July 21, 2020

Five Best Practices in Communicating Change

Managing Change

By Tatiana Garcia

For the past couple of months, universities across the country have been trying to understand the implications of a pandemic. While every institution is doing its best to work with the resources available, institutional leaders find themselves in the biggest change management undertaking of their careers. Previously we addressed how colleges and universities can better manage the change process, but in this article, we want to share key elements of communication that play a critical role in the success of any organizational transition.

Best Practices in Communicating Change

There are several implications of poor communication. Failing to change successfully is the obvious one, but the worst risk it poses is limiting funding and support to similar initiatives in the future or drastically slowing down support and organizational buy-in in urgent situations. Failure to change is often closely interwoven with poor communication; rarely will people be able to discern the difference until they’ve had time to reflect. Campuses do not have the luxury to deal with resistance or failure this time around.

Communication needs to be clear, swift, and timely as campuses collectively learn and adapt to the best protocols for minimizing COVID-19 risks on campus.

Here are five key steps to a strong communication approach.

1. Manage expectations with clear messaging around project goals.
A leader sometimes refrains from sharing project information when there is uncertainty around transition plans or project details, in the hopes of avoiding organizational angst; it usually does the reverse. Not knowing everything upfront doesn’t mean you should avoid communicating the intent and goal of your plans. Be direct and honest about what details you know and can share, and provide the logic for any information you need to withhold and timeframes around when you may know more.

2. Assign ownership of the project communication strategy at the beginning.
A communication strategy provides an agreed-upon approach and timeline for communicating change. It provides the project team structure on when, how, and what to communicate to which stakeholders. Assigning ownership of the communication plan allows someone to track the project communication into more manageable phases and results in more effective change management. Managing a communication strategy can be an administrative project management role; the actual communicator role however, should be determined in the strategy based on stakeholder group. Remember, not every stakeholder group will require the same communication and engagement; it is important to outline the levels of communication early on. Most importantly a communication strategy provides leaders with a unified approach to messaging and timing, avoiding redundancy, overstepping, and making everyone accountable.

University of Michigan, Weiser Hall Communication Roadmap

3. Identify impactful communication methods.
Building a communication strategy involves understanding how to deliver project news and updates. Sometimes a message from a direct manager in a small team meeting is more appropriate than hearing something from a Dean in a town hall. Other times, it’s perfectly acceptable to use email. The key thing to remember is that multiple forms of communication are often necessary to ensure the information reaches everyone. Each big or sensitive announcement needs to ensure a thoughtful delivery approach to those experiencing the most change.

Examples of communication methods include:

  • All hands / town hall meetings
  • Department / small team meetings
  • One-on-one chats with direct manager
  • Engagement workshop
  • Occasional email blast update
  • Project website or another central platform

When trying to communicate major COVID-19 behavioral changes to the campus community, it is helpful to follow emails and town halls with graphic collateral. Read about how New York University Shanghai navigated the reopening their Pudong, Shanghai campus in early May 2020 and how they communicated new behavioral norms here.

NYU Shanghai building signage communicates entrance requirements. (Photo courtesy NYU Shanghai)

4. Leverage your team.
Every leader can point to someone on their team that is optimistic and enthusiastic about change. They should become your Change Agents! Change Agents are great at communicating logistics and day-to-day details. Also, they often hear all of the challenges staff are having and are your best resource in understanding and troubleshooting concerns. Remember communication should flow in both directions. You must be open to adapting or providing additional information.

5. Share milestones across the organization.
Don’t underestimate the importance of celebrating and sharing milestones reached. Give people metrics to know that their dedication and work is moving towards the goal. Celebrate the wins, and be honest about the setbacks. Adapt plans as needed and communicate what was learned, why things are changing, and what impacts it has on the long term plans.

Combining strong communication with a strong project management team and remote engagements will help to ensure you are gaining fast consensus along the way. As you approach plans to adapt for the the fall, remember to look out for these key pitfalls:

  • No one is directly tasked to create or manage a communication strategy.
  • There are multiple senior-level stakeholders delivering messaging at different times with different tones.
  • It is assumed the individual tasked to schedule engagements is also communicating project goals to others.
  • Communication is rushed as an afterthought to follow decisions on implementation of new protocols.

Implications of poor communication can lead to losing time that simply isn’t available this time around. Remember that your staff may be overwhelmed and worried about returning to work. It is more important than ever that communication helps everyone understand and internalize new ways of operating that will help keep everyone safe.

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