Management consultant and vpi president Gail Rieschi learned through personal experience just how hard managing change in the workplace can be.
Frontline staff started to develop some very strange ideas about our changing workplace,” says Gail Rieschi, president and CEO of vpi inc., a firm that specializes in employment and HR-management services. “Some of the myths were that Christmas decorations were banned in the office and that, for some unknown reason, we were boycotting a particular newspaper!
“We quickly busted those myths,” she laughs. But employee fears about a workplace that’s undergoing major changes are seldom laughing matters. “People are drawn to work in organizations that reflect their values,” says Rieschi. “They come to identify with the landscape and culture of their particular workplace.”
Yet when an organization undergoes rapid change or growth, leaders focus on that growth and too often forget how the changes may impact their employees. Even moderate changes can create “confusion, bewilderment, and dissatisfaction,” Rieschi says, and issues with performance and productivity often follow.
Even positive changes, such as company growth, can have unexpected negative consequences. A small company, with a direct line of communication between the leaders and the frontline can grow into a larger organization in which the ad hoc communication system no longer works. Communications can break down and employees become disconnected. The corporate culture that was once one of the main reasons
people joined and stayed with the company no longer exists as it did.
Leaders must be cognizant that change can dramatically affect their workforce as well as their business, Rieschi warns, and they must learn the signs and symptoms that signal problems. These can include:
- increased absenteeism;
- increase in turnover;
- low morale;
- lower, or poor, productivity;
- increase in customer complaints or drop-off.
Bottom line: employees feel stressed and alienated. It’s not surprising, then, that performance suffers, productivity declines, and customers and clients are negatively impacted.
Communication plan key
The solution, Rieschi says, is to be proactive by developing a communication plan to keep all employees in the loop before, during, and after the major changes occur.
Rieschi had the opportunity to practise what she preaches when her company, vpi inc., underwent a major growth spurt in 2004-2005. Business was good - so good it doubled, necessitating a rapid change from 80 to 200 employees, and from eight to 30 offices across Ontario. Fortunately, already in the management-consultant business, Rieschi and the leaders of vpi realized they had to manage the change with their employees from the start of the process.
Using themselves and their change opportunity as a trial, vpi Inc. developed a number of steps to keep employees informed and communications flowing. This is not to say the change was without its own stresses and challenges. During the transition, a number of the staff members changed jobs or locations within vpi and many new ones came on board. However, Rieschi reports that there was no significant loss of existing staff.
In the first year of change, employees initially came to meetings unsure, leery, and suspicious. As leadership quickly responded to concerns, tensions relaxed and by the second year staff was much happier and more receptive to changes. Concerns dwindled.
Managing change step-by-step
Rieschi offers the following tips to help other organizations gear themselves and their staff up for change:
STEP 1: Conduct an informal audit as the change process begins.
The vpi leaders conducted employees surveys in a number of ways, such as completing arms-length employee satisfaction surveys, participating in one-on-one interviews, and via informal chats with the president and other vpi leaders. Even though the survey was completely voluntary and anonymous, the participation rate was 100 per cent.
Among the main communications vehicles developed were informal “Breakfasts with the president.” Frontline staff met with the president – Rieschi – with no other management members present. Lines of communication were opened so that staff could discuss their concerns.
STEP 2: Develop the communications plan.
From the surveys and conversations, the vpi leadership team formulated a communications plan. Rieschi advises that such plans needs to be multi-faceted and ongoing to assure all employees that the relationship with their company hasn’t negatively changed.
Among the major concerns expressed by vpi employees was the loss of the social aspect of their workplace as employees become more spread out as the new offices opened up. Rieschi and her leaders recognized their employees’ need to see the organization was not only hearing what they were saying but responding to them.
Components of the vpi communication’s plan included:
- Breakfasts with the president. These continue to be a strong part of the vpi’s
- ongoing communication plan and are still held yearly.
- Encouraging anonymous e-mails to the president to bring issues forward.
- Launching the “Mythbusters” newsletter to provide accurate information and
- to bust any company myths that circulated. This proved to be a popular offering
- and is still published.
- Town hall meetings that all can attend and that encourage dialogue. Rieschi believes
- that holding two per year is reasonable and achievable; vpi holds one all-staff town hall
- and one by geographic quadrant.
- Circulating profiles of the different offices, so that each area recognizes the work and
- the faces of the other locations.
- Encouraging employee involvement in the change process.
STEP 3: Encourage employee involvement.
Employee representatives were asked to author the new corporate values statement, which allowed greater buy-in for the new corporate culture that emerged through the transition period. Furthermore, the vpi leaders utilized staff in special projects, such as establishing the policies and procedures for a new division or service.
Rieschi and her leadership team found that, by getting frontline staff involved in vpi’s strategic planning and action plans, employees were encouraged that the company was not growing away from them, but with them.
STEP 4: Continue the process.
Once an organization passes through the major aspects of a change, everyone tends to breathe a sigh of relief. But, warns Rieschi, you must be careful not to step away from the communications plan. The process must be ongoing or there is a risk that employees will grow to feel alienated again. Even after the rapid growth or change is over, workplace culture may well continue to change and employees will notice if management is not keeping up with it.
Breakfasts with the president, town hall meetings, the Mythbusters newsletter - all continue at vpi, even two to three years down the road from its major growth spurt. Rieschi and her employees found it’s possible to make change positive by being willing to go out and bust the myths that change means a company no longer listens to or hears what its employees want and need from their workplace.
To learn more about vpi inc., visit www.vpi-inc.com.
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