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When we talk about ‘redesigning work’, what we’re really talking about is the concept of change. For many, the notion can be a daunting one. Over the past few years, it’s likely that at least some of the changes experienced within the workplace have been rapid, unexpected and – in many cases – devastating.

To witness the effects of redesigning work in a very public way, we need only look at social media. The likes of Twitter and Meta recently implemented massive change within their ranks. For workers, this meant huge slashes to headcounts. For some at the now Elon Musk-owned Twitter, this change was discovered only when attempting to log-in for the day to find they’d been locked out, inevitably meaning redundancy was on the cards.

NBCUniversal is a huge business with a lot of heritage and to stay on top, we have to be agile. That means being open to change. However, implementing change is only possible with the investment of your people.

It isn’t just at firms going through giant disruption in which change seems like a nerve-wracking prospect. According to Gartner, around 81% of workers actively fear the concept of their work life changing, and just 31% feel that they are capable of responding well to the changes within their companies.

Yet of course, it’s inescapable. Change is the new constant. A huge 96% of firms are undergoing some form of internal transformation right now, and within the past 24 months, half have finished at least one transformation journey, according to reporting by McKinsey. The issue, though, is not the change itself: it’s that many firms are simply implementing change in the wrong way. From not communicating properly, to ignoring the employee perspective in the process, or simply not having a strong enough culture to thrive in a time of change, it seems that the majority aren’t capable of redesigning their processes without losing their people along the way. Unsurprisingly, research by Deakin University in Austria ascertained that as many as 80% of internal change initiatives fail.

 

Change is inevitable, disillusionment is not


So, it’s safe to say while organisational change is guaranteed, it’s also, and equally, not well received by workers. As the owners of internal change, this is a big issue for HR. This begs the question, how do we maintain the level of change and transformation needed within working life, while keeping employees happy? The answer, says Allan Gibson, HR Director at multinational media juggernaut NBCUniversal, comes down to the very core of who you are as a business: humanity, empathy, collaboration and authenticity.

“NBCUniversal is a huge business with a lot of heritage and to stay on top, we have to be agile. That means being open to change. However, implementing change is only possible with the investment of your people. If you aren’t taking them with you on the journey that you’re on, you’re doomed to fail,” Gibson tells myGrapevine magazine.

Gibson speaks from hard-honed experience; following a long career in HR, he took his role within NBCUniversal during the tail end of the pandemic, in the summer of 2021. Early in his tenure, the business was tasked with making key decisions about its future, which included redesigning the experience of many of its staff. However, he says, what underpinned every part of the process was constant and open communication.

Return to the not-so-normal


A prime example, he says, was the company’s return to the office.

“We decided that we wanted to operate in a hybrid model, and completely redesigned our London office, along with some changes in the US and Singapore, installing hotdesking and collaboration areas. However, in no way was that simply sprung upon our workers. The first step in that process was proactively preparing people by telling them as early as possible that change was coming. That was quickly followed by, ‘How can we support you in this change?’ and ‘How do you feel about this change?’

Anyone is welcome to challenge what’s happening in the company. I love that people feel empowered to do that.

“We weren’t looking to simply throw change at them, we eased them in, and maintained a constant dialogue, as we knew it could be anxiety-inducing.”

“It was very much adult-to-adult,” he adds. “We were transparent about what was happening. We said we felt like the office was a place of valuable collaboration, and built a structure that we felt worked. But we said to everyone, regardless of who you are, this isn’t the end of the conversation. If there’s anything further to discuss, if you’re worried, by all means let’s have that conversation. Let’s continue to talk. If there’s something we can do for you, you tell us and we’ll do it.”

 
 

Speak up and be heard


This reciprocal dialogue is a constant theme throughout the company’s decision-making process. Workers are not only encouraged to give input on any change that may be undertaken, but also to actively table it themselves. Gibson says that, regardless of who raises the idea, they will be listened to.

“Anyone is welcome to challenge what’s happening in the company. I love that people feel empowered to do that as, that’s where good ideas come from, but it also takes some guts to question a practice which is potentially decades old, and to present a better solution.”

The concept of bottom-up change initiatives is far from theoretical. Gibson states that there are numerous cases in which a suggestion from an employee has led to the redesign of pre-existing initiatives. For example, he shared that currently, an idea that was raised by a member of NBCUniversal’s sales team (who read it in an article) is in the process of being implemented.

