When you think about employee communications, what comes to mind? Websites, presentations, pamphlets, emails?

If so, you’re not alone. For most organizations—and most plan sponsors—communication refers to the tools we use to deliver information after everything else is done.

When it comes to changing a benefits plan, for instance, the process typically looks something like this:
1) The HR department is given a mandate to reduce benefit costs.
2) The HR team works with its benefits consultant or service provider to redesign the program to reign in costs.
3) A communications plan is developed to roll out the new program.
4) Communication materials are produced and delivered to plan members.

Seems reasonable enough at first glance. But look a little closer and you’ll find the process is riddled with risk. Successful change management doesn’t end with communications, it starts with it.

The first step in the communications process generally needs to move up the ranks not down, and should be two-way not one-way.

Before the HR team can even begin looking at plan design options, they need to know exactly what’s driving the mandate and whether it has broad-based leadership support. They also need to establish:

• whether leadership support (or lack of support) is based on an accurate understanding of what’s at stake in terms of both business and people issues;
• employees’ level of satisfaction with the current plan, how well it addresses their needs, and their expectations for the future;
• which benefits are important to employees and which ones are less important;
• what else is going on inside and outside the organization that might influence employee attitudes towards benefit changes;
• whether there are some benefits that employees are willing to preserve at all costs (even if it means paying a greater share of the cost or agreeing to concessions in other areas of the broader rewards program);
• the effectiveness of existing communication programs, tools and tactics;
• and, employees’ preferred communication channels (how they want to receive information).

This exercise in two-way communication will not only help the HR team develop an effective communications strategy, but will also provide the information to align the plan design with both business objectives and employee needs—ensuring the organization gets the biggest bang for its benefits investment.

In an ideal world, the HR team will even take the process one step further. It will use the information to develop a “straw plan” and then conduct focus groups to test it with a cross-section of employees—so the plan can be fine tuned before it’s launched (even minor adjustments can have a dramatic impact on employee acceptance).

It may be stating the obvious, but communications should be an essential first step—not an afterthought—in any organizational change. When communications is reduced to a one-way, passive, downloading of information, it’s unlikely to have a meaningful impact on outcomes. Employees are much more likely to respond positively to change when they know that it is necessary, appropriate and fair.

The best way to ensure that this is the case is to involve them along the way. Active involvement helps to create buy-in and acceptance.

But at the end of the day, even the best communication in the world can’t overcome a bad plan design.

Susan Deller is a principal with Eckler Ltd. and specializes in benefits communications consulting.

These are the views of the author and not necessarily those of Benefits Canada.

Copyright © 2019 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

Join us on Twitter