One of the biggest transformations in UK history is set to bring significant changes to businesses and their employees. With Brexit teams getting ready for take-off at some point this year, how do you talk to employees about what it means, when you're not completely sure of the route you're taking or the final destination?

16th April 2019

Whichever box you ticked on 23 June 2016, the headlines around Brexit ever since haven’t been particularly encouraging. While businesses have judiciously prepared themselves for the worst-case scenario, most probably expected the process to run a little smoother, with decisions from government outlined in good time to keep employees and customers in the loop about the impact.

One thing is for certain: whether Brexit is set to have an organisational benefit or disadvantage, the change has been forced upon businesses, making communication a challenge.

“Normally change is led from within an organisation,” says Sanjoy Mukherjee-Richardson, an internal and change comms professional and former head of Brexit communications for a leading insurance company. “It may be driven by external circumstances, like profitability, but you know the outcome of cutting costs or improving efficiency. Brexit is being steered and driven externally and the change outcome is not clear.”

This has left businesses navigating through the complexities like a maze, rather than a learning curve.

“It’s as if you pull out one piece of thread marked ‘Brexit’ and then find a whole host of other threads coming off it,” offers Sanjoy.

Companies in limbo

Speaking up in uncertain times Businesses can only plan so far along an undetermined path. Delayed decision-making and to-ing and fro-ing has left companies in limbo.

Marc Wright, founder of consultancy simply-communicate, describes “a kind of paralysis in the UK”.

“I’ve talked to friends who work in events, and no one has booked a venue for conferences after 29 March,” he says. “Everything has been postponed. Businesses think that Brexit could affect the balance sheet profoundly, so they’re cutting spending and hiring.”


Offering reassurance – if nothing else

Since the referendum result, employees have mainly wanted to know what it will mean for them. Internal messaging offered good intentions, even if businesses couldn’t make specific promises. 

“The most we have been able to do is reassure EU employees that, whatever happens, we will stand by you and support you, and we don’t plan to change our employment or recruitment practises,” says Sanjoy. “We have had to try and allay the fear that British companies will start letting go of EU nationals.”

Many companies haven’t known what to advise employees to tell customers.

“Immediately after the referendum, a lot said it would be business as usual,” says Sanjoy. “‘Don’t worry, everything will be fine.’ Within a year, the impact became clearer. Sources of supply changed, policies and procedures relating to business activity in the EU changed.”

Indeed, in an IoIC poll in January 2017, 31 per cent of respondents anticipated no change to their organisations as a result of Brexit. In a repeat poll in December 2018, this figure had dropped to nine per cent. In the 2017 poll, just over a quarter (28 per cent) expected major negative change, but this figure more than doubled (57 per cent) two years later.

“A lot of companies haven’t been consistent,” says Sanjoy. “When Brexit first started, no one had any idea what it meant. We kept going back to government information to look for what to do and how to protect the business. We quickly realised the UK government didn’t have a very clear vision.”

Avoid radio silence

It would be easy to use the lag in political clarity as an excuse for keeping schtum internally. Many employers bamboozled by Brexit, or hesitant to make pledges they can’t keep, have stayed silent. 

“A lot of senior managers decided not to say anything because they don’t know the policies,” says Marc. “Our advice is that’s the wrong strategy. During periods of crisis, when governments lose the plot, people look to their employer for security and clarity. People need to feel safe about their careers, incomes and futures – and the only people who can deliver that are employers. The banks and government can’t.”

Don’t let there be a vacuum, he insists. “Companies and leaders have to start talking, even if they don’t have a policy. That’s when you need the skills of communicators. Set a timetable for when there will be announcements, and tell people you have a plan.

“No employee wants to think the company is wandering off the cliff blindly.”

Last year, simply-communicate added a Brexit group, called BrexitComms, to its simply network online community, allowing internal communicators to exchange best practice and pick up resources. Armed with any kind of information, internal communicators can use Brexit as an opportunity to instil confidence in the business.

