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How to be as human as possible whilst going through a restructure

If you want to lead a successful transformation, studies have shown that communicating empathetically with your employees is critical, before, during, and after the changes have taken place.

30 Jan 2023 | 5 min read

Restructures occur for a myriad of reasons, and they’re never easy for anyone involved. But whatever the reasons for company reorganisations, it is critical that leaders get the process right, or they risk damaging their businesses' brand in both the short and long-term. If you want to lead a successful transformation, studies have shown that communicating empathetically with your employees is critical, before, during, and after the changes have taken place.

Communicate early and often 

“One of the biggest and most fundamental mistakes companies make [during a restructure] is failing to engage people, or at least forgetting to do so early enough in the process,” write Rose Beauchamp, Stephen Heidari-Robinson, and Suzanne Heywood for McKinsey. Many leaders (understandably) put off sharing bad news with their employees, but a survey of employees at large companies found that people wanted honest communication from their leaders about major changes - especially when it’s bad news. But that strategy can backfire. “In a vacuum of information from leadership, employees will fill in the blanks on their own,” says Elizabeth Baskin. “What they imagine may be happening is often worse than the reality.”

Swift and transparent communication can help employees understand the rationale for the restructure and put the situation into context. “Not only does this approach prevent damaging rumours from taking hold, but it also engenders trust that the management team knows what it is doing and instils confidence the business is in safe hands,” says Cath Everett, who writes about the workplace, leadership, and organisational culture issues.

In restructures, there’s no such thing as over communication. “You need to treat people with real respect and dignity, telling them what is happening and when. The biggest mistake is to communicate once and think you are done,” says Iain Conn, the chief executive of Centrica and former chief executive of BP’s downstream segment. “You should keep communicating, even things people have heard already, so they know that you mean it”. Ollie Craddock, CEO of Rungway, also asks “How much are leaders paying to their remaining staff? “I’ve seen first hand on Rungway how important it is for leaders to communicate with their people who are still there - over-communicate even - in order to make them feel safe, secure and reassured.”

Prepare for a range of questions

People will inevitably have questions about the restructure, so it’s important that you’re clear on what your staff want and need to know, write Beachamp et al. “Why is this happening? What will happen when? What does it mean for me, my job, and my working environment? What do you expect me to do differently?” 

Uncertainty can be exacerbated by a lack of “access” to leaders and information, says Linzi Tawfik, Senior Consultant Psychologist at Chandler Macleod People Insights.​ “Have an ‘open door’ policy and ‘walk the floor’ as a leader, ensuring you are a visible and accessible presence to all employees. This allows employees to voice their concerns as they arise, in private if required and in a timely manner.” Providing this kind of access can be difficult in large or dispersed workforces, so tools like Rungway can allow leaders to do this virtually, including capturing feedback or concerns that staff might prefer to ask anonymously.

It’s also important to recognise that you won’t have all the answers. “You can’t prepare for every curveball, so if you don’t have the answer to a question, say something like, ‘Wow, that’s a question we didn’t think about, but it’s a good one. We’ll get back to everyone with an answer early next week.’ Don’t try to fake your way through,” says Liz Kislik, who writes for HBR.

Don’t assume everyone’s reactions will be the same

“Uncertainty does not always elicit the same response in people; where some see threat, others may see opportunity. This opportunity could come in the form of a new role, new responsibilities or an opportunity to consolidate their skills and knowledge,” notes Tawfik. “Do not assume someone’s response is automatically negative or positive to this period of uncertainty or that their initial response will stay the same throughout this period.” This is why it is so important to track sentiment throughout the process to remain responsive to any changes in the way people are feeling about the restructure.

Also, don’t be afraid to “embrace resistance” say Sue Tsigaros and Peter Web, directors of The Principal Structure. “Allowing employees to comment on what they like and don’t like about the changes is important. This may simply provide an outlet for them, or it may reveal avenues that should be explored.”

Breaking the news to those who are being let go

Compassion and clarity are key when breaking the news to someone that their role is going to be made redundant. “Losing a job is traumatic in any circumstances and especially so in these challenging economic times, and how you break the news and the way you communicate should acknowledge and reflect that,” says Lisa Thomson, founder of AAB People.  “It is important to recognise and value the contributions individuals have made to the organisation, and to reinforce that it is the job and not the person themselves that is being made redundant. There is no stigma or shame involved.”

Try to give the affected people as many options and as much participation as you can, suggests Kislik. “When they have choices — and the necessary information or support to make them — employees feel more respected and maintain more pride and autonomy,” she says. “And don’t assume you know what’s best for each individual or what they might choose.”

Finally, it’s important to make sure that those affected have support and someone they can talk to, and, if you can, provide access to counselling services, financial advice and other relevant tools. “Ultimately you want to be sure that the people you unfortunately have to let go are as well-equipped for the challenges that lie ahead and feel as positive as possible emotionally,” says Thomson.

Reconnect the employees who remain

“Re-engaging employees after restructure is an incredibly important component of the restructure process and contributes positively to individual and team wellbeing and overall workplace culture,” says Tawfik. “Taking the time to regain the trust of your employees and winning both their hearts and minds may help circumnavigate some of the organisational health effects and risks associated with restructure.” Research has found that handling redundancies poorly can lead to a 30% drop in morale and a 20%  fall in productivity among those employees who remain.

Acknowledge that remaining employees are likely to feel unsettled by the changes, too - personally, they have likely lost friends, while professionally, they will be wondering how the changes might affect their own roles in the future.  Be ready to talk about this, says Janine Yancey, CEO & Founder of Emtrain. “Acknowledge and connect with people — plan for your business to need some time to heal. Then, work hard at stabilising the situation so people can focus on being a productive team again.” 

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