry experts as a disruptive technology capable of providing next-generation feedback platforms, for all these and other reasons. Always-on surveys, by their very nature, can also be used as ready-to-go Pulse Surveys, simply by asking employees at any time for their current views; but they are also there for employees whenever they have something to say.
The Always-On Approach
Always-on isn’t just a type of survey: it’s a way of thinking about change itself. Instead of huge occasional change, where a change project’s several stages may take many months, change is broken down into smaller, more manageable chunks, where the stages of different change projects overlap, and projects are run in parallel. Always-on surveys are the best means of discovering what needs to change from an internal viewpoint; changing trading environments, innovation and corporate growth provide external motivation for change, but of course the always-on survey is perfectly positioned to gather feedback about these initiatives too.
Thymometrics is the world’s most comprehensive always-on survey platform, designed to provide precisely the facilities needed to inform the change management process and help make a success of your next reorganisation. Why not check out thymometrics.com for further details, to read case studies, or to avail yourself of a demonstration?