“The positive thing is you have employees’ attention,” says Marc. “One challenge in IC is getting people to listen to us. Brexit has been a bit like the financial crash of 2008 – people want to know what’s happening.”

If senior managers clam up, employees will instead pick up information from the external press.

“You have the double whammy of unions saying the solutions proposed by management are rubbish, and senior managers not saying anything at all,” Marc adds. “If businesses get it wrong or put out the wrong message, the IC team can get it in the neck. The Brexit debate is polarising audiences. Internal dissent erodes trust. The company has to make a stand.”


Reassuring EU nationals

Within most companies, the hot topic is around the status of EU nationals working in the UK, or UK nationals working in the EU.

It’s more complicated than whether a person can get a visa after 29 March; by now, businesses should have answers ready for the nuanced questions around who can work and reside where. Employers should be proactive about clearly communicating the decisions they’ve made, rather than waiting for employees – anxious employees and potential recruits at that – to come forth with questions.

The communication challenge is, suggests Sanjoy, threefold: reassurance; retention and recruitment; and organisational.

“How do you reassure EU nationals working for you? And how do you reassure their families? The difficulty is that you don’t know how many British employees have EU spouses or children who might be affected, so you might also have British people, as well as EU nationals, leaving the company if there is no certainty.”

Constant dialogue on the topic

For a shipping and distribution company like Your Special Delivery Service (YSDS), Brexit is a critical topic. Even so, YSDS CEO Silvia Tarchi says the industry only fully reacted to Brexit last summer.

“Many companies were hoping for a change of plans during the first year, and then the March date started getting closer,” she says. “We were getting questions from outside, and that triggered how we were going to deal with it on the inside.”

YSDS communicates on the topic constantly, via a team messaging application, newsletters and email updates. Silvia leads the comms for UK employees, mainly through a weekly face-to-face catch-up – “for the last five months, the main focus every week has been Brexit” – and one-on-ones for personnel issues. Silvia also takes UK employees on trips to visit colleagues in European offices – Copenhagen, Zurich, Amsterdam – as a way of strengthening internal relationships.

Silvia says YSDS approaches the topic positively in order not to create a stressful atmosphere.

“No one is afraid to ask questions,” she says. “People in the company voted in the referendum – and clearly the opinion was not unanimous – and so we have an open conversation. We say we don’t know what’s going on and we accept that it’s a confusing period. Rather than being scared of the outcome, we look at how we can embrace it and do something different. We are an international company, and Brexit could be an advantage. The best thing you can do is show confidence.”


Effect on recruitment

The uncertainty is having a significant effect on retention and recruitment. The number of EU staff leaving the UK is rising, and skilled EU workers are reassessing their plans to relocate to the UK, unsure of what Brexit will mean for them, let alone their spouses and children. Sectors such as construction and healthcare are losing much-needed talent to other parts of Europe.

“HR is suffering the brunt, but they need help on common messages,” says Marc. “A lot remains unclear. For example, there has been consultation about the £30,000 threshold for those requesting a visa. If the law comes in to force, there will be huge implications for significant chunks of the workforce – in shops and cafes particularly, which rely on international students studying here or EU nationals who want to get a better experience working in London.”

How can internal communicators help turn the tide and persuade employees to ride out the storm?

Mark Dayan, policy and public affairs analyst for independent health think tank Nuffield Trust, says businesses must take clear measures to reduce the number of EU staff leaving and communicate what is being done.

“Emphasise the important role these employees play. Explain that the government has pledged anyone already here is welcome to stay indefinitely. I know some NHS trusts were looking at paying the fee to achieve settled status for EU migrants, and you could look at a similar goodwill offer around the charges that will be levied under the new migration system.”


Creating a new BAU

At YSDS, employees need information around the impact on their day-to-day work of sending customers’ packages around the world. Silvia says the company is taking a systematic approach to adapting its operations.

“Will employees have to work longer hours because there’s more paperwork? Will they need extra training? How will we work with other companies?” asks Silvia. “We tell employees that we already work internationally and have to learn different countries’ regulations, and the new processes will be just like that. You have to be organised about learning the additional steps you need to take.”

