7 tips for navigating big company changes in a challenging market

Published: 3 August 2020 - 7:30 a.m.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a huge toll on the oil and gas industry, expected to wipe out $1.8 trillion in revenue—the largest monetary hit of any business sector. Even as life creeps slowly back to some kind of “new normal,” we’re seeing an avalanche of changes ripple through the industry.

While companies like BP, Pemex and others are suspending contracts and laying off thousands of employees, including many senior-level positions, others are diversifying to overcome oil pricing volatility. As zero-carbon investments become more attractive, some European big oil companies like Shell and Total are adding more renewables to the mix. Others, like Exxon, Chevron and ConocoPhillips are sharpening their focus on operational efficiency aiming to lower costs and manage margins, while improving their economies of scale and tightening integrations between upstream, refining and petrochemicals.

At the same time, the push toward automation, artificial intelligence and digitalization is accelerating as companies double-down on efforts to reduce costs in all facets of the value chain. That’s putting added pressure on existing staff to evolve not only their skillsets but also their mindset as well. In addition to upskilling and reskilling the current (mostly older) workforce, the challenge extends to the talent pipeline, as companies struggle to recruit younger, STEM-focused talent due to perceptions of the industry.

All of this turmoil sits on top of the backdrop of uncertainty in all areas of business and life: concerns about the health and safety of employees, employees’ worries over the wellbeing of their own families, school closures, societal unrest, quarantine, the political climate…it’s a lot for people to process all at once.

That’s why it’s imperative for your company to take the lead in delivering strong, effective change communications: to reassure, clarify, motivate and maintain morale. Employees are looking to their employers to provide some sense of stability and security in these challenging times. And, while the news may not always be good, communicating clearly and with an understanding of and empathy for the employee experience, can empower your company to navigate even the most tumultuous changes. Here’s how:

  1. Be transparent about the “why.” Too often, companies focus on enacting the change itself and overlook employees’ desire to understand why. This is a key antidote to change aversion—it’s not that employees don’t want to change; they just don’t see the compelling reason to do so. And, in a sector where industry news is widely covered, there’s no reason to keep secrets. Employees read the same industry publications and watch the nightly news. Addressing the “why” with transparency and “what’s in it for me?” for employees is imperative to gaining their buy-in and behavior modification. When employees understand the reason for change beyond “because we said so,” they’re much more likely to get on board.
  2. Address unique and varying audiences. With such a wide range of staff—from business analysts, IT and engineers to rig operators, drillers, mechanics and roustabouts—no one-size-fits-all approach will ever work. They each see the organization, and the world at large, from a different perspective and failing to address that will only lead to misunderstanding and an inability to understand “how does this apply to me?” Instead, structure communications to address the varying audiences within the organization. Rather than blanket statements, customize messages for each unique segment with a focus on their perspective, concerns and motivations.
  3. A multichannel approach is a must. Along with these varying audiences, companies in this sector are also faced with a variety of work environments, from office or work-at-home staff to those in the field or out to sea. While most organizations are implementing Wi-Fi/internet access even on rigs, that doesn’t mean these staff will naturally adopt the same communication channels as the accounting team. Using the right channels to reach employees where they’re most comfortable with consuming content is critical. After all, your messages are only “easily accessible” if they’re accessed at all.
  4. Dig deeper for feedback and data beyond “delivered.” One of the biggest misconceptions about corporate or employee communication is the assumption that message receipt equals success. Your email might have been opened and read by 95% of your staff, but did they understand it? Absorb it? Act on it? Don’t assume that delivery is enough. Instead, solicit qualitative feedback about whether employees understand the message, what’s expected of them as a result, and whether they have questions.
  5. Don’t use the “one and done” approach. Issuing single proclamations without proper context, explanation and follow-up will not create the change you want to see from your staff. In fact, data shows employees assume communications are part of a series, but only 40% of messages actually are. That leaves employees expecting more. Instead, organize change communications into campaigns with a series of content experiences to lead employees along the journey from understanding to action. By breaking complex change messages down into bite-size pieces, and providing more context and clarity, employees will internalize the content more effectively and act on it accordingly.
  6. Consider the sender. Many companies assume the CEO or the VP of Communications—typically the external-facing spokesperson—should also be the internal spokesperson for all company-related messages. But that’s not necessarily the best strategy if you want to reach and influence frontline employees. Use a combination of leaders and managers to share information internally. Leaders should announce a message, and managers should reiterate that message in a way that resonates best with employees. After all, managers are most closely embedded with their teams, they understand the mood, tone and environment of the day-to-day workplace, know their employees and their situations, and can relate to them on a much more personal level. Plus, they’re the ones employees will most likely come to if they have questions. Involving your managers in carrying the message can be the best way to make sure communication gets through in a way that resonates with intended audiences and actually drives the change you desire.
  7. Collect Data. The qualitative feedback I mentioned earlier is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how you should be measuring change communications success. Benchmarking performance in terms of how, when, where and with what result your employees receive, internalize and act on your messages is critical. Clearly, you can’t fix something that’s broken if you don’t first do an assessment. Here’s where using a platform that’s purpose-built for change communications can be the best strategy: it allows you to measure not only delivery metrics but also sentiment around the message across multiple channels with every audience. Iteration is key. This way you can see how the rig hands reacted compared to the HR department and make adjustments accordingly. Without this kind of detailed measuring, you’re assuming a lot, and that’s exactly where most change initiatives begin to break down.

Enacting change in a time of turmoil is extremely hard, but ineffective employee communication makes it virtually impossible. By implementing a solid strategy, along with the right tools to execute and measure results, your company can overcome the hurdles inherent in the industry to drive the change you need to succeed in the face of difficult odds. And, by being transparent and taking an employee-centric approach, your staff will respect and appreciate you more, even when the message is difficult to hear.

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