8 Guidelines for Communicating Change Virtually


Today’s organizational changes involve employees spread around regions, countries, and continents. Virtual tools like GoToWebinar, Skype, blogs, and Facebook offer a terrific amount of added flexibility to communicate with people. Yet, there are also many limitations and challenges when communicating change in this new digital world.

In principal, all the rules of communicating change apply in virtual situations. In fact, they are amplified because when you are not face-to-face, it is more critical to follow all of the guidelines. For example, overempathize in emotional situations that are virtual since there are no facial expressions to be read by the speaker. Similarly, it is important to increase the frequency of communication, since out of sight can lead to out of mind. Be crystal clear about the business case for change so you can communicate it succinctly over the phone or in short e-mails.

A main challenge for leaders is choosing the best media for messages. Often time and money are limited, making face-to-face communication a luxury. Yet, change is emotional and usually requires personal connections to gain employee commitment and buy-in. We have found that there is no perfect answer–it is usually a gray zone.

Within the gray zone there are two extreme ends. At one end are the one-dimensional media: e-mails, chats, and blogs. At the other end is multi-dimensional media, the epitome of which is face to face. Toward the middle of the continuum are multidimensional media such as phone conversations, Web meetings, and video-conferencing. Face-to-face conversations are at the other end of the continuum. When deciding which media to use to communicate change, there are eight dimensions to consider.

1. Transactional vs. relationship. Is the interaction a series of single steps with little human component, or does it include significant interpersonal dynamics or goals?

2. Facts vs. emotions. Is the purpose of the dialogue to share “dry” facts, or does it include emotional topics?

3. Information sharing vs. collaborating. Is the communication simply exchanging information with a person, or is the goal to work closely together to solve a problem?

4. Repetition vs. innovation. Are you involved in a task that you have done before with success, or are you exploring new territory?

5. Maintaining relationship vs. relationship issue. Is everything going well in an existing relationship, or are tensions and conflict looming?

6. Structured vs. unstructured. Are there perfectly clear roles, responsibilities, or milestones, or are you trying to figure out what needs to be done and who should do it?

7. Simplicity vs. complexity. Is the message to be communicated simple and straightforward, or will it require thinking and discussion?

8. Audience similarities vs. audience disparities. Do they speak the same language? Do they know you? What are their skill levels and experience with the content of the message? What are their cultural or social conventions?

The following sections describe different reasons for communicating and what media work best.

Announcing Change

Organizational, high-level change information is transactional. Often it involves simply getting the facts out. This can be done through a simple e-mail if the content is not complex, is not a pep talk, and does not contain major underlying emotional issues. To get individual buy-in and commitment when announcing change, focus more on the relationships of individuals with their managers and the company. This makes the message as much emotional as factual, and it requires at least a multidimensional medium, such as a Web conference or better yet face to face.

Responding to Questions

When responding to technical questions, FAQ sheets, e-mail technical support, or phone support work well. But when there are personal or emotional questions, such as job fit, role conflict, or career questions, multidimensional communication methods (i.e., face-to-face meetings) are recommended.

Creating Urgency

Urgency can be generated through a simple e-mail. For example, setting a deadline and copying the other person’s boss can create urgency. Sending a note about a high value bonus as an incentive to get something done also can create urgency. But don’t forget the relationship and emotional aspects of communication. If you want to manage the emotional reactions of others, use e-mail cautiously.

Clarifying Roles and Responsibilities

The first round of reviewing new job roles and final clarifications can be done through e-mail. E-mail can also work very well to increase comprehension when the corporate language is different than the regional language. In cases when there are strong emotional reactions, power struggles, or loss of influence due to job changes, e-mail will not work.

Communicating Individual Objectives

E-mails can start the discussion of individual objectives, but a key aspect of setting objectives is mutual agreement. This usually requires a personal discussion to create a common understanding and a stronger personal commitment.

Empowering Employees

After you have created an environment of empowerment that works, you can use e-mail to delegate assignments. If you need to ensure employees have a clear understanding of the expectations and boundaries of their empowerment, use a multidimensional media.

Keeping People Motivated

Reminders and congratulations are well suited to e-mail. This creates a formal record. In cases where the issue is important or an employee went well above and beyond, making a phone call or face-to-face visit gives an extra impact.

Complaints about a leader, interpersonal conflicts between key stakeholders, or challenges integrating changes in another country–these are all times when emotions can run high and an e-mail or phone call won’t do. Part of being a leader is recognizing these situations and taking the time, energy, and money to have a face-to-face interaction. Sometimes you just need to get on a plane!

This was first published in our book Perfect Phrases for Communicating Change (McGraw-Hill)

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