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How to effectively communicate through change

Cat Channon advises on how to minimise the human impact and ensure better understanding of big changes at your games business

In a talk during our HR Summit late last year, games industry comms veteran Cat Channon gave pointers about communication through change, and how to take into account the human impact of change when sharing information with staff, whether about layoffs, big M&A deals, or real-world calamities that might be affecting staff.

Channon has over 30 years of experience in games, most recently as EA's vice president of global corporate communications where she was supporting a team overseeing a workforce of 13,000 people across 23 locations. Over the years she's worked at the likes of Warner Bros, Blizzard as it was taken over by Vivendi,, Take-Two, NCSoft, and more, from small startups to giants of the industry, across various countries.

"What each of those has taught me is the cultural nuance that comes with communication and how it can have a huge impact on how effective your communications are," Channon said. "I know from my own experience how heavy the words can hang in [times of] change if we don't get them right."

Defining change

Her talk shared what she's learnt through these experiences, aiming to guide others when communicating a changing situation.

"There's lots of different areas that [can be defined as] change," she said, clarifying the lens. "It's not necessarily just about restructuring and about redundancy, although those are the ones that most often hit the headlines."

She highlighted a number of possible definitions of change that can impact the workplace:

  • Change in management (she noted that understanding the effect of management changes is important)
  • Restructuring and redundancies
  • Mergers, acquisitions, and studio closures
  • Policy/benefit changes (while it might seem like a small change on paper, benefit changes can have a big impact on how employees feel)
  • Real-world changes (wars, pandemics, and so on)
"Understanding the human and emotional impact of change is often neglected or deprioritised in the face of really acute business needs"

"With mergers, acquisitions and closures, a shift in culture can often [occur]," she said. "And that's one of the things that is most difficult to understand when you get two different languages from two different bodies, or maybe more than that, coming together. And so, how communications are portrayed by one or perceived by another might be dramatically different when you bring together two often different worlds.

"It also brings a lot of fear of redundancies and job insecurities. So how you show up, what you say, how you say it, is incredibly important."

She also highlighted the effects of change on business, which companies should be thinking about before making decisions:

  • Share price
  • Reputational risk
  • Talent retention and acquisition
  • Employee engagement ("How do you really quickly get everybody aligned to the way that you're changing, why you're changing, what the purpose is, and on-board with a new plan? Communications is your big unlock in this one," Channon said)
  • Business development (she noted that not everyone wants to work with businesses that don't have values that reflect their own, so being unprepared when deciding on change can have consequences)
  • Business continuity

The human impact of change

Channon urged people in HR positions in games to consider the human impact when planning for change, and the difference that clear communications can make in mitigating the negative impacts and promoting the positive ones.

"Outside the workplace, people have seen more change and more uncertainty than ever before – our industry, we felt, was relatively resistant to change," she said. "[But] In the wake of [the boost provided by the pandemic] there is a huge sense of uncertainty around our workforce. And post-pandemic, we are struggling just as much – if not in some ways more so – than many other industries.

"When some are bouncing back, we are not. So understanding how real-world effects are having an impact on the ability of a workforce to be able to navigate and sustain change within the workplace, where they have traditionally felt safe or anchored or secure or familiar, is really important."

Channon mentioned that due to unprecedented times of change in the past few years, we're now seeing the effect of "change fatigue," with the various crises going on worldwide in addition to workplace challenges dramatically reducing our ability to weather change.

"Understanding the human and emotional impact of change is often neglected or deprioritised in the face of really acute business needs," she added. "Leadership are often making very difficult 'make or break' decisions about whether or not they can pay the brains, keep the lights on, keep the machines going, and keep people in employment. But in the wake of those decisions, it's really important to consider how you're communicating, even if there are dramatic pressures on the business to move at pace and to meet deadlines. It's really important to think about what you say, how you say things, when you say them, where you say them, because those are the things that will stay with the people."

Channon touched upon her own experience of change, in particular with redundancies, highlighting the difference that good communication can make.

"I've been made redundant twice. The first time was a stark reality [check] in my early 20s where I realised that I was part of a business and just a dot on an Excel Sheet somewhere... It was a dramatic realisation but the communications around it were super clear. They were super consistent. This wasn't about me. This was a difficult business decision that somebody made. And so I went off and proceeded to have a fantastic career break."

She continued: "My second redundancy could not have been more dramatically different. The change was managed really poorly, communications were inconsistent, legal was contradicting what HR were saying, [which was different] from what my manager was saying. Everybody was trying to fill in the grey gaps without a real sense of what the actual process needed to be."

She noted that the "monumental difference" between those two instances was communication.

"The first one was clear, it was buttoned up, and I went away feeling as good as I could. The second one was messy, chaotic, and not at all coordinated, and the human impact of that on me was much much harder than it needed to be."

