Julie Hodges: Employee engagement and organisational change

Change is happening all around us, at a pace and level of complexity which is higher than we have ever experienced before. The challenge for businesses is to keep up and adapt, otherwise they may find themselves in a situation like that facing the retail sector, where stores are closing and entire organisations are going out of business.

Another challenge is to identify, at an early stage, the impact on work of those factors driving change, such as technological innovation, and to engage employees with the need to adapt and progress.

When organisations are faced with the prospect and speed of change, they often fail to include front-line staff. It is, however, important to ensure all relevant employees are involved in transformations, in order to achieve organisational effectiveness.

Encourage co-creation

Engagement with change in organisations is often best created by involving employees in identifying opportunities, challenges and problems, and in shaping solutions to address them.

This can occur informally and face-to-face, such as in ‘photocopier’ conversations where individuals or teams gather round, preferably with a cup of tea or coffee, and raise issues, concerns and ideas.

Another way of doing this is by using a ‘talking wall’, where people are encouraged to display ideas or make comments in a public forum. One public sector organisation in my experience successfully used this method to agree a new vision statement, by putting a variety of options on large pieces of paper on a corridor wall and inviting employees to comment on them.

There is, however, a need to be very clear with employees about what is within their power to shape, as well as those elements that are not up for negotiation, and why. This will help with managing expectations and help people understand and accept the decisions which need to be made without their input.

Share stories 

Communication is vital in engaging and motivating employees during times of change. Effective communication requires paying close attention to content and how it is translated for different audiences.

The ultimate impact of stories will depend on not just having compelling answers to questions, but also the willingness and ability of leaders and managers to make things personal, and to engage other people openly in discussion and decision-making.

A lack of these conversations can have an adverse impact on organisational change, as it means that leaders are unlikely to be aware of what the rest of the business is thinking and feeling. Leaders and managers, therefore, need to create spaces for conversations that lead to, and foster, engagement and motivation through authentic discussions about the why, how, what and when of change.

To create conversations which are authentic necessitates suspending assumptions and entering into genuine dialogue which enables employees to contribute to decisions as well as share views, concerns and ideas in an honest and open way.

Employees need to be given the space and support to be able to speak up and share their views, ideas and concerns. This can be done in small staff meetings, both formal and informal, which give people the space to ask questions and get answers.

Managers also need to listen to feedback about what they said and respond to it; if it is not possible to take action based on employees’ views and ideas, it is important to give reasons.

Professor Julie Hodges PhD, PHEA, CMBE, is associate dean, department of management and marketing, at Durham University Business School