Being prepared for organisational change brought about by future challenges in the workplace is more important than ever. This article from WDI Consulting Limited explores how storytelling and embracing employee activism can play an important part in helping HR to manage change to bring about positive results.
Organisational change and transformation
When your organisation is suffering from change fatigue, we are beginning to understand that telling stories – stories that feel authentic about the organisation – can be the key to reigniting and facilitating transformational change.
The role of storytelling in business has been around for some time, but usually around external rather than internal communications. If the former is all about corporate transformation, the latter is about personal transformation – and that means individual change as well as corporate change. Increasingly it is the HR function that has to anticipate events and articulate the overarching change narrative built on a compelling ‘why’. To be successful at this, HR must become a bridge between their people and the corporate purpose through weaving personal and organisational stories together. Then, as the organisation transforms, their people are more engaged and aligned to the change.
Take our client, the disability employer, Remploy, for example.
Remploy was required to reduce its 4,000 mainly disabled employees by three quarters in just two years. How they did it, and their successful transformation as an effective independent social enterprise, sheds light on a new approach to creating employee activists through the change and transformation process. WDI’s involvement with Remploy began in 2009, three years before the government announced its decision to withdraw funding.
New strategic role of HR
This was a decision that put the HR function at the front line, with a new strategic role. They were faced with industrial and employee relation issues, new organisational models, media risks and at the same time delivering business as usual. The small HR team had to lead and support themselves, their people and the organisation during a highly sensitive transformation. Also, given that 70 per cent of the HR team would also lose their jobs, to be able to retain Remploy’s sense of mission throughout the change was a significant challenge.
What was innovative in Remploy’s approach was the integrated way they adopted storytelling about their future. The transformation process was structured to provide support on different levels: personal, social and societal and included independent counselling provided, not just for employees, but for their partners and dependents. So while the more usual support structures and onsite HR support were provided, the power was in a more anticipatory and human approach for the employees, their families and their communities.
“Our organisation has a clear purpose,” says Jean Cabena, Remploy’s People Director. “It is something that people really believe in and are passionate about and it drives them.”
This is important. HR was centre stage with a clear and compelling narrative that was brought to life by visible and participatory senior level support for the proposed transformation. HR coached managers and leaders to model and embody the compassion and care that is inherent in their values and have real conversations with their people. And they remembered that their people look to the top for evidence and reinforcement of the words and actions about what the overall transformation meant for them.
Second, HR is repeatedly challenged to play a more strategic role in the business and lead and shape transformation. Developing and employing the art of storytelling adds to the HR repertoire of expertise and is one way of sharing the organisations’ narrative in a compelling, engaging and honest way.
Stories are everywhere reminding us that there is huge untapped ‘discretionary effort’ waiting to be accessed. Appletree Answering Service, CEO John Ratliff credits the stories and feelings resulting from their ‘Dream On’ (small acts of kindness) programme with reducing employee turnover from 95 to 30 per cent in six months, and with significantly improved morale and profitability. “It was an instant injection of positivity to our culture,” he said.
Employees as activists
Weber Shandwick’s report Employees Rising, says that employees will increasingly define the brands they work for themselves and become activists for their organisations through social media. We know that customers can be powerful advocates of a company’s narrative. What these stories imply is that employees can also be powerful advocates too.
Remploy was extremely vulnerable to media scepticism during their dramatic transformation, and they avoided that pitfall largely because their people bought into the overall narrative about their purpose. Their people approved of the direction of travel and spread the word. They were the heroes in the story in more ways than one.
WDI Consulting is a niche consultancy with one main goal – to partner with organisations who want to bring about change.
What challenges is your business currently facing? Has your organisation recently experienced change as a result? Do you have any experience of storytelling in business? Share your thoughts using the comments section below.
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