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Communicating in Times of Change

I’ve been involved in several change initiatives throughout my career, leading some and helping leaders guide their teams through others. No matter what spurred the change whether a technology implementation, a branding change, or a global health crisis, the most critical element was always communication.

Everyone handles change differently. People move through letting go of the old and accepting the new (or inevitable) at different rates of speed and with mixed emotions. Excellent communication (and leaders who take this responsibility to heart) promotes faster acceptance and engagement from the other side, thus more productivity.

Here are some effective practices that I’ve used and shared with clients and other leaders in my network.

1. Share early and often

No one had the luxury of preparing their team or organization for this pandemic through a well-thought-out change and communication plan. While it hit us out of nowhere, that doesn’t mean that leaders are off the hook regarding communication.

As employees went from the office to working from home or staying at work as essential workers, those leaders who have kept up constant communication have been seeing more engagement and productivity.

You may sometimes feel like a broken record, repeating the same messages over and over. But you might not realize that because everyone is moving through the change process at different speeds, they hear your words differently. Someone might not have absorbed a message you shared two weeks ago because they weren’t ready to listen to it. People need to hear some messages up to seven times before they take hold.

So right now, communicate more than you think you should. And next time you have the luxury of planning for a change, remember that, for the best results, you should start the messaging before you need involvement and engagement.

2. Use a variety of communication channels

Email is useful for when you want to ensure the message is clear and consistent. It guarantees that everyone who receives the email sees the same message, though they still might interpret it differently. However, inboxes are typically flooded with emails, so if it’s critical, find a different way, which calls attention to the importance of the message.

While working from home limits the ability to have in-person meetings in the same location, it doesn’t mean you can’t do similar things via the online meeting tool you are using.

Conduct large virtual meetings or town halls with all employees. If you’re in various time zones or countries, videotape the message so people can watch it at their convenience. Be sure to leave time for questions during the live events, and have a way for people to ask questions after viewing the taped ones.

Use other communication channels that are common for your organization, even if they’re not your personal favorites. Try Slack, instant messaging, newsletters or anything else that is likely to engage the most team members.

3. Be open (and vulnerable)

Many of us have worked in organizations that have gone through some type of change, and we’ve had the responsibility of taking a leadership role in the process. The difference this time is that the change is happening to our entire team and us at the same time.

You probably don’t have a playbook for talking with your team about everything that has taken place or what will happen as businesses start to return to offices, branches and plants. It’s okay not to have all the answers, and it’s okay to admit it.

“I don’t know” might be one of the essential leadership phrases to use right now. This is not the time to make something up. Just don’t leave your team hanging. If it is something, you can get an answer to, get it and report back. If it’s something that has not been decided on, let your team know that too.

Remember, communication is an ongoing journey, especially during these times. Keep it up, and you will be helping your team in more ways than you will ever know.

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