I took over as a senior executive in a media distribution company some years ago when the media sector was preparing for major change. We were about consolidate seven distribution units with 1.550 employees to a new consolidated company, a challenging operation at the best of times, while also getting set to transition to an open-plan workspace.
The shift to a state-of-the-art office space, with employees working side-by-side in a collaborative environment, required a complete transformation in work culture. Many of the company’s senior staff had spent several decades working in a closed environment. As a result, apprehensions ran high. Making sure the appropriate level of consideration was given to employee concerns, while ensuring a major shift in our corporate culture was successfully implemented, proved to be a massive job. Indeed, it turned out to be the challenge of my career so far, perhaps even a bigger challenge than I’d bargained for when signing on.
To successfully meet the challenges of the new corporate relocation, and bring about a fundamental transition in work culture, we initiated a 12-month change management campaign. I will now share key lessons and personal insights gained from that experience that I hope will prove invaluable to fellow executives embarking on a similar journey.
Throughout two decades the newspaper circulations had been falling each year, and the cost of distribution had to be reduced. The company (along with the Media houses) was forced to rethink its prevailing business model due to the industry-wide falling of newspaper circulations in general. We had had to increase the effectiveness within the administration, sales, marketing, finance, salary, it, etc. therefore one decide on a corporate level to consolidate seven subsidiaries within to one new unit within distribution.
In July 2005, a strategic shift to new “growth platforms” prompted within distribution of advertising supplements together with the distribution of newspapers. After a new location search, the company decided to move it operations and employees to a new, purpose-built building together with the media print division and not sit together with the media house as we were at that time. The new HQ was to be a state-of-the-art open office space that would stir innovation. But the new environment required the company to change how it set up teams as well as changes in the way employees worked together physically.
After arriving as senior executive in 2005, I found a group of senior sales executives (after years spent working for themselves and not in teams). The new team started to collaborative and communicate on how to win new distributions contracts with the big retail chains in Norway. Through this collaboration we managed to drive innovation and competitiveness focus on our core business in distributions. As a result, a primary objective of the relocation and move to open-plan offices was to bring about a transformational change in our culture to embrace collaboration, transparency and innovation. The organization developed a comprehensive, year-long change management campaign with a steering committee comprised of executive team members and key personnel. The campaign featured a variety of innovative tactics (expanded upon below) and had three objectives:
- Ensure a smooth transition to our new offices;
- Transform our corporate culture into one reflecting greater collaboration, transparency and innovation; and,
- Minimize turnover.
The roll out aimed to empower employees as active players in the change process from the very beginning. As executive leader, I assumed the role of the campaign’s “driver” and catalyst in its execution.
Following the completion of the campaign, a formal company-wide survey was conducted to gauge employee satisfaction in their new work space, as well as its effect on collaboration, transparency and innovation. In short, we had achieved our key objectives. The following is a list of key lessons to be followed by anyone hoping to replicate our success:
During a period of change, a leader must ensure that his or her organization maintains strong, regular and transparent communications with its employees before, during and after a change management campaign. Not only does this form the cornerstone of a transparent corporate culture, it is also crucial to developing a bond of trust with employees. If you promise employees information, you must deliver on that promise.
Communications, of course, runs on a two-way street. One of the thing I did was to go with newspaper in the middle of the night with newspaper delivery employees. Many employees have an in-depth knowledge of the way their company operates, so it is important to welcome ideas from all organizational levels. And when feedback arrives during a change management program, leaders must make sure they actively listen to ensure that the process is an inclusive group activity.
Keep in mind that conversations with employees serve as an important barometer. What are employees thinking? What do they fear? Where do they see themselves in the company’s future? Listening is the only way to find answers to some very important questions and what you discover will influence key decision-making right up to the highest level.
With significant change, of course, comes a huge opportunity to shift your organizational mind-set and re-engage employees for the future. To take advantage of this opportunity, however, you must be upfront. When addressing employees, frame change within the context of a new chapter for the company. But don’t expect immediate acceptance. You must be prepared for a period of upheaval, uncertainty and stress. And during that time, messaging must focus on the shared challenge that will jointly faced for the benefit of all.
As a change leader, you can’t simply tell employees about change and expect them to get on with it. Maintaining good morale and ensuring the retention of key team members in periods of uncertainty requires a proactive approach that prevents employees from feeling change is just “happening” to them or seeing it presented to them as a simple fait accompli.
When change significantly alters long-established work habits, you can’t expect employees to modify behaviours or learn new skills overnight. This was a big concern during the course of our change management campaign, because our new office environment was very different and the company had less than 10 months to secure the fundamental shift in corporate culture required to operate smoothly and efficiently after the move.
We quickly learned that small victories motivate bigger ones while helping to maintain the pace of change, and that training initiatives, big or small, must be a cornerstone of any change management program. During our campaign, we put in place a series of behaviour-focused initiatives aimed at giving employees the skills they needed to hit the ground running as we entered our new office space. These initiatives included an “Open Door” challenge that moved employees with closed offices to commit to keeping their doors open for a full month. To observe work habits, employees produced weekly job reports, which allowed issues to be addressed and discussed openly. To simulate the small work spaces that the new open-plan office would provide, empty offices were converted into alcoves for ad hoc conference calls or private conversations. To include employees in the decision-making process regarding aesthetic changes, we set up sample work stations for everyone to view and polled employees on their preferences for things such as work station modules, chairs, carpets and lighting. In addition to this culture-based training, we prepared employees for new tools. For example, our new CRM systems to organize all sales activity on one platform. Finally, to mitigate the culture shock of the consolidation of the distribution unit and moving out of the media houses, particularly for those who had been working in the media house offices for many years, we produced etiquette guidelines from the mother company on how to act and work together.
Assembling a great team is crucial to a successful change management program. As a leader, you can’t do everything, so you must leverage external expertise. To steward our campaign, I recognized the need to combine elements of Leadership, Human Resources and Communications. None of what we achieved would have been possible without the combined efforts of all concerned.
When taking stock at the end of a campaign, it is tempting to cherry pick statistics to support a rose-tinted view of what happened. But no campaign will achieve 100-per-cent success. At the end, there is often work still left to do. Keep in mind that there is no magic formula for managing large-scale change. It is different for every organization, and each experience will present its own peculiar challenges.
Nevertheless, as a leader faced with major change, you must:
- Ensure that your company seizes the opportunity when senior management is open to organizational change;
- Take a proactive approach to employee engagement, and be open and transparent in all your communications; and,
- Work in tandem with other key corporate departments, particularly with human resources and communications, to achieve your objectives.