Things have changed dramatically in the workplace in the last thirty years. Less than one generation ago, many employees stayed with a single company for most of their lives. There was little organisational restructuring and more security. Today, people are expected to change jobs regularly. Sometimes even careers.

Millennials are jumping jobs four times in their first decade since graduation. Educational institutions are training individuals with transferrable skills so that can more easily adapt to market changes and are ready to swap industries and move jobs with ease. The market forces that created these conditions are the same forces that are requiring companies to continually transform. As we highlight in our report Rebuild to last, in today’s digital economy, the disruption of digitisation and complexity of globalisation, demand businesses to change fast to gain an edge over their competitors.

Change is now the norm and while it creates opportunities for organisations and employees alike, employees can be nervous about change, and feel insecure or demotivated when the goalposts are continuously moving. Their need for information outstrips what management can provide, damaging confidence in the leadership and direction of the firm.

At the same time, companies require more of their people to get through change. They need extra effort and commitment from their employees. This can harm perceptions of the balance between contribution and reward.

Engaging your people during times of change
Every transformation journey is different. For some it may require adjusting to a period of rapid growth, a new operating model, mergers and acquisitions. Conversely, every engagement challenge will be different. Here we share best practices from clients that have successfully been through major transformations:

Prepare your people for the future

Rexan, a leading manufacturer of drinks’ cans for many of the world’s biggest brands went through a long and unsettling acquisition process.

The news broke that Rexam’s biggest competitor had made an offer to buy the business and that the board of directors had recommended that shareholders accept the offer. Rexam gave their people time to prepare. They knew they would need to retain 80 – 90 percent of their people to remain productive so they get ahead of the change to limit the impact on engagement. The company moved quickly to develop new engagement objectives and a plan for delivering them. The outputs included a ‘Working through change’ toolkit, along with career development and a career transition program.

Based on the results from their last engagement survey, Rexam knew that their people wanted opportunities to develop their careers and have career conversations with their managers. “The acquisition process gave us the chance to do it faster, and to add a new element – help with moving into new roles or, for those that might be made redundant, into new organisations.”

For the first part, they built a career development portal and ran workshops (‘Managing Career Conversations’). The workshops aimed to explain what career development is, how to start a conversation about it and how to take ownership of it yourself. For the second part, the team created another dedicated portal and workshops in offices that were going to close to help job search, CV writing and succeeding at interviews. In most transitions, you have to let some people go, but if you manage this process well, you will not lose the talent that you need to keep.

Be honest and transparent to build confidence

Chemical giant BASF, had to transform the operating model and culture of their Australia and New Zealand operations so it could continue to grow in tough market conditions.

BASF realised, that if you want your people to come with you on the transformation journey, you’ll have to support them along the way. From the very beginning, BASF ANZ was very open about the fact that transforming its operating model and culture would mean significant organisational changes. And the leadership team provided a timeline, which they stuck to, so people knew when they’d hear more.

BASF’s leadership team held a series of town halls across Australia and New Zealand. “Despite only having limited information to share at this point, we were being as transparent and open as we could,” said Eike Croucher, head of corporate affairs at BASF ANZ. “We acknowledged that there would be significant organisational changes, which would affect our employees going forward.”

At the same time, the program team was wary of communicating too much. “At the beginning, it was very intense and frequent because we needed everyone to understand what we wanted the organisation to be like,” says Ross. ”But unless you’ve got something of value to say, people can soon tire of hearing from you. So, we varied the frequency and format of communication depending on the stage we were at.”

Create a compelling vision and set the example at the top

You need to tell your people the ‘Why’, the purpose of your transformation. This is vital for engaging employees and forms the heart of your overall change story.

AstraZeneca’s challenge was to roll out a new strategy and culture that would turn the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceuticals multinational from a commercial into a science-driven organisation.

The new CEO driving AstraZeneca’s change, started by asking the big questions: what’s our strategy, what do we value and how do we engage people? What kind of culture do we have, and what kind do we need to succeed?

AstraZeneca had always been known as a commercial organisation but they were clear about their need to transform. “The first stake in the sand was deciding to be really clear that we’re a science-driven organisation, and our work is about how science delivers for patients,” said Lisa Naylor, senior director, talent development.  To change the organisation’s culture, brand and values –to engage people so they think and act according to the new vision, the company decided that the vision had to be first set at the top.

They started by bringing the top 150 leaders together at Harvard University, with an executive coaching team, and looked at whether they were set up to be a science-driven business, and how they could balance science and business. A key focus of the company’s leadership development program was getting participants to think about what Lisa calls their ‘leadership purpose’: who they are as leaders, what inspires them and what they’re best at. When you know what people’s distinctive strengths are, you can work with them to bring these out.

To bring the company’s vision to fruition, they then set up a program for the next tier of leaders and over a two-year period, 700 people in 50 countries went through the training. One of the pillars of the program was to show leaders how to bring the new vision to life through ‘leadership purpose’.

Three years after the transformation started Lisa said that “the energy around our science and patients has come closer to the surface. As employees, we talk a lot about patient need and amazing science day-to-day.”

All the initiatives described above helped iconic companies increase their levels of engagement and pull their organisation through during challenging times. Your transformational journeys may be different from theirs but you too can tap into the power of your people to respond to the fast-moving realities of business today.

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About Contributor

Stephen Choo is a Senior Client Partner and Managing Director (Products Group) for Korn Ferry Hay Group based in the firm's Singapore office. He partners with the world's leading firms in utilizing Korn Ferry Hay Group's intellectual properties, latest technologies and best-in-class databases to better attract, engage and retain talent to achieve high performance. The range of products and solutions include pay benchmarking, psychometric assessment tools and employee survey diagnostics. Stephen has more than 20 years of experience in management and HR consulting.