Communicators need to explain the practical impacts on the business, especially in the event of a no-deal Brexit. In the health sector, for instance, that might mean potential medicine shortages, price rises in procurement or new requirements around transporting blood or medical devices.

“Employees in your organisation need to know about legal requirements in a targeted way,” says Mark.

“One of the really difficult tensions to manage is laying out these issues to people who need to know them without generating widespread alarm of the no-deal scenario, even though this is not a likely option. Communicators have to balance reassurance with a degree of honesty about the risk.

“If there is a no-deal Brexit, NHS communicators will need to control messages around issues such as emerging shortages in such a way that employees, and subsequently patients, are fully informed, but don’t absolutely panic. That will be a challenge for employees, from the pharmacists in shops up to leaders at a national NHS level.”


Managing local needs

Who should deliver the messages? Line managers are trusted sources for all other information in the company and that shouldn’t be any different around Brexit, especially where individual team members may be affected in different ways.

“Don’t centralise the communication,” says Sanjoy. “Employees in Hull will have different sensitivities to their colleagues in Germany. Another site might have had redundancies or a recent safety audit and people might be concerned about EU safety standards post Brexit. That’s why you have to engage managers who understand the situation on the ground.

“At one company, we set up an email account for questions from all staff. Most people who contacted us were managers.”

Make sure these managers receive the right information. Brexit is an extraordinary event unlike other change programmes and warrants more effort than simply sending a pack to team leaders.

“Organisational changes are the bread and butter of normal change comms, but this is not a change with a clear route map,” says Sanjoy. “Don’t underestimate the complexities of Brexit. This isn’t like delivering the annual results. Things are being discovered throughout the process that you need to be aware of – so you need to be prepared to adjust and adapt right up to the last minute. You don’t want to come up with a plan and then the lawyers tell you, ‘You need to do this, this and this.’”


Keeping up with the lawyers

There are all sorts of legal requirements in other countries that clash with UK best practice and what companies would like to do. For example, you have to consult with the French Works Council before making any decisions related to France. In some countries, you are required to publish your proposed changes online before you even speak to employees.

“Lawyers may think about regulation, but communicators need to challenge them to look at all the consequences and push back if they think there is a better way of doing something to lessen the impact on employees,” says Sanjoy. “Don’t be driven purely by the legal side. You need to ensure clarity of what you’re doing and what you’re saying – so that there is a consistency of impact on employees.”

Communication also has to start at the top. “Get executive-level buy in, understanding and input,” continues Sanjoy. “They need to know where the emphasis is on what you can and, more importantly, can’t say.”

It can be hard to keep up – with the intricacies of the deal and the emotional realities and human aspects. Be cautious not to get bogged down in opinion. Focus on the facts and find common ground with industry peers.

Silvia talks regularly with suppliers, carriers and even competitors to exchange information and best practice relevant to her business. Over the coming months, she plans to “be more out there” and join in larger networking and information events, by the Chambers of Commerce for example.

“If you listen to everything and everyone, it can be overwhelming,” she says. “I wish as a company we had been more outspoken about our philosophy and made our voice heard in the outside world sooner, but it’s reassuring for me to now hear from external voices in the same situation and be part of a network. It gives me a better perspective on the future.”


Brexit strategy

Marc Wright of simply-communicate shares three key tips for internal communicators in sharing messages around Brexit.

Get on the task force. There should be a group of consultants in your company focused on Brexit planning. Often it’s a closed group – but internal communicators have to get inside that war room, even if the group tells you there’s nothing to be communicated. Don’t wait to be asked.

Represent the people. You need eyes and ears across the company. See what the word is among employees, from the factory floor up. Know your change network.

Keep a cool head. It’s tough in the middle of a crisis. Take a deep breath, and just give the best advice you can – not what’s easiest or convenient. Consider the impact in a year’s time of any decision or comment you make now.

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