“We have never had a better case study on managing change than 2020,” says Paula Leach, Chief People Officer of FDM, a 5500-employee global business that brings people and technology together. “This year, the pandemic has created great societal change and economic uncertainty, while the Black Lives Matter movement has been a cultural awakening. One thing is for certain – change is emotional and gets messy so employers need to create space to let that happen.”

Dom Walters, a leadership communication strategist at Inpulse, the employee wellbeing survey experts, agrees. He says the emotions behind change can make or break success, and that organisations need to take employees on a journey to action, involving heads, hearts and hands.

Here are the 6 key steps to managing change and transition, from Dom Walters, Leadership Communication Strategist of Inpulse, with advice from Paula Leach, Chief People Officer of FDM and Bertie Tonks, Global Director of People and Culture of Collinson, the travel firm. Each came together in a live employee engagement and wellbeing masterclass. Here are their recommendations.

  1. Provide clarity and focus to ensure that everyone has a clear and consistent view of what the change is for and the benefits it will bring.

“The big issue in change is uncertainty, which everyone feels to varying degrees, so the power of clear, simple messages to help focus people cannot be understated. Even though nothing may seem usual, emphasise to teams what is still consistent – objectives, what’s working well, the clients that are seeing successes. Take even more time to explain implications and consequences. In uncertain times, leaders must not assume people will automatically make the same connections that they do. Everything needs to be clarified and amplified. Beware, too, of the tendency to use complex language – it’s a signal for many to turn off and disengage.” Dom Walters, Inpulse.

  1. Put leaders at the core of change – they are uniquely placed to help people see what the change means for them and what they can do to make it happen.

“One of the key outcomes of 2020 will be that hybrid working will help performance become better and stronger than ever, but there has to be an intentional plan. Leaders need to balance two key elements – clarity and creation. They have to create a framework but then get out of the way. They cannot support their business if they are entrenched and don’t have a vantage point to provide clarity. A leader ensures they’re in service of the team, not the team in service to them.” Paula Leach, FDM.

  1. Focus on emotions and wellbeing – it’s critical to understand the emotional journey people will be going through during change and respond to it with compassion.

“Act early and consistently to understand the trends of what people are feeling, which could well be both positive and negative. During lockdown, we saw individuals feel hope and sadness simultaneously. Some people thrive on change, others don’t. When businesses transition – and especially this year – people worry about job security, wellbeing, personal development or many other things, but when a business understands the exact data of emotions they can communicate far more effectively and reassuringly to support all.” Paula Leach, FDM.

  1. Get people talking – people respond to change when they are able to talk it through, share opinions and shape parts of it.

“There’s no point in people going into the office if the people they need to collaborate with aren’t there. The next step is important – work as a group so people can discuss their own needs, understand others’ needs and pinpoint collaborative actions that the business needs. Set up a workshop where teams discuss and evolve a plan including: the needs of individuals, teams and the business; purpose, activities and deliverables; priorities for both collaboration and independent work; measuring and communicating and not least, an action timeline.” Paula Leach, FDM.

  1. Consult and measure regularly – to get clear trend data and understand what people are making of the change. Give them the chance to raise issues and highlight concerns before they become showstoppers.

“We’ve used pulse surveys to understand what people are crying out for, so we can act decisively, as well as show that leadership care. The biggest worry for me during lockdown is that we have 1800 people globally nearly overnight working from home. We had no visibility of how they were, how they felt in the morning, where they were getting their drive, motivation and sense of purpose, or their environment. We’re in the travel industry and have had huge drops to our revenues, so budgets were virtually zero. We still have to do as much as we can with very little, maximising our strengths.” Bertie Tonks, Collinson.

  1. Give time and support – acknowledge the extent of the shift people are making, allow time for them to adjust, and provide tools and resources to help. People need to come to terms with change, sometimes they’ll understandably mourn what they’re missing.

“Business leaders have to recognise that we’re all in different places, with this year’s events impacting everyone in different ways, some life changing. We stopped talking about engagement, which seems to be something HR ‘does’, and started talking about wellness which meets peoples’ fundamental physiological and safety needs. On top of this, we communicated even if there was nothing to communicate. Power up your managers – who are likely to be most peoples’ main contact if they’re working from home. Have monthly calls, help them wake up every day with a sense of purpose to help them influence their teams.” Bertie Tonks, Collinson.

Dom Walters, Inpulse, summarises:

“To handle change, leaders need to dial up sensitivity as more challenges hit us in 2021 – not least vaccination programmes, health and safety, staff burnout, losing staff or scaling up rapidly as customer demand increases. They must also take time to look after themselves, so they are in the best shape to help their people.

“Leaders must help people through change, working with both logic and emotional connection. By truly understanding the issues their people are facing and the emotions that impact their work, wellness and productivity can be boosted with clear actions and empathetic communications. This also helps to minimise the heat when unpalatable messages need to be conveyed, while inspire positivity helping people focus on what they can change.”