Coworkers walking outside and talking

Implementing a Significant Change? You Need to Build Your Case

Are you thinking of implementing a big policy change in your company, say returning to the office? I strongly recommend you consider several crucial elements to effective communication before you hit send on the announcement email.

While it may appeal to decision-makers to just announce their decisions and expect everyone to fall in line, that’s not how human nature works. And that’s not how our society works. Taking the time to respect your audience enough to make the case will help them understand why the change is necessary and accept their part in the shift.

Ideally, before you even get to the point of communicating your new policy or other change, it will be in your best interest to fully understand your employees’ perspectives so you can anticipate their reactions – and address them within both your plan and your announcement.

Element 1: The Problem?

Changes come in response to or anticipation of some catalyst, not just for the sake of change.  Any shift in policy or practice will be much smoother if the people involved understand why the change is happening. What’s the problem we are trying to solve? How does that problem affect your audience?

In the return-to-office example, employees likely value their flexibility and may feel offended by the impression that management does not believe they are being sufficiently productive or need closer supervision. If your reasoning for a return to in-person work – be it partial or full – is something other than a theory that workers aren’t working, outlining the thinking behind the change is helpful to address some reactions.

For example, maybe executives recognize that employees are plenty productive while working remotely, but they are seeing a downturn in innovation and creativity coming out of their various teams. They may then theorize that the difficulty in day-to-day collaboration that is inherent in remote work is a reason for this slow-down in innovation. For many companies, this poses a significant problem, and they may determine that they need workers to return to the office to address this issue.

This is not anyone doing anything wrong, but rather an effect of everyone’s separate work locations.

If you have recently surveyed your workers or have received feedback in another form indicating that the workers see a problem, definitely state that. “We are hearing from many of you that X has become a concern/is interfering with your ability to successfully meet your goals.”  This not only brings them along with you as you introduce a change, it tells them that you hear them and that their feedback matters and may lead to real change. Bonus!

Element 2: How will the New Policy Address the Problem?

Once you’ve defined the problem you’re trying to address, you need to explain to your audience how the change you plan to implement will solve that problem.  This may be a simple or a complex explanation. Even if you think the explanation is obvious, spell it out. No one else has been thinking about this problem and potential solutions anywhere near as much as you have. Help them out.

You also might also consider explaining why the chosen solution was selected over an obvious alternative. If you explored the alternative and discovered a significant pitfall, share that. Or consider including it in an FAQ document that supports your communications.

People often accept a significant change more readily if they know a less-intrusive option was considered but was deemed to not be a sufficient solution.

In the return-to-office example, if you have decided to implement a full return rather than a hybrid option, you will want to explain why a partial return is not sufficient to solve the problem you outlined.

If this is a large-scale or broad change, some in the audience may wonder if there was a pilot to test the change’s effect on the problem? If so, what did you learn from the pilot, and what adjustments did you make before scaling it to the whole department, division or company?

Element 3: What’s in it for Them?

Finally, help your audience understand how they will benefit from the discomfort of the change. The problem you need to solve, most likely, is a problem for the company rather than for individual employees. That’s the nature of business.

That doesn’t mean that employees don’t stand to gain, however.

For instance, in the return-to-office example, while the company needs to innovate and create in order to continue to grow or avoid stagnation, returning to the office in a collaborative environment likely benefits individuals as well. They may learn about interesting projects they may want to join but that they wouldn’t otherwise hear about from home. Or someone from a different team may offer a key insight during a casual conversation that helps break through a creative block, but that conversation would not happen in a fully remote setup.

Likewise, by returning and having more access to different projects and teams, individuals may more readily vary their work experience and skill sets, setting them up for further career development over time.

Still not convinced all of this is necessary to get employees to implement change? Remember the example of Goldman Sachs, known for its high salaries and ruthless culture. They implemented a “return to office” policy in June 2021 with what seemed to amount to an edict and some free meals. As of September 2022 Goldman’s offices still were not full. If even that company has struggled with change adoption after making minimal apparent attempt to build a case for change, maybe it’s worth considering a different approach.

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