5Ws and 1H in communicating organizational structure change

CommunicatingWe have all heard of the saying that “the only constant is change” in Today’s fast moving world. This is rightfully so given that organizations have to hanker with the backdrop of the explosion of the digital age, influence of social media, war for talent, work force diversity and other increasingly difficult business conditions while at the same time, try their best to be effective and efficient in the work  that they do. To improve the overall effectiveness of their organizational structures, leaders are often keen to make structural redesigns—ranging from reorganizing teams for better collaboration and improving cross-team communication to more large-scale centralization or decentralization projects.

Whatever the scale of restructuring change, even the most well intentioned designs can fail to achieve the desired outcomes if they are not implemented effectively. And often than not, companies tend to overlook one of the most basic yet most important ways of ensuring an effective transition – a communication plan that meets employees’ emotional needs. This article aims to provide a guide to the 5Ws (What, Why, Who, When, Where) and 1H (How) to a sound communication plan to manage organizational structure changes and meet employees’ emotional needs.

What, Why and How

A clear and simple message that describes what the organizational structure change could be the foundational cornerstone for the communication plan. Changes seen as an extension of the organizational culture are more likely to be embraced. Those that are not congruent are likely to create more resistance. More complex changes are often resisted. On top of the rationale behind the change, it is also important to explain what are the expected benefits (and risks) of the change. All these considerations need to be addressed in a clear and simple communication.

When overlooked, poor communication during organizational restructuring often results in staff confusion, apathy, disengagement and demoralization. In addition, when companies fail to collect and integrate employee feedback in the change, it latently suggest that the company does not value employees’ feedback on the change, which does not resonate well with staffs.

Involving employees in implementing and communicating the change can go a long way to ensuring that the desired outcomes are achieved.   Instead of making employees the recipient of change communications, involve enthusiastic employees in implementing and communicating the change. Every individual could have different view point and, therefore, unique perspective about the change.  We should give employees a safe environment to suggest potential changes and alternative views to the change.

Typically, it is better to use multiple channels because it increases the probability that employees will hear about the change and better understand the change effort with reinforcement from the many channels. Emotion-rich and contact-rich platforms, such as face-to-face meetings, should be used as it enables rapid feedback and quick adaptation to employee concerns. It can be very difficult to ascertain whether employees are still in the Denial stage (Kubler-Ross’s theory on stages of Grief: Denial -> Anger -> Bargaining -> Depression -> Acceptance) if the change communication is announced only via a single corporate memorandum.

Who, When and Where

Who communicates may be as important as what they say. Therefore, change leaders need to carefully identify who will announce and sponsor the changes. We should select leaders of the right position and influence to make the announcement. While not all leaders are skilled presenters or change managers, but by just demonstrating solidarity among the leaders, it is often more impactful than putting up a good oratorical performance. A team of leaders reporting the change together, including more senior leaders higher up in the supervisory relationship of the organizational structure change, signals to the entire organization that the change was already well debated, agreed and committed by the leadership team.

A key consideration on timing is to make announcements early to employees and building in employee’s reaction time to actively harvest dissent, if any. It is important to have a forum (for example, in a closed door meeting or 1 to 1 check-in) to harvest any dissent in a safe manner for both the messengers and recipients. Making the announcement on the first day of the work week versus on the last day of the work week can also strategically and tactically produce different results. For example, if information is only shared late into the work week, say on a Friday afternoon, employees may not have their concerns adequately addressed (by the change managers and facilitators) over the week end, that is their off and rest days, and they may discussed within themselves to form the wrong negative assumptions and impressions about the change. By the following Monday, the seed of distrust and has already been planted.

Case studies

Organization A promotes staff X

Approach: The leaders delivered initial communications to affected employees in person so that it fosters an emotional connection. The leaders ensure that employees have a safe platform (closed door meeting) to start a dialogue, ask questions, and get satisfactory answers. The platform allows leaders to answer the affected employees’ questions promptly and efficiently. Organization A constantly gauge employee reactions and collect feedback to determine how comfortable the employees are with the change and how the change management process should proceed.

Result: The employees and other stakeholders are clear about the rationale for the change and what are the actions and plans taken by the leaders to manage the change and support its people during the transition. There is no visible drop in employee satisfaction and engagement and the organization’s operation and business is not affected negatively in any way.

Organization B promotes staff Y

Approach: The leader sent a single corporate memorandum via email to inform customers and partners on the news of the promotion of staff Y and carbon copy the staffs who would report to staff Y. There is no avenue and time for the affected employees to react to the sudden announcement. And there is no effort by organization B to monitor employee reactions and collect timely feedback on the change.

Result: One high performing staff quitted the organization in less than 3 months and one of the reasons cited in the exit interview is that the employee felt disrespected in the manner that the announcement was made known to the rest of the organization even before he was made aware, when he is most impacted by the change as he would report to staff Y. Another solid worker staff showed visible signs of disengagement and bewilderment in the initial stages after the announcement was made.

Productivity and morale within the team suffered as a result due to wide spread employee disengagement and the transition gap caused by the high performing staff leaving the team and the subsequent long search for a suitable replacement. And in the process for the replacement staff to join the organization and to get up to speed, the remaining team members have to share and manage team’s work load with “one less headcount”. Thereafter, a big emotional and psychological responsibility is placed upon staff Y to bring his team together to the previous Performing level (Bruce Tuckman’s team development model of Forming -> Storming -> Norming -> Performing) before the change.

While the above case studies may be isolated cases, going forward it would not hurt to consider the 5Ws and 1H holistically when strategizing and implementing the organizational structure change communication. Currently, is your organization more A-type or B-type when communicating organizational structure changes?

By Zhiyang Gung

About the author 

Zhiyang Gung is an experienced human resources/ workforce development manager who drives learning & development, knowledge management, organizational development and talent management initiatives and programs to enable the organization to win. He has more than 8 years of change management experience that spans across multiple countries and industries. He has seen his fair share of change leaders who struggle during the change efforts due to poor communication strategy and plan. He likes to share with people on his knowledge and experiences so they can stop learning the hard way as he did.