+44 020 3930 8303

Interview: Compassionate Restructures

by Susie Hills, Professor Michelle Leek | Mar 24, 2021 | Strategy & Transformation

We are delighted that Michelle Leek (ML) has joined Halpin as a Consulting Fellow. Michelle specialises in strategic change project leadership delivery and is a Professor of Practice in People Growth & Culture. Until December 2020 she was Pro-Vice-Chancellor (People, Performance & Culture) at University of Cumbria. Halpin’s Joint CEO Susie Hills (SH) caught up with her to talk about restructures… and to discuss if/how they can be more compassionate.

Michelle Leek

SH: Universities have had to respond to the double challenge of Brexit and Covid and this has resulted in many institutions going through staffing restructure processes. What do you think we are learning about restructures as a sector during this period?

ML: It has indeed been a challenging time for the sector, and I think that we are continuing to learn so much about the challenges of leading and managing change, the speed of change, and the impact of this, especially at this time, on our staff and students.

Some universities have faced financial challenges and seen a decline in overseas student recruitment or challenges recruiting to specific courses, as a result of Brexit and or Covid. As such have needed to review services and restructure accordingly. From this we are learning much more about managing restructures, in particular about the effects and impact of going through such change, whilst working remotely.

As an example, through this past period, ways of working have been impacted significantly and for many, home and work boundaries have become blurred with many colleagues juggling work with home schooling and caring for others. From this, we are learning more about the holistic nature of such change and the personal impact, which this has on individuals work and home life.

We are learning just how challenging it can be to address such sensitive matters and strike that balance of taking forward the restructure, whilst ensuring that staff are sufficiently connected and that we understand enough about individual circumstances to really support staff through such change.

Also, I think we are gaining a more in-depth understanding of the nature of the support, which Managers need, to enable them to approach these matters in the most appropriate way, which may range from developing capability, to creating the capacity to ensure appropriate time is given to this.

And a final point on learning is about taking the time to really think about of getting the content tone and balance of communication and engagement right so that colleagues understand the whole restructuring process, how it is likely to impact them, how their voice can be heard, and where they can access help and the support as needed.

SH: What do you think some of the guiding principles should be when an institution undertakes restructure?

ML: For me it is very simple: for individuals to be treated with respect, concern and dignity throughout the whole process.

  • To be open, honest and transparent, throughout.
  • Keep communications, simple, regular and ensure colleagues know how to feed into the process or raise matters.
  • Ensure the rationale for change (business reasons) is clear and jargon-free.
  • To be clear and to emphasise that it is not personal; it is a business decision and is about the need for the role.

For Managers, they must understand their role in the process and be equipped and enabled to confidently approach it with empathy, where they understand and are prepared to listen (and really hear), with kindness and understanding and are confident how and where to signpost staff for advice and support.

And, to ensure that all legal guidelines and internal policy/procedures are applied throughout.

SH: Remote working adds to the challenge of undertaking a restructure. What good practice have you seen in handling consultation processes remotely?

ML: I have mentioned some earlier, however a few points to add. I have seen it to be beneficial where we have had more regular contact and updates with touch points scheduled in.

Where we have been able to hold face-to-face conversations via electronic means as a preference, where this has been possible.

Being open to and offering more flexibility around timings and traditional methods of consulting, and also where support has been tailored to online accessibility and delivery, especially whilst working remotely.

SH: And poor practice?

ML: None of the above, resulting in lack of engagement, poor morale and motivation, confusion, leading to internal grievances and employment tribunal claims.

Clearly any redundancies which result from a restructure are being made at a time when the job market is very challenging.

SH: What can institutions do to support any staff who are leaving to find new roles elsewhere?

ML: I think that it is really important for colleagues to understand the options and support available not just internally (such as Employee Assistance Programmes), but also through the government agencies (such as the Job Centre Plus), as well as to have an understanding of the current rights and benefits including the impact of the furlough scheme.

For me, ensuring that staff feel confident about their experiences, their skills and what they can offer is critical. As such, institutions need to find ways to really help staff to articulate their successes, and make key contributions to enable staff to genuinely understand their worth and significant contributions/successes achieved.

Most institutions are likely to do this as standard. However at times such as these, I think that a personal approach to support for colleagues, in conducting a job search, how to effectively use social media, how to develop a strong CV, preparing for interview techniques, coaching, will all be beneficial.

SH: The staff leading a restructure process are also experiencing the challenges of covid themselves – how can we support their well-being during the process?

I see that HR will play a role in supporting managers both in terms of ensuring that they have the confidence and skills to deliver the changes and also to coach and mentor them where relevant through the relevant procedures and processes.

In my experience, running regular ‘check in’ sessions with both HR and Managers when going through this type of process has proved to be really beneficial, to ensure that they feel supported whilst being able to respond to questions or concerns in the moment.

Managers and HR also need to understand the specific support is available to them, which may be different to that offered to staff, as well as how they can access this during a restructure. Both Managers and HR tend to feel that they need to have all of the answers, and I think that it is important that they are reassured to understand that this is not a requirement or indeed necessary, what is more important is that they know where to get an answer and are able to confidently agree to come back with it at a given time.

An area, which I personally believe more focus is needed, is in ensuring that support is available for the staff who remain in their roles, and consideration to the changes or impact this might have on them from both a personal and professional perspective.

Research is emerging which is suggesting that six years following on from a restructure decreased levels of motivation and trust still exist with remaining staff.

As such I think more can be done to help those who remain, by seeking ways to maintain motivation and morale for members of the team/department/service(s), beyond the restructure as they adapt to new ways of working.

SH: Is it possible to deliver a compassionate restructure? What would this look like?

ML: Whilst any restructure can be stressful, in some cases inevitable, and has the potential to negatively impact those who are both directly and indirectly affected, I absolutely believe that it is possible to deliver a compassionate restructure.

For me it is very much about HOW the restructure and change is conducted, and ensuring that people are at the centre of decisions, communication and those who are conveying key messaging show concern and a genuine understanding.

Through the approach and engagement, you would see illustrated ways of displaying genuine trust, integrity, dignity, honesty, in fact I am confident that these attributes will feature in many organisations’ values and ways of working through normal business.

I genuinely believe that, if a colleague can leave an institute through a restructure and feel confident and proud of what they have achieved in their time at that institute, and can feel valued and possibly even want to return to the institute if an opportunity arises in the future (which I have witnessed on numerous occasions), then that has to be a positive sign of the way someone has felt having gone through such a process.

Finally, whilst challenges such as restructures arise in life, even though we might emphasise that the potential redundancy is not about the individual but the role, in reality we are dealing with human beings. In my view, if individuals first understand the reasons why change is needed and this is delivered with concern, if they are given the opportunity to ask questions, are treated with kindness, respect, honesty and dignity, and understand what support is available and how to access this, then this goes towards delivering a compassionate restructure.

In my view, as a leader of change I believe that you can still achieve the business objective, genuinely care and be interested in people. They are not mutually exclusive!

If you would like guidance on retructures and how to make them as compassionate as possible, Halpin’s home of experts is here to help you. Get in touch today

Michelle Leek, Halpin Consulting Fellow, was speaking to Susie Hills, Joint CEO of Halpin.