The changes that large insurance brokers have to face due to digitalization are manifold. Processes, products, closing routes are becoming digital, the daily work in the operating departments is changing fundamentally. How can employees be supported in these changes through communication? Which support is helpful? And by whom and how?

These questions as well as challenges and avoidable mistakes were discussed by Marco Edel, member of the management board at the insurance broker GGW and responsible for the operations of GGW, and Marcus Warnke, member of the management board at mgm consulting partners and expert for organisational development. Toni Klein moderated the discussion.

Marco, how did you communicate within your organization at the beginning of the Corona lockdown?

Marco Edel: We connected via a telco and gave all employees clear rules on how we conduct ourselves here. We have also shown which rules apply to employees who come from other countries such as Austria, for example, and who are to be quarantined. How are we positioned, what measures are taken, how can all employees move to the home office. That was an unpleasant context, I must admit. But it was important for us to signal to our employees: We have the situation under control. It was our intention to give everyone a feeling of security.

How exactly did you do that?

Marco Edel: This change came quickly, but it didn’t happen overnight; we prepared it in the management circle. In the end, communication to all employees was done via telephone conferences, e-mail and personal meetings. We are positioned throughout Germany. One person can cope with an e-mail, another needs the personal word. Just as it is in the business world, communication cannot be viewed one-sidedly, but multiplies with each participant.

Back to the topic of long-lasting change processes. Marcus, do you have a mantra for yourself when it comes to change in organizations?

Marcus Warnke: The most important thing is: You cannot communicate too much. When I talk to managers about important or difficult and painful change processes, I always try to communicate: If it’s already hanging out of their mouths because it’s been told so many times before, then at least three more times. That is such a mantra for me.

If it’s already hanging out of their mouths because it’s been told so many times before, then at least three more times.

Marco said that too. On the one hand it has to do with the fact that repeated information gives confidence. On the other hand it has to do with the fact that everyone takes up different information. Some people can translate a pictorial address for themselves, others need the personal conversation, and third parties are more likely to experience this when they notice that more attention is paid to certain things and they get feedback on certain behaviour or non-behaviour. Everyone is different.

It is important to make the changes tangible. That’s why it is so important that communication must be thought consistently and designed consistently with one another. People notice inconsistencies strongly, especially in situations of change, even in the unsettling Corona time at the moment. As soon as communication leaves room for interpretation or is inconsistent, most people ask themselves: What does this mean now? I thought it meant something else. What is important, therefore, is the diversity of paths. Variety of communications. Consistency of story, of narrative, of content.

How will the changes brought about by digitalisation at GGW look in the coming months and years? How do you intend to deal with it communicatively internally?

Marco Edel: For us, the topic of digitisation goes hand in hand with a complete reorientation in strategic aspects that affect the entire company and in which we communicate the project plans drawn up together with mgm. We actively involve all employees, so that we were able to quickly reduce initial fears of contact. Nevertheless, it only affects a part of the company.

The areas for which I myself am responsible will come into contact with it when we go into the individual business areas and divisions, see what can be segmented, what can be schematized. This will also have an impact on the processes and procedures that the employees have on their desk every day. What this means in concrete terms for the individual employee is not yet clear. Nor can it yet! The topic of digitization is a bit boundless and will be a permanent topic, not just a single project. Every employee has an idea of what it will mean for him or her and also of his or her worries and needs.

Concrete things will manifest themselves in the continuing project plan, in which we want to involve the employees and actively increase communication. We do this in part through such conversations as we are having now with you and Marcus. We have also thought about making round tables, where we meet in a relaxed atmosphere in the meeting room. On a quarterly basis, where every employee is invited to ask questions directly and express their concerns and wishes.

In addition, we try to have as few selective communication channels as possible, where information is reserved for managers, for example, or where only certain employees receive it. Instead, we want to act in an open and transparent manner.

I believe that every person carries the basic need for security in their DNA.

Security is important for us. We also carry this in our company slogan: “Feel security”. That is what we promise our customers. Internally, we are also measured by this. I believe that every person carries the basic need for security in their DNA. And that often makes them cling to structures and conditions, even if they are already nonsensical or no longer optimal. If we manage to establish a new state of security and confidence, then everyone will be happy and curious about the topic.

What mistakes should a company avoid in the dialogue between management and employees?

Marcus Warnke: There are two fundamental mistakes that can be made, but they can also simply be avoided.

One fundamental mistake is to convey security in places where you don’t have it yourself. Marco said that yes, it is a journey and it is also ongoing. And it will bring changes along the way you go. That’s why it would be a mistake to claim that we already know exactly what this means for each individual employee in three years’ time. It would be a mistake to make promises when you don’t even know what this journey will mean for each individual employee in three years’ time. That would certainly be a mistake.

