Keeping employees engaged through organisational change

Need to know:

  • Whether positive progress or worrying uncertainty, change in business can impact employee engagement, retention and wellbeing.
  • Employers should identify key metrics relevant to engagement to focus on and monitor throughout a period of change so as to understand the impact of uncertainty on staff.
  • Consistent, two-way communication, with input from business leaders, is integral to keeping staff calm, happy and engaged despite upheaval.

Whether going through a difficult financial period, experiencing external pressures, or adapting to changes in employee expectations and desires, every business goes through organisational change, and keeping employees engaged can be difficult.

However, with happy workforces resulting in higher productivity, customer satisfaction and profits, engaging staff even when the going gets tough is an important factor in the path to business success.

Change in business

In September 2017, Nesta found that 70% of employees felt they were in roles with highly uncertain prospects. The UK retail space, for example, is facing considerable upheaval, affecting millions of jobs and careers. According to Store openings and closures: January to June 2019, published by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the first half of the year saw a record net 1,234 stores disappear from Britain’s top 500 high streets.

Organisational uncertainty can cause a number of issues; for example, employees may not feel motivated to work if their future is uncertain. High engagement levels therefore become more difficult to achieve.

This level of uncertainty can also raise the likelihood of legal conflict, which itself creates a litigious and negative environment, not well placed to foster engagement and wellbeing.

Paul McFarlane, legal director at Capsticks and chair of the legislative and policy committee at the Employment Lawyers Association (ELA), says: “Uncertainty makes it harder to resolve disputes informally and increases the likelihood of more disputes ending up at an Employment Tribunal, as neither employer or employees feel confident in an informal dispute resolution process that they have ‘got the law right’. As a consequence, employees are more likely to seek court or tribunal guidance.”

Keeping track of engagement

Throughout a period of change, employers should choose one metric to focus on to help them measure fluctuations in engagement, says Joe Cainey, director of data science at Peakon. The metric itself is for the business to decide; it might be turnover, survey scores or absence levels, for example.

“The best way to measure [engagement is through] continuous listening and measurements over a consistent period of time,” he explains. “If [employers] continuously measure the same thing during a period of change, they get a framework for understanding what [impact change is having] on employees.

“[Employers] will decide they want to do a change management survey where they ask about the specific changes that have occurred, but there’s no need if they have a consistent set of metrics to look at month by month.”

Anonymity is also a key consideration when employers look to receive feedback, to ensure they get an honest and candid perspective from staff, adds Cainey.

There is no golden formula to finding the right questions or metrics to measure, as engagement is highly dependent on the industry type, organisation size, and employee base. It can also vary within the workforce itself; for example, September 2019 research by Peakon found that newer employees are more likely to be content with change in the business compared with more experienced employees.

Engaging activities

Once the processes for monitoring engagement throughout a period of organisational change are in place, an organisation must go on to do the hard work of maintaining this.

No matter what is happening externally, employers should not lose sight of those engagement-boosting activities that seem obvious when times are good, but can fall by the wayside when more pressing concerns arise. Whether social occasions, corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities or wellbeing weeks, it is important to continue working towards creating a positive, cohesive atmosphere.

Continuing with these initiatives even during upheaval will also help to demonstrate the high status that employee happiness has within an organisation, marking it as a fundamental business value. For businesses going through rapid growth, this places employee need at the same level as financial success, and for those facing turmoil, it shows that uncertainty will not shake a positive culture.

Communicating through change

Having positive activities in place might backfire, however, if employees feel they are not being told something. A key part of the puzzle is trust.

Maintaining engagement and trust, therefore, comes down to communication, says McFarlene: “Treating employees fairly and conducting effective consultation on proposed changes during times of uncertainty is the best means of retaining the confidence of staff and retaining them.”

The integral point here is consultation: a two-way process that allows space for staff to react individually to change and provide their own feedback, rather than simply be communicated at from the top down. This will also help the organisation itself benefit from thought diversity and become more adaptable.

Professor Julie Hodges of Durham University Business School says: “Employees at different levels of an organisation have different experiences of the reality of the [business]. Managers should not just assume that employees will view the need for change in the same way that they themselves do. Because of the knowledge front-line staff hold and their experience, they may have very different perspectives and ideas about what needs to change. They need the opportunity to share these in conversations.”

A voice from the top

Business leaders are pivotal in creating a sense of trust through times of change; being honest enough to communicate with employees and provide them with realistic information can significantly aid engagement levels and maintain employee wellbeing. Even if the picture is not a positive one, most individuals would rather know the truth and hear direct from their leaders than be left wondering and feeling like an afterthought.

Steve Butler, chief executive officer at Punter Southall Aspire, commenting on his experience with managing engagement through organisational change, says: “Last year, I managed a period of rapid business growth and culture change. We acquired four businesses, adding five regional offices and almost doubling our workforce from 75 to 144. My challenge during this time was to build a single, integrated business and culture.

“Managing multiple acquisitions created a potential cultural void which I have had to fill and shape very quickly to keep staff engaged and with the business long term.

As CEO, it has been important for me to do the listening to create trust and conviction that employees have been heard, and to be visible.

“To this end, I travelled around the country to run discussion groups with smaller groups of employees, which has been of huge benefit during [a period of change for the business]. The journey to change the workforce culture has been a constant learning process, one where I’ve had to regularly pause to reflect on conflicting feedback, apparent irrational resistance and ongoing learning lessons.”