We recently explored the differences in communication between the recent Riot layoffs and the Microsoft ones.

How to communicate well in times of change

Having highlighted a few examples of terrible communications through change (Twitter's layoffs, and Unity's runtime fee debacle among others), Channon explained how to do it right and deliver effective communication.

1. Test the thinking

Before going ahead, Channon highlighted it's essential to confront leadership with the possible reactions.

"You can say 'this is the headline you're going to have, this is what people will say about you, this is what social media will say about the change you are about to make'," she said. "So you can really test the thinking, you can be a mirror. You can make comparisons between everything they've said since the internet began that will be brought back in the wake of this change.

"Are these changes necessary? Are they the only way? Are they the right way? Are you making them for the right reasons? Communication is a great way to be able to leverage a partner who can ask really difficult and confronting questions to leadership."

2. Have a plan

When confronted with a change, it's often a case of somebody at the top having made a decision, and HR, legal, and communicators just being brought in to "make it happen."

"Are these changes necessary? Are they the only way? Are they the right way? Are you making them for the right reasons?"

"I've seen it numerous times over and over again – and if you don't have a plan or you don't stick to it, you will pay the price for it," Channon said.

"And that plan should be meticulous. It should think about everybody. It should think about where you are doing your talking, what channels you are using, who is doing it, what is the voice, what is the audience, what is the business purpose.

"Have it all laid out and share it with your key stakeholders and get everybody on board with the plan, because where we see a lot of risk in communications through change is where people are not on board with the plan. Somebody didn't agree with it. Somebody decided they wanted to put their own spin on it. Somebody wants to decide that actually what leadership was saying wasn't the thing that they were going to say.

"Making a plan, sticking to it, getting everybody on board with it, is really important."

3. Get your story straight and stick to it

Before communicating on a change at your company, make sure you know what the story is, which Channon said should definitely be "close to the truth if not the absolute truth," highlighting the importance of "authenticity and transparency."

"There is no way to hide. So think about your story. Lay out your key messages where you can use the same language over and over and over again. You won't sound like a parrot but you will sound like everyone in the company is on the same page.

"Where employees often feel insecure is where they find nuance, where they are prompted to ask questions because people have embellished something, people have got off track with communications. So get your story straight and stick to it."

4. Consider the needs of your audience

Whatever the message you're delivering is and to whom, Channon said that thinking about what the people you're addressing need is absolutely essential.

"[Our] industry typically has a neurodiverse audience. How might they respond to the channels you are using to communicate?"

"This is really important. Leadership through change is often brilliant at thinking about what the business needs, what the numbers needs, what the investors needs, what finance needs, what they need individually. But you don't necessarily think about what your audience needs. What are their needs through this change? What is going to matter to them? What is important to them? How will they receive these communications?

"We are an industry that typically has a really neurodiverse audience. How might they respond to the channels you are using to communicate? So considering the diversity needs of your audience as well as thinking about how you make your communications transparent, honest, open, authentic, and inclusive is really important."

5. Think about the timings of your comms

Channon added that timing is also key, and there are multiple factors at play here.

"Quite often I see deadlines to deliver change news mid-week, which is great. Then it gets to Thursday, somebody hasn't looked at the talking points, and you get to Friday afternoons, and suddenly because it's Friday afternoon, everybody's had a look and they decided that this is the moment you're going to announce your change... It's a terrible idea.

"And think about where your audience is in the world. Because it might not be Friday afternoon for you, but it might be for your teams in Asia Pacific, who are going into the weekend with a wave of questions and no access to leadership, no access to support services, no access to HR or legal to talk about the effect of this change. So think about when you tell people."

Concluding her talk, Channon recapped the main points:

  • Think about human impact: "It's a lens through which we really do have to think about change. It is so important. Not just from a people perspective but from a business perspective, to consider the human impact."
  • Bring in your communications partner early: "They can do a lot for you, the earlier they come into the partnership, they can help drive your strategy. Ringing them in on the back end to write the words [for] a structure that's already baked... that might be an absolute shit show by the time it gets to the public domain. Bring them in early. The earlier you bring them in the better they can support you."
  • Test the thinking: "Is this really the right thing? Are the motives authentic and is the language right?"
  • Make a plan and stick to it: "Get everybody on board with the plan because if everybody's not okay with the plan, you will see the [cracks] in it and you will see the spaces where people are not aligned. [Be] clear and consistent."
  • Consider your audience: "What do your people need? Not just what does the business need and what does leadership need. But think about everyone everywhere, down to an individual level, and how this will feel for them, how it will look for them, and what the human impact is for what you're doing."

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Marie Dealessandri avatar
Marie Dealessandri: Marie joined in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.
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