“The idea went from an informal chat, to a formal chat, and I'm now engaging with our employment lawyers and our compensation and benefits teams to implement it, and even improve upon it. From something as simple as an employee seeing something in an article, it could now have a significant effect for many employees across the UK. Fantastic!”


There is an ethos within the company of ‘fail well’. If something doesn’t go well, what have you learned from it?


 

Communication and making change happen


It’s clear, when talking to Gibson about the effect that open dialogue has had on NBCUniversal’s ability to be agile and to manage change, that he considers this among the company’s best attributes.

He’s right to be proud of it; it is in fact a rare trait. According to data from financial services firm Aon, 83% of employees feel they are not heard ‘fairly or equally’ while just under half (46%) believe underrepresented voices are not effectively listened to. A further 60% believe their views and opinions are ignored in the workplace.

This feeling of being not only ignored, but actively side-lined in the decision-making process, is fundamentally responsible for much of the anxiety employees feel around change. And, once an employee feels this way, it’s very hard to regain their investment. Gibson admits that one of the biggest issues in creating reciprocal dialogue is that it takes constant upkeep, which many companies simply aren’t willing to maintain.

“I often see people doing annual or bi-annual people surveys, and then it goes into a drawer and it’s never heard of again,” he says. “What we do is keep that conversation as a constant. We hold regular focus groups, we do pulse surveys, and of course, nothing beats a good heart-to-heart. From that comes many, many ideas.”

Yet simply listening isn’t enough, says Gibson: if employees don’t see their views being put into action, they’ll slowly stop communicating.

“It’s so easy to lose people. I make sure that after we gain insight, I explain exactly what’s going to come of it. I’ll jump on a townhall and say, ‘We heard you, this is what we’re going to focus on, and this is what we’re going to park for now but address in the future’. People can see that our culture of active listening has outcomes. Things will change based on what they consider to be a priority,” he says.

About NBCUniversal


Owned by: Comcast

Headquarters: 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, United States

CEO: Jeff Shell

Founded: August 2, 2004

Employees: More than 35,000

Divisions: NBCUniversal News Group, NBCUniversal Television and Streaming, Universal Pictures, Universal Studio Group, Advertising & Partnerships

Also owns: Dreamworks, Focus Features, Hayu, Bravo, E!, NBC news, MSNBC, Universal Studios resorts and lots more.

Origins: Roots back to Revue Studios, founded in 1943

 
 

If you fail, fail well


Whilst NBCUniversal’s approach is considered, Gibson is quick to note that this doesn’t mean that everything is always a win. The robust process the company has in place to ensure that the maximum number of people have an input on any key decision-making isn’t free of risk. However, it’s culturally inbuilt that unsuccessful change is not a cardinal sin, so long as lessons are learned. This is as true for HR as it is for all employees.

“There is an ethos within the company of ‘fail well’. If something doesn’t go well, what have you learned from it? What are we going to do better next time? How do we use this failure to our own advantage? Every failure is a huge learning opportunity,” he says, adding that it’s a testament to the company’s culture that this leads to hearty debate, without resorting to confrontation.

“There’s a real difference between a culture that can spawn healthy debates, and one that simply leads to people talking over one another and arguing. You need to have a very solid culture of respect and acceptance to be able to disagree, but do it in the right way. We get that right, and it allows us to collaborate and connect in ways that other companies can’t. That’s a real secret to being able to bring about successful change.”

 

Even if we have to make hard decisions, we’ll always put our people first.


The more things change, the more they stay the same


To say that NBCUniversal has undergone significant change over its lifespan is, to be frank, a huge understatement. Gibson himself sates that some ex-employees may not even recognise many of the company’s current inner mechanics.

“We aren’t the same business we were a decade ago, or even a year ago. We’re constantly evolving,” he says.

Yet, on top of clear communication, acting upon employee guidance, and of course a culture that embraces agility, Gibson has one last parting fundamental that he believes is vital.

“We never want to surprise anyone in a way that affects their core values,” he explains. “The concept of who we are is so essential. People need to know that working for NBC Universal means that while change might happen, and we may revise our practices, they can count on us continuing to put our core values at the heart of everything we do. That also means that they know that they’ll be taken care of, no matter what. Even if we have to make hard decisions, we’ll always put our people first.”

And that, kids, is a change management wrap.

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