A Step-by-Step Strategy for Communicating Change Across Distributed Teams

A Step-by-Step Strategy for Communicating Change Across Distributed Teams

There is just one thing you can be sure about in your business – and that is the fact that it’s going to change. Whether you’re someone that drives change for the sake of progress or someone who tries to resist change, it’s inevitable – and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

What you can do is control how you handle change, including the way you communicate it to your team. This is even more important if you’re part of a company with distributed teams.

Delivering the right message to the right people in the right way is key to ensuring your team understands:

  • What’s happening
  • Why it’s happening
  • How it will affect them
  • What (if anything) they need to do to facilitate the change

Get this wrong, and you risk alienating employees and hindering how effectively change is implemented.

Managing this is a challenge in businesses with just one facility. When teams are distributed over multiple facilities and locations, the risks increase substantially, which is why it’s all the more important to implement and follow a strategy when communicating change.

Preparing to Communicate More Effectively

We’ll run through a step-by-step strategy for communicating change across distributed teams in just a moment, but before that, let’s go over a few things you can do (and probably should do) to prepare to communicate more effectively, in general.

Implement a company-wide communications platform

It’s vital that to communicate change – and to communicate, period – distributed teams all use the same web-based communication platform (and use it in the same way).

I use Slack, but there are countless other options if that doesn’t fit your needs or budget. Here are just a few:

Once you’ve picked a platform, you need to lay out the foundations of how you’re going to use it. This will, to an extent, evolve over time. However, it’s important that you’re all on the same page from day one.

The majority of these platforms revolve around two key features:

  • Private messaging
  • Shared message boards, groups or channels

Private messaging is just that – a private, instant messaging service between two or more users.

“Boards, groups or channels” (which are essentially all the same thing, just with different titles) are where messages you want to distribute to specific departments, teams, or the company as a whole, are shared.

This is where ensuring all users are on the same page – and by that I mean that they’re all using the tool in the same way – is so important.

Not all members of staff are going to have access to every “board,” so it’s critical you ensure the right team members have access to the right information.

For instance, you might have a board for “customer service,” another for “sales,” and another for “HR.” Chances are your sales team isn’t going to need to view the same messages as your customer service team, and vice versa. They only need access to boards that concern them and their work.

Establish “golden hours”

Time zones commonly cause problems for distributed teams. If you have teams operating in wildly different time zones, there’s a high chance there will be minimal, if any crossover, between working hours.

To counteract this, you can establish “golden hours” – a time period in which the maximum number of staff (ideally all staff, although that’s not always possible) will be at work.

Figure out when this crossover is, and ensure all key communications are made during this time.

Foster a transparent culture of continuous communication

While some announcements need to made using a specific process (like the one we’re going to go through in just a moment), there are going to be many more snippets of information that are worth sharing, but don’t call for a formal announcement.

Unfortunately, it’s easy for these sorts of things to fly under the radar and not be announced – at all.

Fostering a culture in which sharing information becomes second nature to your team is key.

For this to happen, when a staff member hears or receives new information, they should:

  • Ask themselves or find out if it’s confidential
  • If it’s not confidential, decide who else it concerns
  • Share the information via an appropriate channel – depending on who else it concerns, this is likely to be either in person, or via email or your company communications platform

A Step-By-Step Strategy for Communicating Change

Some information can be shared informally. I’m referring to things a team member or members need to know, but that do not have a substantial direct impact on them – either positive or negative.

Other information, such as significant internal changes that will impact employees’ day-to-day lives, calls for a more formal approach – like the following strategy, which is what I use to communicate change to distributed teams.

Step 1: define your message

Before you can broadcast your message, you need to define exactly what your message will be. This might sound straightforward – you just say what needs to be said, right?

Unfortunately, the effectiveness of your attempt to communicate change, especially across distributed teams, begins with what you say and how you say it. For that reason, defining exactly what you’ll say ahead of time is essential.