The second, avoidable mistake is to withhold information. Of course, situations do arise, for example when it comes to restructuring, where there are legal issues, including labour law. In such cases, thoughts arise about the fact that you want to give people certain things in advance in an informative way. But then that is not possible. Even if a company is sold, there are legal limits that must be observed when it comes to communication. There is no question that this is something you have to pay attention to.

On the other hand, there is a lot that can be shared and should be shared communicatively. And this is where managers are particularly important, because they are ultimately the ones who have the responsibility in a company to give employees orientation: What is important? What will we do? What is important? What does that mean for you? What do I, as a manager, expect from you as a team leader how you deal with your people? If these questions are answered, then it is also easier for many people to deal with this unsettling encounter with the new and the unappreciated.

Marco Edel: I think you are addressing something important. Namely, that you should inform managers quickly and promptly. The practical problem is, as I sometimes find out, that situations occur reminding me of that children’s game of “Chinese whispers”.

One manager informs his team in a completely different way than the other manager because other things are important to him or because he can communicate in a completely different way. That is indeed a great challenge. The larger the company becomes, the more central communication should be, so that the word said or the understanding of the word or the language can be directly and immediately understood. It sounds incredibly big to play this. I also don’t believe that you can achieve this perfectly, but that it can be a key to success.

I believe that you have to support managers in doing things that are not so familiar to them.

Marcus Warnke: Yes and no. In leadership there is also a relationship. It is a leadership relationship and everyone ticks a little differently, every manager works a little differently. Employees are used to how the manager interacts.

I believe that you have to support managers in doing things that are not so familiar to them. So concretely, maybe telling a bit more. Or if they have a more personal style of leadership, to put things down with hard facts. That is important. At the same time, it is also necessary that people remain authentic in the way they deal with their employees. We all have a very fine feeling for this: But it’s quite funny, don’t you think, it’s so completely different than before. That stirs up mistrust.

And yes, you’re also right. Of course you have to take these movements into account when designing the communication process. That’s why I say: variety of communication paths. It’s not just a matter of the manager transmitting something, but also visualizing it. There is a method called dialogue picture. It is well suited for this. You work for a long time to create a picture, also with the managers, of what the future looks like. And you can enter into a dialogue about this picture. That is one possibility.

Another is that you also visualize, i.e. show, what you are doing in the project, including the changes. Either virtually in corresponding virtual boards, or, if you have a large office where many people come together, in a central location. Everyone can see what is happening in the project, where you are and perhaps also what questions you are currently dealing with. The process can be experienced in this way. In this way it is possible to cushion the individuality of managers to a certain extent.

Authenticity must be preserved and this cannot be adapted from above to every area and every subculture in a company.

Marco Edel: I completely agree with you. Authenticity must be preserved and this cannot be adapted from above to every area and every subculture in a company.

Marcus Warnke: I would like to add one more point. When you make big changes, the way in which this change process is lived is at least as important as what the content is about.

Ideally, such processes should be designed in such a way that what you would like to see in the future is already exemplified in the culture of interaction, leadership, cooperation and participation. And thus makes it something you can experience. For me, that is the fine art of such processes. And that is particularly important and coherent, especially with digitalization.

Shall we talk again in six months’ time and look back and forward to see how things are going at GGW?

Marco Edel: Yes, we can agree on that very much. We are still at the very beginning of the digitisation and change project, at least in our strategy. And we are very curious. I look forward to talking to you again when half a year is up. By then we will have had the first hopefully good and perhaps also some bad experiences of perhaps not implementing things so well.

Marcus Warnke: Very much with pleasure. GGW is embarking on an exciting journey towards digital transformation. Along the way, it will show what works and what it takes in communication to take all those involved along well.  It is helpful and creates additional trust in the change process if it is reflected and adapted transparently at an appropriate rhythm.

Many thanks for the interview!

Discussion partners:

Marco Edel, who has been with GGW for 15 years, originally comes from process business development theory. At GGW, he is responsible for all processing divisions, i.e. the individual operating departments. As a member of the Management Board, he is largely responsible for communication within the framework of strategy and change.

Marcus Warnke has been advising companies for over 25 years and supports people and organisations in change processes. Behind this is organisational development, i.e. the development of leadership, organisational structures and processes – and also taking into account corporate culture and the “taking people along”. The latter is of great importance to him and shapes his consulting activities.

Marco and Marcus also wrote the article “Digitalization of the insurance industry: Finally more time for consulting!”