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By Marie-Pierre Lalande

Organizational change is one of the greatest challenges an HR director or team will face, and maintaining good employee morale while ensuring the retention of key team members in periods of uncertainty requires a proactive approach.

Employees must be made active players in the changes that affect them – in other words, they must become change agents. In many cases, this will involve HR working hand-in-hand with your company’s communications and executive teams.

Senior management cannot bring about major change alone, and with the era of one-way, “top-down” communications over, the importance of HR in securing the “buy-in” and participation of employees in major change management campaigns has never been greater. The following is a case study from a major, award-winning change management initiative at Laval (Greater Montreal), Quebec-based healthcare company Sanofi Canada, who began a campaign that engaged a total audience of over 425 employees.

Relocation and cultural change

In 2013, the sale of one of its business divisions prompted Sanofi Canada to relocate its headquarters to a new, custom-built office space in Laval’s Biotech City. This move meant much more than a new office space: the company had identified a rare opportunity to completely overhaul its corporate culture and reposition itself to respond to the changing healthcare market.

A primary objective of the relocation and move to an open-plan office became bringing about a transformational change in Sanofi Canada’s culture to embrace collaboration, transparency and innovation. After many years spent in closed “silo” offices, senior management decided that the company would shift towards a state-of-the-art office space where employees would, for the first time, work side by side with their colleagues in an open-concept environment.

Since the mid-2000s, in common with many pharmaceutical companies of similar stature, Sanofi had begun experiencing a series of “patent-cliffs” as its exclusive rights to medicines serving a broad base of the Canadian population began to expire. Challenged by generic versions, the resulting loss in revenues forced downsizing initiatives that resulted in low employee morale, and a monthly attrition rate that peaked at 15 per cent in January of 2012. A proactive change in management strategy needed to be adopted, one with the ultimate objectives of:

a) Preventing turnover as a result of the relocation and fundamental change in work culture

b) Ensuring employees were truly engaged in the change management process

c) Ensuring employees were satisfied with their new work environment

The action plan

In April 2012, as preparations to move offices began, Sanofi Canada welcomed a new president and CEO, Jon Fairest, who on arrival committed senior management to a year-long change management campaign. A Steering Committee with cross-departmental representation was then formed of members of the executive team, HR and communications, and led by Franca Mancino (vice president, Regulatory and Medical Affairs) who together developed a comprehensive, year-long change management strategy to ensure a successful move and cultural change.
Its rollout would empower employees as active players in the change process from the beginning, with Jon Fairest assuming the role of “driver” and change “catalyst.” Employees would be engaged directly at every stage of the transition, and be involved in as many aspects of the decisions related to the new office space as possible.

The tactics
1. Change Ambassadors. Selected from across the organization on the basis of their networks, credibility and capacity to influence, three groups of ten employees became “Change Ambassadors.” Tasked with sharing information about the move with their peers, and providing feedback to the communications and executive team to ensure that all employees concerns and questions were addressed, this tactic engaged employees as active players in the cultural change management process.

2. Open and consistent communication to employees. Strong, regular and transparent communications with employees were maintained before, during and after the change management campaign. All communications with employees were framed within the context of a “new chapter” for the company, and messaging focused on the shared opportunity that stood to benefit all at the company.

When employees were promised information, it was delivered. When feedback arrived, the change management team listened actively to ensure that the change remained inclusive. What it learned influenced decision-making right up to executive level.

3. Employee engagement: getting to know you, employee voting, housewarming. A series of tactics were executed to keep employee engagement high throughout the change management campaign. These included “Getting To Know You” sessions during one breakfast and lunch, in which employees interacted in a 30-second “speed dating” style scenario in order to break the ice and begin the relationships necessary for collaborating in an open-plan office.

Employees were also polled on their preferred choice of work station module, chair, carpet and lighting, with mock sample work stations set up for them to view. On moving day, the company threw a “housewarming” party, with Fairest and other members of senior management welcoming those arriving with bags of special housewarming goodies, and information to help them with orientation on the day.

The move was a great success, and Sanofi Canada was able to keep this initial wave of excitement alive for several weeks with supplemental activities to help employees acclimatize to the change in environment. Eighty-eight per cent of employees polled in post-move survey agreed or strongly agreed that they felt “satisfied with [their] new work environment” and that their “new workplace environment [had] a positive impact on engagement.”

Key learnings for HR pros to successfully navigate change

Carpe diem.

HR must seize the opportunity to forward a positive change agenda for employees when senior management is open to organizational change.

Be proactive.

During periods of major change, HR must take a proactive approach to employee engagement.
Collaboration is key.

HR must work in tandem with leadership and other key corporate departments, including communications, to achieve change objectives.

Marie-Pierre Lalande is director of human resources at Sanofi Canada.

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