To do this, you need to establish:

  • What does your team actually need to know?
  • How should you word the message (in such a way that you eliminate the risk of crossed wires?)
  • What questions are employees likely to ask?

Use this information to craft a statement that divulges your message clearly and concisely. Before signing off on the message, ensure it only contains essential information, and that nothing within it is liable to be misunderstood. Consider the connotations of the words you use, too. “X is leaving the company” has very a different connotation than “X is pursuing a new opportunity” – the first one can potentially be construed in a negative light.

Step 2: decide who’s best-placed to deliver the message

This step ensures that multiple people don’t attempt to deliver the message – all potentially in slightly different ways.

One person at each of your premises should be assigned the task of delivering the message, or, if it’s to be delivered via your communication platform (more on this in step 3), handling questions and follow-ups.

Step 3: decide the best channel for delivering the message

There is no one “best” way to deliver your message – it all depends on your company culture, and the nature of the message itself.

Town hall announcements

A “town hall” announcement (i.e. a public announcement made in an open domain to as many members of staff as possible) ensures everyone hears the same message, at the same time. This greatly limits the odds of the message being misheard or wires getting crossed.

Town hall announcements are best suited to positive messages that help bring the company together. Do not use this method for delivering potentially bad news (unless you want to instantly shroud your offices in negativity).

Line managers to teams

This might also be referred to as “the cascade.” It involves messages being passed “down the ladder” from management to the level below them, and then again to the level below that.

It’s well-suited to the delivery of “bad news,” since it limits how many people will hear the message at once, and allows for (if needed) the message to be delivered in different ways, to different people. It also means concerns can be raised and addressed immediately.

Be aware, however, that this method is vulnerable to the “Chinese whisper effect.” However well you plan your message, each additional person involved in delivering it increases the odds it will be changed or diluted.

Internal communications platform

Messages delivered this way are usually presented in a written format, which eliminates any margin for error: you have total control over the wording used and you will know, without doubt, what’s been conveyed to each employee. It also makes it really easy for employees to follow up with questions, and in turn, for you to answer them.

On the downside, this method can be seen as impersonal or even cowardly – like you’re intentionally hiding behind a screen (which, perhaps, you are).

Step 4: prepare to handle follow-ups

It’s almost inevitable that when you announce change, employees are going to have questions. As part of your strategy for communicating change, you need to be prepared to answer them. Specifically, you need to formulate a process for employees who want to ask questions, raise concerns, and provide feedback.

Your internal communications platform is ideal for this.

If you used it to deliver the initial message, just let employees know that any questions or comments should be posted there. You may even want to create a specific “group” just for delivering the message and addressing follow ups. This ensures all information pertaining to the change is stored in one location.

Even if you’re delivering your message by another means, you might still want to consider using your internal communications platform for handling follow-ups.

In all cases, you need to:

  • Decide who will be responsible for answering questions
  • Ensure they know who to talk to if they don’t know the answer to a question
  • Brainstorm questions that are likely to be asked and prepare answers to them
  • Implement a system for asking questions privately, and ensure all staff members know what this is

You might also want to consider setting up follow-up meetings, or at the very least, repeating the message and encouraging staff to speak up if there’s anything they’re unsure of.

If you aren’t prepared to deal with the aftermath of your message, and you don’t provide a clear route for asking and answering questions, you risk staff trying to decipher what’s happening between themselves (or in other words, gossiping). Employees will raise and ponder questions with each other, which will inevitably lead to incorrect conclusions and more often than not, a worried and unhappy workforce.

Of course, there is no foolproof approach to communicating change – especially when it’s bad news. You can, however, control the impact of the change on staff morale by taking the time to plan how to communicate it and preparing to deal with what happens after.

Have you ever been responsible for communicating change – either to distributed teams or a single team? How did you do it and what, if anything, would you do differently next time? It’d be great to hear your thoughts if you have the time to leave a comment below.

Hung Pham is the founder of Culture Summit, a conference that brings together founders, thought leaders, and culture champions to share insights, strategies, and best practices on transforming company culture from the bottom up.

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