Feeling overwhelmed is part and parcel of the modern work experience.
If you’re reading this, in all likelihood, you are feeling overwhelmed too. A recent study from Deloitte shows 65% of executives feel that overwhelmed employees are an “urgent issue.” What’s the main offender here? The Atlantic says it’s a symptom of a communications issue called “hyperemployment.” It’s no secret that the explosion of mobile technology has dramatically increased the volume and rate at which we consume information daily. At work, employees are now overloaded with information all the time because every day someone invents a new way to ping, push, and notify us of something we’re not doing. At home too, employees are feeling like they can’t leave their work at the office because their phones are still receiving work communications from other hyperemployed colleagues well into the evening.
But the Atlantic is only half right. This blurring of the personal and professional extends the other way too. At work, mobile devices have opened up an unprecedented and wide window into the outside world. Employees are already overwhelmed by communications they’re receiving internally. Add to it the increasing number of external messages that have an equal, if not stronger pull, it’s no wonder employee attention is so fragmented. It all has a measurable toll. One study shows 57% of all work distractions now occur because of social media tools or from employees switching between different applications.
Simply put, feeling overwhelmed is now our baseline when organizational operations are stable. In times of change, that overwhelmed feeling goes into overdrive. That’s a problem because change is when effective communication with employees is needed the most. Employees are expected to fulfill the standard functions of their jobs, but now they have new concerns that didn’t exist before (primary of which: How does this affect me? Will I still have a job?). These concerns start bubbling up to the top, and it’s up to internal communicators and leadership to provide the right messages at the right cadence to reassure and guide employees through change.
Change is overwhelming, bad communication makes it worse
Having been through several change scenarios in my career, I’ve seen internal communicators commonly lean on two different messaging styles: radio silence or message overload. It may surprise you, but even radio silence has its ways of overwhelming employees.
Radio silence is usually considered a safe tactic for communications during change. Because the organization is in a state of flux, communicators don’t want to run risk of disclosing information that may wind up changing, or put the company in jeopardy, legal or otherwise. Another common attitude among communicators is that radio silence is preferable because then they can avoid making public commitments to employees.
You may be thinking, “How is avoiding communication with employees contributing to overwhelming them?” It’s not…yet. While employees are left in the dark, leadership is having ongoing change conversations. A lot of information gets passed back and forth as company figureheads are determining the new state of the organization. Then the radio silence ends—because at some point it has to end—and suddenly this information gets thrown at employees all at once.
Employees are given days to process news that took leaders several months and dozens of meetings to hash out. Some leaders even have the expectation that employees should be on board right away, but they’re not giving them the time to react, understand, and accept this tidal wave of change. As a result, radio silence scenarios can often leave employees emotionally overloaded and left behind, causing them to lose trust in leadership and become disengaged.
The flip side of the coin is message overload—when communication with employees occurs so frequently that the audience can’t handle it. Admittedly, this tactic doesn’t get used as much as radio silence, but when it does, it’s coming from a well-intentioned, but not always well thought out place. Why? Because message content matters just as much as message frequency.
One company I worked for in the past was going through a divestiture. Guiding employees through the process was important for leadership. The communications team set up weekly meetings with employees, and put a lot of weight and emphasis behind them. But there was one problem—most of the meetings didn’t have useful updates for employees. In other words, meetings for meetings’ sake. People grew understandably frustrated. Employees were taking the time out of their day to attend these sessions, but weren’t being met with the vital information they were promised. They began to devalue the communications from leaders as they realized their concerns would only continue to go unaddressed.
Deliver change communications tailored to your internal audience
In the above tactics, issues arise in the three places: message content, frequency, and volume. During times of change, employees want messages delivered consistently, they want content that’s actually informative, and they want it to come in amounts they can process. But there’s no miracle formula of content, volume, and frequency that will work for every audience. For change communications to be effective, your messaging needs to be tailored to your internal audience. Consider the following tips as you develop your strategy:
Take time to plan
Change scenarios are often times of urgency for communicators, and it’s hard to do your best work when you’re feeling rushed. So many botched change communications occur when leaders, finally finished with their strategic decision making, put pressure on communicators to get messages out the door immediately. But getting something done now is not the same as getting something done right. Unless you’re working in an outsourced communications function, you should know your internal audience pretty well. Take time to consider what they’ve responded positively to in your past messaging and leverage that in your strategy. Remember, your communications need to address the needs of employees, not just leadership.
Segment your approach where possible
Organizational changes can be far reaching, affecting all employees at the same time, or they can impact different employee segments in different ways. In general, you should avoid sending out one-size-fits-all messages if the content isn’t relevant to every recipient. If you haven’t already, critically assess the communications channels in your strategy. There are a number of ways you can do this. For example, the company culture shaping firm Senn Delaney, captures the communications preferences of employees in a matrix to gather a sense of how different audience segments respond to different channels. Similarly, CEB advocates for communicators to develop channel selection guides—documents that assess the effectiveness of channels delivering different types of messages. You can find an example here.
Establish a feedback loop
Communication with employees should always be a two-way street. The most reliable information about how well your audience is responding to your messages is going to come from the audience itself. Sure, email open rate statistics give you an idea of how many eyes are on your content, but they don’t tell you what people think of that content. Leverage every channel you can to assess the sentiment of your internal audience—emails, pulse survey tools, even personal conversations—so you can develop more informed content. There’s no excuse to be operating in the dark in times of stability, and especially not in times of change.
The secret to not overwhelming employees with change communications lies in staying ever cognizant of their communications preferences and messaging needs. A challenge, to be sure, but not an impossible one. Regardless of whether your organization is presently experiencing change, all internal communicators can benefit from having closer relationships and a more intimate understanding of their employee audience.