ERTT – Maintaining Union and Employee Engagement through Major Transformational Change

ChangeManagementThese are the thoughts and takeaways from the latest Employee Relations Think Tank (ERTT) held on Thursday 17th April 2014 hosted by Telefonica’s Martin Lally (Head of Employee Relations and HR Operations) titled ‘Maintaining Union and Employee Engagement through Major Transformational Change’.

The following summary has been prepared to reflect a segment of the discussion held amongst senior HR and ER professionals from leading national and international businesses. Specific company details, experiences and examples have been omitted from this summary as all discussions are held under ‘Chatham House Rules’.

Transformational change is typically radical and drastic; often requiring a significant shift in the mind-set of employees and their behaviours. Whether you’re changing core products to adapt to market demands, repositioning the business or restructuring internally, all change initiatives will need to be weaved into a robust employee engagement plan. After all, an engaged workforce helps foster great organisational efficiency during times of major transformational change.

Communicating with unions and employees through change

When it comes to embarking on a change programme, knuckling down a ‘comms plan’ is essential; who’s going to be affected by the change, what do they need to know and when do they need to know it? Once you have these factors identified, deciphering the message and communication channels is going to be much more straight forward. One of the key objectives of communicating through transformational change (in addition to the obvious goal of ‘informing’ stakeholders of the particulars) is to ensure that all affected parties understand why the business is changing and the associated impact. Developing a core strategic narrative or business ‘story’ will help stakeholders understand the why behind the change and more clearly articulate their involvement in the journey, particularly when they’re expected to relay the message ‘down the chain’.

1. Employees

Nobody likes to feel kept in the dark when it comes to something that might personally impact them, that’s how Chinese whispers and speculation starts. Where possible communicate with employees from the offset with initial details and then set expectations with regards to when you’ll be releasing more information. However, if you’re going to set expectations around when information will be communicated, be mindful not to move these time pillars as it’s a sure fire way of disengaging staff.    Whilst it’s not always feasible, you should always aim for consultation and communication to be face to face in the initial briefing stages. Further down the line, why not take the preference of the employees with regards to how they want to be kept updated / informed throughout the change – a one size fits all approach is never most effective.

Effective communication needs to be consistent and timely, and should come from a central planning team / Corporate Communications who are responsible for co-ordinating and honouring commitments around messaging. What’s more, the timing of communicating change messages is key; employees will need sufficient notice to get their heads around any change but not too much time that they end up dwelling on it.

Communication tools:

  • Apps – can be used effectively as an information hub, however they are potentially more suited to the younger generation who naturally engage more on smart phones / tablets
  • Digital signage – useful for sharing a message in key internal congregation points such as the canteen, by the lift or in staff rooms
  • Line managers– all important messages should be communicated and reinforced via line managers. Without this communication link, everything else is simply a bit of noise
  • Face to face announcements – in the first instance always try to bring those affected together for a face-to-face briefing. For remote staff, at the very least use technology to bring people together virtually
  • Communications forum – works well for field based staff that don’t often get the chance to be involved in business conversations. However, for these employees bear in mind that any scheduled meetings will need to take place in their working day.

 2. Unions

Deciphering when to bring your Unions into a change based conversation is incredibly difficult as you need to find the balance between revealing too much too soon and avoiding keeping them in the dark. The best way to decide on their involvement is by looking ahead at the worst case scenario; for instance could they go on strike? If the answer’s yes, then it’s incredibly important to ensure they’re consulted with and make sure they’re kept in the loop from the earliest stage possible. Unions generally feel more engaged and willing to cooperate with change if they feel that you’ve ‘broken cover’ to share information with them or put your neck on the line. Furthermore, offering them air-time with the most senior leaders in the change programme to help explain the business criticality of change will also help from a cooperation standpoint.

What’s worked effectively for some businesses is putting in place a framework / agreement with Unions (applicable for any change) that communicates your standpoint on certain interventions such as: avoiding compulsory redundancy at all costs, putting restrictions on recruitment activity, reducing over-time, offering voluntary redundancy and reviewing temporary employment contracts etc.

Building and measuring employee engagement through change

Defining engagement

The concept of engagement varies business to business, as arguably every employee is engaged… but engaged what with what and for what reason? Are they holding onto legacy issues or pension schemes that don’t reflect the ethos or culture of the business? When considering engagement in this context it’s agreed that it should represent day-to-day strive, which is exhibited by employees demonstrating advocacy, speaking positively about you as an employer, striving to do their best and staying with the business for the right reasons.

