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How to Communicate Changes to Expense Management

Brink's Money

26 May 2021

A few years ago, a Silicon Valley startup decided to take its executives’ vegetarianism company-wide. Meat products were pulled from the cafeteria, and employees could no longer expense any meals that contained meat.

Years before that, the BBC stopped serving biscuits (or cookies, to the American audience) at internal meetings, saving more than $300,000 a year.

If your first thoughts were, “But I should be able to order a burger if I want,” or “I’d sure miss those cookies,” you understand the challenge of change management. What executives perceive as a strong ethical stance or meaningful cost savings can feel like forced morality or stinginess.

Only one quarter of transformation efforts are “very or completely successful.” Additionally, some 73% of change-affected employees report moderate to high stress levels, performing 5% worse than the average employee. 

Changes to expense management are especially tricky. You’re having a direct impact on the availability of or accountability for a financial perk.

So how do you get change management right? More than 50,000 books on Amazon—to say nothing of the countless articles and social media tidbits around the web—have tried to answer the question.

Before you make new rules or transition to a new expense management system, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Know—and communicate—where the change fits into your company vision

In isolation, almost any change can seem unnecessary or even hostile. Consider the removal of cookies from meetings. Are employers merely robbing employees of a small pleasure? How much could such a tiny change really save?

The decision to do so, however, was part of the BBC’s bigger project to reduce costs, resulting in a total savings of nearly $3 million per year. Wrapped in a narrative of “securing the financial future of the BBC,” the loss of cookies feels more like a noble sacrifice—one that employees might rally around.

Those who’ve studied change management identify five major narratives (“quests”) into which almost any change-management initiative falls:

  1. Global presence. Extending market reach and becoming more international.
  2. Customer focus. Providing enhanced insights, experiences, or outcomes.
  3. Nimbleness. Accelerating processes or simplifying how work gets done.
  4. Innovation. Incorporating ideas and approaches from fresh sources.
  5. Sustainability. Becoming greener and more socially responsible.

For business expenses, nimbleness may be the most intuitive narrative, but it varies based on the company. If you’re a manufacturer of biodegradable utensils, moving away from a paper-based system of expense management may align closely with a core company value of sustainability.

Ideally, the researchers note, the change should be “a compelling and uncontested priority.” If, by contrast, a proposed change feels like an add-on, employees may craft their own reasons. A change that feels like a personal loss or, simply, extra work, will struggle to earn buy-in.

Identifying a small group of internal advocates can help.

Start small and recruit internal champions, no matter their title

Whether we wanted it or not, 2020 gave us all an accelerated course in change management. The urgent, non-negotiable shift to remote work and video conferencing pushed many otherwise plodding organizations to find quick solutions—or suffer.

Some of the most recent research, as a result, has highlighted less structured, more agile methods of change management.

Traditional change management, for example, does recognize that top-level executives aren’t always the best leaders for such initiatives. Successful companies often find influential mid-level managers to champion a cause. But the process still tasks the C-suite with the identification of those people.

The agile approach goes further, encouraging companies to foster grassroots efforts. For example, if a small sales team has already demonstrated enthusiasm for new sales software, they may be the perfect group to pilot the digitalization of expense management.

Who better than employees’ peers to proactively identify concerns and help translate benefits?

Plenty of SaaS products take this very approach—via a freemium model—to sell their product. Products are free up to a certain number of users, making it easy for a small group of early adopters to explore a product, build new processes, and become a de facto internal sales team.

The grassroots approach can solve multiple change-management challenges, which, research has shown, is the overriding key to success.

Treat change management as a thousand-piece puzzle

McKinsey, whose research showed that three in four transformation efforts fall short, identifies 24 actions to guide a successful change-management process.

Which action is most important? More actions. As they found, no single action ensures success—success correlates with completing more total actions.

Actions are statements like, “Everyone can see how his or her work relates to organization’s vision,” or “Initiatives were led by line managers as part of their day-to-day responsibilities.” 

These ideas aren’t surprising, but it’s easy to see how companies could gloss over one (or 10) without a checklist in front of them. Managing so many tasks may seem daunting, but more tasks mean more check-ins, more conversations, and more feedback—all of which increase the chances of success.

As Boston Consulting Group partners identified, “Duration,” one of four key factors in change management, hinges on the amount of time between project milestones, not the absolute project length.

This is good news, especially for companies that follow other tenets of a modern approach to change management.

Putting it all together

You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to know which language will resonate with hundreds or thousands of employees when switching to a new expense processing system or setting new limits on client meals.

Instead, you can pitch the “why”—the overarching narrative—to a pilot group of internal influencers. Let them test new systems, checking in frequently to see which challenges and benefits, expected or unexpected, they encounter.

You’ll find more blind spots and share the burden of developing a persuasive internal campaign. You’ll also have a much better chance at being one of those rare 26% of companies with a successful rollout—even if you can’t celebrate with a free biscuit.

Wondering how an expense management solution aligns with your company’s “quest”? Learn more about Brink’s Business Expense.

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