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Rebuilding company culture after a restructure

An expert's advice on how to re-energise your team following a restructure.

One of the most visible impacts Covid-19 has had on New Zealand has been the number of Kiwis and migrant workers who’ve lost jobs.

If your company has had to reduce headcount in order to remain viable, you’ll likely be thinking about how to bring your new team together. Those who remain will be experiencing a complex range of emotions which you need to address if you’re to move forward.

To find out how you can rebuild company culture in these circumstances, we spoke to Mary-Anne Merriott. Mary-Anne has held top People, Culture and HR roles in companies around the world, and believes passionately in “bringing kindness and the human touch to employment processes”.

She’s currently heading up Openleaf , a consulting service developed to “solve tough people problems (such as restructures) for companies that care about their staff.” Here’s what she has to say:

What should leaders expect from staff after a restructure?

Mary-Anne highlights four emotions leaders often notice among staff in the aftermath of a restructure, all of which can impact behaviour and performance:

1. Increased anxiety

“People are likely to feel anxious” Mary-Anne explains, “they’ll be asking themselves ‘could I be next? Will the business survive? What does the future hold?’”.

Leaders should expect ongoing employee anxiety following a restructure.

2. Reduced trust

The upheaval also means that team bonds are likely to suffer. This could be due to an “us and them” mentality that develops between leadership and staff, or distrust between colleagues who’ve had to compete for roles.

3. Heightened stress

Restructures are stressful, there are no two ways around that. But even for those who hold onto jobs, there’s the unfamiliarity of the new status quo, plus the potential for increased workloads.

4. Survivor's guilt

Staff who remain when others are made redundant can feel guilty, and believe their ‘survival’ is down to luck rather than personal merit. There’s also the sadness of seeing close friends leaving.

Mary-Anne says that businesses need to take proper care in responding to each of these reactions.

“Redundancies are just the start,” she explains, “how you manage the people who remain has a direct effect on the success of your business from now on. A team that’s feeling anxious and stressed with low trust won’t be high achieving - they’ll do the bare minimum with low loyalty”.

How should leaders address the restructure once it's happened?

“Communicate, communicate, communicate - I can’t stress that enough. Leaders should be honest and share as much information as they appropriately can,” Mary-Anne says.

Sharing information regularly and consistently will restore calm and rebuild trust and confidence, she explains. It helps demonstrate that you have a clear plan for the future. What’s more, due to the increased stress and anxiety employees may be feeling, leaving gaps in the information flow provides room for negative speculation, creating a vicious cycle of uncertainty.

You can take this notion further, Mary-Anne says, by taking proactive steps to “show your people you care about them”. She references initiatives such as regular newsletters, all-staff meetings, recognition programs, or updates on company social tools like Slack as potential ways that leaders can strengthen staff engagement and loyalty. This in turn, she says, will lead to better performance.

Share as much information as you can, and think carefully about how you can go the extra mile for staff.

What comms should leaders send out to staff post restructure?

Mary-Anne suggests several types of communication, however notes that this is highly context specific, and that business leaders need to choose the options most suitable to them.

1. When staff are leaving

“It’s generally a good idea to let your team know someone is leaving before they exit. Give everyone a chance to say goodbye to each other, and thank them for the work they’ve done for your business. Show your integrity by giving the outgoing employee that dignity and respect, so they can leave with their heads held high, and so your team sees that everyone matters to you.”

2. Your next steps

As part of your restructure process, you should have shared the new company structure and provided opportunities for staff to provide feedback.

Even with this step complete, your employees will have ongoing questions around the changes and what they mean for them. Mary-Anne recommends thinking about how you can use comms to answer common queries like ‘what will you be saying to clients?’, ‘how do you need the team to pull together from now on?’ and ‘what’s the future for the business?’. Where possible, she advises involving your staff in planning so everyone is invested in your future success.

3. Future comms

A watershed moment like a restructure is a chance to think about the future of company comms. Mary-Anne suggests that if you’re not already sharing regular comms with your staff, use this as an opportunity to establish that because “this will help strengthen the team into your new journey together.”

How should leaders deal with resentment about what happened?

“Your staff will need space to process and come to terms with what’s happened – it’s one of the stages of grief, and it should be expected in post restructuring situations,” Mary-Anne points out.

She says this involves a careful balance between giving employees space while also offering communication and recognition for their efforts so they get the right message from you.

In time, she says, “employee resentment will turn into understanding – and that’s when you should engage in quality team building to strengthen your group and bring everyone back together.”

Mary-Anne also points out it’s important to “remember and acknowledge those who have left in properly.” Speaking about them with respect, and not avoiding the subject shows your people you care – and it’s also the right thing to do. “Sharing your emotions will help unite your team.”

Strike a careful balance with your staff after a restructire.

How can leaders rebuild culture post restructure, especially when budgets are likely to be restricted?

Mary-Anne’s philosophy here is straight-forward: “You don’t need a budget to have a strong culture. The roots of culture are in relationships – focus on improving those, and you’ll have good foundations.”

She highlights that, post restructure, because of the state of people’s feelings, leaders often see different behaviours and interactions, and possibly some that aren’t in line with your culture.

“The solution, she says, “is not fancy offices and beanbags in the break room (and by the way, that’s not culture). It means letting people know what kind of behaviour is ok or not, and why – rebuilding behaviours one step at a time.”

In practice this means asking individuals whether they’re conscious of what they’re doing and the impact it’s having? Being clear about expected behaviour while remaining kind and mindful of what employees are going through will help get things back on track.

The other important pillar is teamwork. Mary-Anne says it’s vital that ”people are talking to each other and interacting constructively.” She emphasises that while it might take time for things to get back to where they were, this is okay, as long as you’re moving in the right direction.

Any final takeaways for business leaders going through restructures?

Mary-Anne hammers home that leaders’ behaviour during restructures is both about doing the right thing, and exercising good business sense:

“How we treat people in tough times matters – it changes their lives, but it also has an enormous impact on a business’s reputation and performance. How will people remember your actions during this time? What will your customers think, how will your remaining staff react, and how will you attract future customers and staff? What story would your affected employees tell?.

When leaders treat their people well and focus on good culture and engagement, their business will do better and better. This is more important than ever rebuilding after the challenge of a restructure - good people means good business.

This isn’t something you’ll do all the time and it has enormous impact for a business, so it’s a good idea to bring in an expert to advise you and help you get it right.”