Change Management Strategies For Getting Back To Work: 10 Ways To Ensure Success

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The coronavirus pandemic has thrust every business and leader into a situation of managing change and thinking about how to get people on board for what comes next. In retrospect, the giant social experiment in which organizations suddenly sent everyone home was the easy part. The bigger challenge will be to bring people back to the workplace—because nothing will be the same in the short term—and perhaps not in the longer term either.

At its core, change management principles are solid and they apply in multiple situations. Providing a vision for the future, engaging people, reducing perceived costs of a change—all of these make sense and are so foundational they cannot be wrong. And yet, the pandemic has turned everything upside down, so the change management associated with how people will come back to the office requires a new view, new practices and new expectations.

Here’s what’s changed about change management, and what to do about it:

Messaging And Motivation

The why. Motivating people to change requires you provide a compelling “why”, and this will be especially critical as you bring people back to the office. The barriers that kept companies from allowing people to work from home have been decimated and many teams have proven their work can be done quite successfully without commutes, campuses or conference rooms. But as the saying goes, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.” At the same time the work can get done outside the office, physical places also provide critical benefits for people. They satisfy the human need to connect, build energy through co-creation, provide for memory and reflection, reinforce shared purpose and so much more. Communicate your why based on the mission of your overall business, the value you create for your customers and how people’s work contributes to these. Be clear about how the change—bringing people back to the office—matters to all elements of your why. People must understand and appreciate these to be motivated to change.

Vision. Another critical element of managing change successfully is creating a compelling vision of the future. Your vision should include, but go beyond your why and focus on the future, painting a vivid—and hopefully optimistic—picture of what people can expect. While none of us has a crystal ball, it may help to use the design thinking concepts of “now, near and far.” Provide a view of what will happen in the short-term of the now, the medium-term of the near and the longer-term of the far. It may also help to consider a pre-vaccine future and a post-vaccine future. The clarity you can provide may be greater in the short-term pre-vaccine future, but the optimism you are able to supply may be greater for the far, post-vaccine world. Inform your messaging with both. 

Expectations. People don’t trust what they don’t understand. The challenges for the pre-vaccine return to the workplace is people will be coming back to something completely different than what they knew before. How they get to the office, how they enter the building, how many people can ride the elevator, where they work throughout the day, whether they have food service and even how many people can access the restroom will be different. Give people as many details as possible about what to expect and help them understand how their work will be accomplished under new conditions.

The costs. A fundamental truth in change management is people will not be motivated to change if they perceive the costs of changing to be greater than the benefits of staying the same. You’ll need to reassure people about how you’re protecting them and ensuring their health and safety. Perception is reality, so messaging will be important, but what people can sense and see will be even more critical. When they enter the building will it smell clean? Will they see cleaning crews working regularly? Will they experience signage that guides them in social distancing? Ensure you’re reducing the risks people face coming back—both real and perceived.

Focusing On People

Choice and control. People don’t resist change; they resist being changed. And they need to be empowered to make their own decisions following the pandemic even more so than through other transitions. Employees will have varying levels of comfort with coming back to the office. They’ll be concerned with everything from their own health and the health of those close to them to whether they’ll be able to see, hear and communicate adequately while wearing a mask. Give people as many options as possible about when and how they come back. Also, be clear about whether employees’ jobs demand their presence, and the consequences if they choose not to return—so they can make informed decisions.

Engagement. While a lot of the guidelines or protocols you’re putting in place may be federally or state-mandated and therefore require leadership decision making, remember to engage people as much as possible. Consider how you might involve people in creating responses and solutions. The “what” may be mandated, but you may be able to give people a chance to influence the “how.” Temperature checks may be required for entry to the building, but employees could provide input on whether there are staggered start times or multiple check locations. Give people the chance to work on a task force or respond to a survey about how things get done. You clearly can’t give everyone a vote but give them a voice where possible.

Behaviors. Of course, it’s easier to make rules than it is to get people to follow them. As you’re developing new protocols, give thought to what will motivate employees to buy-in and act in new ways. They will likely be good corporate citizens and do their best to follow requirements, but the way to get people committed and motivated is through their connection to others. Help people understand how the rules contribute to a colleague’s wellbeing or a teammate’s grandmother’s health. Our humanity and responsibility to each other are the best motivators.

Empathy. Overall, people want to know you care. Ensure you’re delivering messages with compassion and empathy. Remember it’s not just about sharing facts, figures or new procedures. It’s also about the extent to which people feel you’re supporting them—not just in the office but throughout their whole work experience. Attend to people’s physical, cognitive and emotional wellbeing and safety. Also, be patient with people. When they are under stress, people are rarely at their best and more conflict may occur. Be firm about the values that guide how people interact with each other, but within these, give people time and grace as we’re all learning together. There will be bad days, good days and better days.

Value. Let people know they are valued. Some companies are making the mistake of inviting people back to the office based on who is “essential” or “nonessential” in their business. What they mean, of course, is whether people’s essential work must be accomplished in the office. Be sure your messaging reinforces everyone’s value. Rather than an “A” group and a “B” group who are invited back (who wants to be a “B player”?), one company is using colors: the “blue group” or the “yellow group.” Avoid the unintended messages that may cause people to feel like “haves” or “have-nots.”  

Culture Is Key

Culture. Organizational culture is “the way things get done around here” and “what people do when no one is looking.” It is context for people’s actions and decisions and one of the most significant competitive advantages you have. People can copy your marketing or your product, and they can access your customers, but it’s nearly impossible to mirror your culture. The way you the way you lead the change will both reflect and shape your culture. It will matter if you are heavy-handed and authoritarian in your leadership approach or are short-sighted and narrow-minded in your decisions. And it will matter if you demonstrate you value people and balance the needs of the business, or if you engage people and enhance their trust.

The uncertainty and volatility of the pandemic could lead you to act in a way that isn’t your best, but the choices that guide the organization through this change will have an incredible long-term influence. Your character is demonstrated through difficult times and company culture is similar. The window to your organization’s values, integrity and its leaders’ ability to navigate this crisis will have a lasting impact. It’s a lot of pressure, yes, but it’s also a lot of opportunity to influence a bright future.

Managing change is tricky, but rarely more challenging than when the whole world is changing at the same time. Clarify your why, communicate your compelling vision and set clear expectations for people. Reduce the real and perceived costs of change and provide choice and control for employees. Engage people and motivate them based on their relationships with each other. Ensure you’re demonstrating empathy and valuing people and recognize how your actions and decisions will impact your culture. Change management is hard. It will continue to be hard. But done well, it is an unmatched opportunity to motivate people and create a positive future for your company.

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