Measuring engagement

So how can you measure engagement, particularly through periods of change? Typically it’s through annual engagement surveys, but is this really an accurate reflection of how an employee feels throughout the year and importantly do they understand why they’re completing the survey? What’s key is to position any form of survey as an opportunity for your staff to have a voice and help the business move forward. If they still feel that it’s a tick box exercise, tell them what you don’t want them to fill it in as they’ll be answering it for the wrong reasons. Adapting the language to be more human is a good way to help change perceptions around using surveys. Additional methods of measuring engagement include accolades such as ‘best company to work for’, anecdotal canteen conversations and also pulse surveys that can help gauge a real-time measure of how engaged staff are particularly through periods of change.

Engagement tools and tips:

  • Up-skilling managersgive managers the tools to motivate, lead and talk to their people
  • Positive change programmes – empower employees by getting them to commit to making one positive change per month and capture these contributions. Positive changes might include tidying up a communal staff area, making a referral, mentoring a member of staff etc.
  • Listening groups – set up forums / groups whereby you actually ask employees their opinion on business initiatives (like a new advertising campaign) to give them a greater sense of company involvement
  • Star Awards – celebrate the success of team members who are truly living the values of the business on a daily basis (peer to peer nomination) and present prizes for the winning employee(s)
  • People principles – set expectations with employees around how change will be managed when it concerns their welfare and adhere to these promises.

Whilst there’s a number of engagement tools that can be embedded to help smoothly guide a business through change, one of the critical success factors concerns the strength of the line-manager and employee relationship in the first place. This needs to be strong and built on trust for any change programme to be fully effective. After all, discontented employees will fuel Union power particularly if they don’t get on with their boss. If you can engage your employees, no matter how significant the Union power is you should be able to reach a good balance.

The business impact of engaged employees

So why bother with engagement? What’s the business relevance? Firstly, engaged employees are far more likely to provide customers with a positive experience which in turn is going to make a difference to the bottom line. Measure customer satisfaction or experience and compare these results to engagement levels across the business. The impact of engagement doesn’t just concern cash, for example research has shown that safety is impacted as there are fewer accidents at work when staff are engaged. Really, we shouldn’t need to justify the need for engagement (surely it’s just the right thing to do!) however, for any sceptical senior leaders there isn’t a shortage of evidence supporting the business case for an engaged workforce.

Empowering and up-skilling line managers and supervisors


We’ve touched upon the importance of the line-manager from a communication and engagement standpoint and rightly so, however how can we expect them to play this integral role without the correct training in the first place? Ensuring managers are equipped with the right tools is crucial to the success of a change programme, therefore heavy investment in first and second line-management is essential. In particular managers should be provided with training around conducting difficult conversations, relaying a corporate message (this might be scripted) and importantly they need to know what’s expected of them from start to finish. Allowing managers to take a personal view on change when communicating it to their teams is also not a bad idea if they’re fully aware of all the facts; it enables a corporate message to be tailored and applicable for the audience whilst not appearing so robotic. This can be particularly effective if the manager is affected by the change themselves.


Change programmes can be incredibly stressful for those directly and indirectly involved, so it’s important for managers to be able to manage any associated stress as effectively as possible. Working with Occupational Health to develop a ‘stress resilience tool-kit’ for managers will help them cope through periods of change and better recognise signs of stress before it’s too late.

Keeping up the momentum and embedding change whilst staying engaged

One of the biggest challenges of rolling out a change programme is embedding it in the culture of the business to ensure long-term success. Therefore, any transformational change needs to be fully integrated with the business’s overriding objectives so it’s actually lived and breathed. The business needs to walk the walk and not just not talk the talk.

Tips for embedding change programmes and sustaining engagement:

  • Online message reinforcement  – during / following change, implement an online tool that pops up and asks one or two questions to employees a day that tests an their knowledge of the company vision, key objectives, values etc to embed the message
  • Teaser campaigns – use to generate a buzz around a new initiative to keep up momentum of change
  • People forum – facilitate groups that meet periodically and bring together senior management, trade unions, trade union reps (nominated by union), employee reps (elected by workforce) to talk about strategies and what’s coming up
  • Link engagement to performance score cards – target and bonus senior managers on the engagement scores of their workforce to ensure it remains a high priority
  • Performance management – include an engagement score within all people managers’ appraisal processes.
Oasis HR

Written by , Network Driven HR Recruitment

Oasis HR is a multi-award winning HR Recruitment Agency based in London that delivers Contingency and Search services within the Human Resource and Business Change Markets. Our client base encompasses all industry sectors and we have a proven track record of delivering permanent, interim and temporary professionals at all levels across all HR disciplines. From a £20k HR Administrator to a £200k HR Director, Oasis HR is well placed to identify, approach and secure the best available talent in the market

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