While change is often in the best long-term interest of a company, it can wreak havoc on an organization’s people in the near term. Periods of change on a grand scale – crises, mergers and acquisitions, mass layoffs – can especially erode employee engagement, loyalty, and trust. In most cases, the things companies do to get ahead of change, such as more frequent communication or manager training, are only minimally effective.
Common sense tells us that people going through change need in-person interactions with people they trust and a safe space to process what’s happening. But because we spend nearly three hours per day on social platforms, and because more than half of employersare already using internal social media, companies also have an opportunity to leverage social media as a change management tool.
According to a recent study my company Weber Shandwick conducted in partnership with KRC Research, employees seem to think it can help. We found that 55% of respondents who had gone through a change event at work said they wished their employer offered more digital and social engagement, while 42% said they wanted more face-to-face communication.
Whether companies are using enterprise social networks, blogs, wikis, or platforms like Slack, Spark, and Flipgrid, these are the four ways we’re seeing them leverage social media to help manage through change.
To shorten the distance between leaders and employees. Few things are more important during a change event than communication from leaders who can paint a clear and confidence-inspiring vision of the future. Yet our survey found that only 17% of employees who have recently experienced a change rated communications from their top leader highly.
Internal social media can help flatten the organization and drive transparent dialogue across levels, functions, and geographies. Although leadership participation can be a challenge, according to another study we conducted on companies with “social CEOS,” 73% of them said that CEO social participation gave more employees the chance to communicate directly with the CEO, while 72% said social engagement helped the CEO understand what was happening inside the company.
Consider Zappos CEO Tony Hseih, who announced layoffs for 8% of the company’s workforce on Zappos’ external blog immediately after sending an internal email. Employees appreciated the transparency and later engaged with Tony, each other, and Zappos’ stakeholders over Twitter. The open conversation provided Zappos with insight into how best to handle sensitive situations, fostered thoughtful, public interaction between management and employees, and even helped some laid off workers find future employment with other companies.
To give employees a role in shaping the future. Many say the most difficult part of change at work is feeling powerless over the future. Our study shows that 21% of employees who have recently gone through change feel their employers value their ideas and opinions. Internal social networks help companies engage people in defining the go-forward plan by asking for smart ideas that can be put to use to support the transformation.
When longtime Cisco CEO John Chambers stepped down to serve as chairman in July and was replaced by Chuck Robbins, the company started two simultaneous Jive threads—one inviting employees to thank John and another asking: “What advice or suggestions do you have for Chuck Robbins as he transitions to CEO?” Within four days the two posts drew over 1,000 comments and over 20,000 views. Similar employee crowdsourcing efforts have been used to redefine company values (at IBM) and generate ideas for cutting operational costs (at BASF).
To offer camaraderie and space to process uncertainty. There’s a reason we use the word “community” when we talk about social media—it’s a space where people go to discuss, collaborate, and create shared experiences. This type of support is especially important when a company is undergoing large-scale change.
When Pfizer undertook a major restructuring in 2007, they turned to ten employees to tell their stories. Each representing a different role in the new organizational structure, these employees were given video cameras and asked to share their real-life experience, warts and all, through a series of video diaries over a three-month period. Pfizer employees looked forward to following the journeys of their colleagues who were experiencing the same uncertainties they were facing. The ten employees became internal celebrities of sorts and pulse surveys tracked an upswing in employees’ understanding of the change and confidence in the future. Those clips were delivered to employees on CDs. (Yes, CDs!) What could the same type of intervention mean for companies in the era of YouTube?
To help drive employee behavior change. Transitions often require a corresponding change in employee behavior, whether it’s adopting a new set of values as part of a cultural evolution or working differently to support a new leader’s vision for the company.
Social media and internal apps offer leaders and employees a way to recognize and reward each other. Take tech company Symantec, for example, which partnered with Globoforce to roll out a social recognition platform as a post-merger integration technique. The program, Applause, helped the company align its many legacy cultures around a shared way of working. Nearly 40% of all employees were recognized in the first five months, and before a year had passed, employee satisfaction scores had risen 16%.
Other companies use social media to drive behavior change by featuring employees who embrace the new way of working or by leveraging social learning to connect employees to instructors and each other to master new skills.
To add social media to your change management quiver, first assess your internal social media tools. Are you a socially-enabled organization? If yes, use the platforms to which your employees are accustomed. Go where they already are. If not, rather than rushing to upgrade or redesign your intranet (which requires its own change management program!), consider standalone tools like Google Hangout, WebEx or Kaltura that are hosted in the cloud or can easily be integrated with your existing systems. Selected tools should support the immediate transition but also meet your company’s longer-term technology needs.
Next, convert your leaders. When enterprise social platforms fail, the number one reason is lack of leader engagement. Be sure to build social into your change communications plans and line up a cadre of socially-minded executives who can pave the way, even if at first it doesn’t include your CEO. Then build a team of social employee influencers who can direct others to executive content and real-time engagement opportunities.
Social media alone won’t lead to greater employee engagement during change. Face-to-face communication, manager support, and real-time coaching are all critical to preserving trust and boosting morale and performance in times of change. But social media is fast becoming an indispensable supplement. Our study shows that 88% of employees use at least one social media side at home and that many want a similar experience at work. It’s clear that social is becoming a critical component of any change plan.
There are, of course, risks to engaging with employees over social media, which are heightened in transition states when much is at stake. But inviting employees to take part in conversations early in the change process can help preempt negative commentary, both internally and externally.
Disclosure: The client examples noted above involved work that Weber Shandwick was not involved with.
This article was first published in hbr.org