Times are indeed turbulent and sometimes going to work feels like facing a brick wall.  Today I want to talk about the changing face of employment, employer: employee relationships, the expectations that both have in an increasingly challenging environment and how these two sets of expectations can be managed to meet and exceed the challenges faced.  During this presentation I will centre on the need for a conceptual framework that engages the employee in the change process and show how this framework can be translated into practical steps that will ensure people can move forward together.  The presentation will raise the spectre of the need for enhanced leadership skills and appropriate employee development strategies to ensure success at every step of the change process.  Great leadership with robust employee development strategies are the twin pillars of engaging employees.  But these twin pillars need to be broken down into component parts to create a constructive pathway of practical steps that HRM specialists can deploy to bring people on board with the need and desire to change.

So, what is this conceptual framework and why do we need it? Well, for me the idea of an organisation of any scale embarking upon a major change programme without a clearly defined driver, underpinning the change would be folly.  The driver for change may be internal, external or a combination of both.  In reality many organisations seize upon external drivers as a route to make necessary changes that they know are unpalatable but also recognise as necessary for survival.

Change should of course be about success and longevity and not just staving off a slow but inevitable death. Coming back to the drivers of change, managers often recognise these drivers but fail to either address them effectively or to communicate them to the very people that they need to support the change process – their staff.  So engagement of staff with managers in change, in this scenario, is likely to be fraught with difficulty.  However, managers out there thinking well ‘I’m ok because I’ve got a really good communication strategy in place’ would be well served to listen for a little, longer.

Telling people and engaging people are two different things.  A communication strategy needs to do both. Not only that, it needs to be firmly rooted in the conceptual framework we mentioned earlier.  This framework needs to specify: what the change will look like (as far as this is possible), when changes will take place (an outline timeframe for each step of the process) how change will bring success and how people will be part of the change process – so this framework is, in effect, your strategy for negotiation, engagement, development and reward.

Without this framework in place, people will immediately be hostile towards change, anticipate and possibly create difficulties before the change process has even begun.  Sharing information about the way ahead is critical to success and should be a key measure of the change programme’s performance.

This is, in part, where a strong HRM strategy can provide the key to success.  Financial constraints are not new and we would be foolish to think that in some distant time we will have abundant budgets with no constraints placed upon them.  It is how we manage people and resources that counts.  Here are two very different perspectives on ‘managing people’.  The first represents an organisation that you might describe as a psychic prison, while the later is more akin to a place of safety.

“It’s just like watching a bad movie really.  Sitting here in the midst of this chaos, watching and seeing the destruction caused by managers who think of people as ‘resources’; just numbers that can be manipulated and moved about to suit the headings in budgets.  It dehumanises us and makes us angry at each other.  Our conversations become less interesting and shallower by the day.  We talk less about real issues and keep our opinions to ourselves in the fear that one of these opinions may be used against us at some point in the future.

            Worse is to come; we are now all applying for our own jobs. The application process has been established by Human Resources and instructions issued via e-mail and in a ‘special’ edition of the newsletter.  Criteria for selection has been set and a matching process created to ensure that we are placed in the best role possible. We’re all wondering who it will be best for: us or the company.  There is talk of displacement. A new word for saying that some people will not meet the job criteria that have been set and so will be excess to requirements. 

Displacement seems to be the new word for redundant.  Really, it seems to mean no job and no compensation either! Perhaps we’re all being a bit cynical, but the flow of information is slow and patchy leaving us all feeling a bit like children who can see that the adults are upset at something but pretending to be okay.  It’s all a bit un-nerving.  Stories of people crying in the toilets are rife, as are the stories of shouting matches in the SMT meetings.  Everybody is walking around with false looking smiles and the air of tension is palpable.”

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             “Well, it’s not the best news really but at least they’ve told us what is happening.  There will be redundancies and forty five people are set go. Apparently forty five posts at middle grade represent a 3% saving and will secure all other jobs for the next year.  The people in the jobs affected have been informed that they will go and are being given support to find alternatives.  Some have taken the early retirement option and a few have said they want help with setting up in business for themselves.  Three people in my team have decided to open a cake shop of all things and the SMT have agreed to stock their cakes in the canteen for a six month trial period to help them get started.  My job has gone and I’m looking at taking up the CV building option.  I think I might sign up for interview skills too; it has been about fifteen years since I was in the market for a job. 

All in all it’s pretty ok really, considering that people I’ve worked with are leaving almost on a daily basis and we’ve had leaving parties every Friday in the canteen for the past six weeks.  Me, I start my new job in two weeks time.  I’m really nervous about it but at least I know what I’ll be doing and everyone I met at the new company seemed really nice.  I’m starting on a part-time basis and working up to full time over a six week period.  The management here actually suggested that I take ‘transition status’ so that I could ease my way into the new job. 

I’ll be sad to leave here ‘cause it was always a good place to work and it felt like one big team.  I’ll stay in touch with people and the management have set up a club for ex-employees.  We can meet here in the canteen anytime for free coffee and each month there is a get together with a speaker of some sort.  It will be good to see folk again and catch up with them.”

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The second workplace is the one most of us would choose to work but perhaps the first description is more akin to our actual experiences.  The concept that people matter and that management’s role is to support and develop them is not new and every day we struggle to do just that.  But I would argue that without a clearly defined framework that sits alongside the organisation’s strategy, HRM and its practitioners will not be able to influence and manage in the way that they are clearly capable of.

So HRM needs to take the business of communication very seriously and plan with other senior colleagues what actions will be taken, by whom and when – this is the only way to engage people – we all need to take seriously the idea that informing people of good and bad news is critical to managing effectively. Decisions that are taken need to be contextualised and it is clearly easier to do this through an ongoing dialogue that on an ad hoc basis.

So how do we do this?  Well let’s have a bit of a quiz.

Raise your hand if you currently have:

  • Daily contact with staff by managers
  • Weekly team meetings – that discuss more than just the weekend’s activity and how awful it is to be back at work!
  • Monthly meetings  – that update the team on the whole organisation’s strategy and what your team has done to support this
  • Frequent celebrations of successes – e-mails, memos, thank you cards, cakes etc
  • Birthday ‘days’ each month for everyone in that month who has a birthday
  • Invited speakers to liven up your team meetings and share in ideas on how to manage
  • Training days – where people share their new found skills/knowledge with each other
  • Peer reviews of work to highlight excellence and drive each other to do better things
  • A performance management system that promotes excellence and encourages development and discusses role change as a normal part of the process
  • Exit strategies for people to use to move to on at a pace that suits them with support to do this
  • Regular updates – in person – from the most senior people to inform you and your team(s) what is new, difficulties that are being encountered, what is being done to address these and possible consequences (positive and negative)
  • Use of notice boards – virtual and physical, e-mails, intranets, posters, newsletters, memos and other forms of communication to keep people informed and up-to-date with news
  • Mentoring and coaching of staff to make sure they are the best they can be
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