On December 4th, 2023, Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify, sent a letter to all employees telling them about organizational changes and headcount reductions that would occur in the coming weeks. The CEO expressed empathy as he had to make this extremely difficult decision, detailed clear next steps for those leaving, and spoke to the employees as a compassionate and transparent leader. Most people have seen or know someone who has seen an organizational change or layoff email over the past year. However not all have been as well written, and employee focused as Daniel Ek’s. In the fast-paced, ever-evolving landscape of the corporate world, the art of communicating change within the workforce has become a critical challenge for today's business leaders. Recent corporate messages that announce layoffs, restructuring, and transformation often leave employees feeling both disconnected, anxious, and even angry. It's high time for executives to recognize that effective communication during change is not just about conveying the "right" message but setting up the most optimal outcomes by practicing empathy and transparency.

It's not just a phase

In 2023, over 50% of the workforce is comprised by Millennials and Gen Z employees.  People in these demographics say realism and authenticity are two of the most vital values when selecting an employer to work for, a brand to support, or a way to be treated.  These values are not “just a phase” the Millennials and GenZers will outgrow; evidence suggests, instead, that they are fundamental values that must be considered by people responsible for corporate communication. Traditional corporate speak is waning, and there is a call for businesses to deliver candid, straightforward messages during periods of transformation. As the saying goes, know your audience—and there’s never a more important time to do that than when big changes are happening.

Communicating change 

“Employees Are Losing Patience with Change Initiatives” is the title of a recent article in Harvard Business Review.  A Gartner study reveals that employees’ willingness to support change has dropped from 74% in 2016 to just 43% today.  As layoffs continue to happen and as new technologies like artificial intelligence reshape jobs, it’s more important than ever for companies to take employee perceptions and feelings into account as they share the next steps for the company. Losing one's job or entering a groundbreaking corporate transformation is never easy, and as companies grapple with the "right thing to say," it's essential to realize that formulaic language and PR-speak will backfire.  Instead, company leaders need to talk like people; they need to treat employees honestly and like adults, acknowledging the change's impact on their lives, taking responsibility, and sharing the burden of the path forward. This starts with the wording used within a communication and the vehicle in how it’s delivered. 

In recent times, we've witnessed the repercussions and backlash of companies prioritizing shareholders, or the market’s reaction, over employees’ emotions. Phrases like, "we must present a better image to our shareholders," or “actions necessary for company long-term company success,” have been met with skepticism by employees, as they lack a clear and tangible path forward. Gen X and Baby Boomers also value authenticity. However, their drivers are workplace challenge, financial stability, and honesty, providing context as to why a message about shareholder needs is valued more than communication on emotions – and, arguably, the impact a workplace transformation can have on an employee's mental health. Companies need to begin adapting to all four generations, calling for a significant shift in communication strategies.

How can companies learn from these mistakes and adapt their communication moving forward? 

The answer lies in understanding the values and needs of your employees, who deserve respect, empathy, and transparency in times of uncertainty and upheaval.

1. Identify a vision and clear message before proceeding

When initiating change, companies should consider who will be affected and how and when to best communicate with them. Effective communication should be concise, empathetic, and detailed in explaining what's to come, available resources, and the support system in place for employees.

Before communication is distributed, leaders should align with each other. When a question is asked to one executive, the answer received should be the same as an answer provided by another executive. This mitigates the risk of leaders not being on the same page and shows a united front to employees trying to understand the change. 

2. Deliver the message face to face 

Managers should not be afraid of a difficult and in-person conversation. It doesn’t matter if an employee has been with a company for one year or two decades. Being told their time is over through an email gives the manager an easy way out, and the ability to hide behind a screen during a difficult conversation, but it is almost guaranteed to leave a bitter taste among employees who have been retained as well as those who are let go. When layoffs are decided, companies should provide coaching and mentorship to their managers on having a difficult conversation. Then, during the conversation, leaders need to show sympathy, practice empathy, and sit with that person as they experience and grapple with the situation. 

3. Provide transparent next steps and expectations 

Companies should provide concrete timelines and next steps that employees can anticipate and must adhere to these schedules diligently. Offering a platform for informal conversations or questions, such as town halls, forums, or office hours, can foster a sense of involvement and reassurance. You may not have all the answers as a leader, but it's better to walk alongside employees rather than issue changes from an ivory tower without visibility.

Transparency, empathy, and open communication are not just buzzwords but the foundation for building trust and fostering resilience in the face of change. Further, in a workforce becoming dominated by Millennials and Gen Z, aligning corporate communication with their values will improve employee morale, engagement, loyalty, and retention, thus driving business success. It's time for companies to rise to the occasion, adapt their communication strategies to their audience, and embark on a journey of genuine connection with their workforce during transformative change.