Have you heard the joke about change?

Q: How many co-workers (or supervisors or executives) does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Change it?! We can’t change it!!!

With the spooky season of Halloween upon us, talking about organizational change seems like a natural fit because, well, so many people find it just plain scary. A clear, thoughtful communication strategy can ease fears and make the entire change process less chilling.

Whether talking about COVID mandates, workforce reductions, mergers and acquisitions, leadership succession, new products or client bases, or countless other transitions, change is — and always will be — here to stay.

Here are tips for communicating to internal teams effectively, and empathetically, when a big organizational change is imminent.

Time waits for no one

Too often, organizations wait much too long to begin communicating about a change that will disrupt, complicate or significantly affect team members’ lives. This can lead to fear, distrust, anger or a loss of motivation — possibly all at the same time — when news of the sweeping change inevitably starts leaking.

Don’t wait till the message gets ahead of you and out of your control. Create a communication strategy as plans are taking formation, and err on the side of early communication rather than trying to catch a runaway train. Of course, with any big organizational change, there may be hurdles that must be cleared before you begin communicating — legal clearance, board approval, HR processes that need to be put in place and more. For public companies, there are more layers and levels of approvals and considerations.

But once those prerequisites are checked off, don’t put off relaying the message — clearly, early and frequently.

Involve the right people

Just as important as getting the message out early enough is involving the right people to understand and deliver it. Too often the strategy for communicating change is limited to the C-suite and top executives. While they play a key role, plenty of other communicators are often left out of the process, contributing to the uneasiness among the ranks.

A study by Willis Towers Watson — a multinational risk management, brokerage and advisory — found that organizations appear to drop the ball when making sure influencers understand the changes afoot. Only 53 percent of middle managers said they really get the message, and only 40 percent of front-line supervisors said they understand the change.

It’s no wonder big changes are so fear-inducing throughout the rank-and-file. Beyond managers and supervisors, think about who the change-makers, influencers and pacesetters are in your company and what role they can have in helping communicate change and assuage fears.

Even the internal communications team is often left out of important change management talks until the last minute. Inc. Magazine recommends involving those influencers from the beginning of the process if possible, rather than bringing them into the conversation once rumors are swirling and backlash has begun.

Five W’s and an H

Chief among the things that must be communicated are the five W’s:

  • Who will be affected?
  • What exactly will change (be specific)?
  • Where will changes happen (specific work sites, departments, levels of seniority, etc.)?
  • When will changes occur (staggered transition, multiple phases, etc.)?
  • Why is change happening (add product lines, cut costs, keep up with more nimble competitors, expand into a key market, etc.)? Beyond those practical why’s, it can be helpful to communicate the big picture why, sharing a vision of how the organization can benefit from the transition and clarifying the motivation behind it.

And don’t forget to communicate about the H:

  • How will the changes be rolled out? How will people be affected? What processes will be in place for a smooth transition?

Communicating about change is not a one-and-done strategy; information will need to be shared frequently and repeated often. Nor is it a one channel/one vehicle communication. Organizations should use all resources at their disposal — all-staff meetings, Q&A-style town halls, intranet, dedicated employee social media pages, surveys, executive videos, newsletters and more.

It’s a lot of work to effectively communicate about change. But the alternative — dropping the ball on such important information — is much spookier indeed.