5 tips for managing the human side of a restructure

September 14th, 2012 by Julian Corlet

Restructures are an increasingly frequent reality of corporate life. As a line manager, it's easy to feel powerless and not only do you have your own fate to worry about, but the fate of your team members too. On the other hand, it's a situation where you can make a real difference in the lives of your team. If this is the situation that's facing you, here are some tips for navigating the murky waters ahead. 

#1 Now more than ever, keep the lines of communication open.

I can't stress this enough - one-on-one discussions are key in this process. If at all possible, they should take place in a private setting. If that's not practical, identify early on whether your team member wants to open up and if so, suggest going for a coffee, or even a walk around the block.

Give every team member an opportunity to speak openly about how they're feeling. In my experience, while most people are happy to stick to the usual lines of discussion in their one-on-one, each week someone different will want to talk on a more personal level.

Be prepared for one or two team members needing far more support than the rest of team. Restructures can be deeply traumatic and can come along at precisely the wrong time such as when starting a family or applying for residency. Be sure to set aside enough time for these cases and strongly encourage the team member to take advantage of whatever programs and assistance HR are providing.

Finding out if a team member wants to share is straightforward. Just ask how they're doing, and ask it in a way that lets them know you're not just exchanging pleasantries.

#2 Provide the direction your team is looking to you for.

There's a middle ground between staunchly toeing the company line and joining in solidarity with your team as they side against management. In fact, your team doesn't actually want you to sit at either end of this spectrum. You're their line of communication with upper management and they'll be looking to you to make sense of the situation and provide them with what information is available.

There will be rumours and pieces of misinformation flying around and you'll need to address them. If you don't know the answer in a situation, raise it up the line or with HR and provide whatever information is appropriate to share back to your team.

#3 Everyone deals with change differently. Adjust your management style as needed. 

For some team members, a restructure is a disaster. For others, it's an opportunity. Some team members will withdraw from actively engaging with the team, others will want to do little else. Be extra sensitive to how your team members are reacting (this comes back to the first point about regular communication). If needed, be prepared to gently step in where that reaction is counter-productive for the team member, their colleagues or the organisation.

#4 Restructures are a productivity suck. Plan for this.

While the drama of the restructure plays out, the day-to-day responsibilities of your team will still need to carry on. However, you need to be realistic about the fact that productivity is going to drop. Absenteeism levels will rise and most people's minds (possibly yours included!) will focus as much on the contents of their CVs as the contents of their inbox.

The best you can do is plan for this. Look at what your team is committed to delivering in the near term and be sure you have coverage for those activities that are most critical.

#5 Dealing with the aftermath

In time, the restructure will draw to a close and life for the organisation will continue. By definition however, things will be different. Some close colleagues will be gone, and for those that remain there will be a period of adjustment. Some common feelings in this situation are:

Guilt: Some people will wonder why they were spared in a restructure when perhaps a colleague that they held in particularly high esteem wasn't so fortunate. This is commonly referred to as 'survivor guilt'.

Resentment: Others will feel betrayed by the company.

Alienation: Many people will have reflected deeply on what they want out of life and their careers during the restructure. Some will conclude that their future lies elsewhere and are now marking time, deciding what comes next.

It helps to look for signs of these emotions and acknowledge that they are legitimate reactions. Beyond that, my advice for this period is similar to that for during the restructure. Specifically, keep in close contact with the team and give them the opportunity to talk through what they're feeling.

Restructures are never an easy time for a team or organisation, but with the right approach you can make a bigger difference for your team than possibly at any other time.

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Julian Corlet is the founder of Reportify, a web-based status reporting tool. Julian's background is in the Telecommunications industry where he spent 15 years in management and technical roles prior to founding Reportify in 2012. Reportify was built to address shortcomings with existing approaches to the creation and collation of team status reports. You can follow Julian on Twitter @reportify.