While not all organizations may be change mature, it’s important for all organizations to be honest about the impact of change and expectations on the employee.
Understanding the Impact
Many organizations understand Change Management to include communications and “how to’s” deployed to educate employees on the new norms. Although there is a place for this on many projects, this is a common misconception about the role and scope change management experts play in transformation projects. A workplace transformation project includes not only a change in the physical work environment, but also requires a new way of working for the employees. While not all organizations may be change mature, it’s important for all organizations to be honest about the impact of change and expectations on the employee. It’s just as important to engage a change management team early in the process, so organizations don’t find themselves trying to throw money at the problem to remediate a failing workplace transformation project.
When starting any project, it is easy to stumble into a conversation about what is changing without appropriately evaluating why it is changing. Understanding the current state before diving into solutions for the future state will help an organization identify the actual behaviors that need to change for the project to succeed. Developing this understanding is part of conducting the change impact assessment. As per the ACMP’s Standard for Change Management the definition of a change impact assessment is an in-depth, research driven document which outlines “How people, processes, technology and the workplace are affected during the transition from the current state to the future state”. Not only is the change impact assessment an integral part of the project due diligence, but it also helps an organization anticipate ups and downs, helps change practitioners develop strategies with a history of success and helps employees feel like they are truly supported.
Charles Kettering was incredibly insightful when he said, “people are very open-minded about new things, as long as they’re exactly like the old ones.” It is natural for people to want to see ‘the familiar’ in any change, as it provides a sense of psychological safety. In 2015, Google released the results of a two-year internal study which found that teams with higher rates of perceived psychological safety were better than other teams at implementing diverse ideas and driving high performance. If performance is dependent on a change in behavior, then psychological safety is a requirement. Instead of trying to get employees open-minded about the ‘new’ workplace model consider getting them open-minded about the limitations of their existing workplace model first.
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We were engaged on a workplace transformation project where our client had gone through a comprehensive workplace strategy process to determine their future space and people strategy. This strategy, aligned to the company’s vision and goals, set the course for how the organization would be growing, and supported how employees do their best work.
As we started our change management assessment for the project, we found that the average satisfaction ratings of the existing workplace and its conditions garnered no less than 3.2 out of 5. It was clear that employees were already pleased with the space they had and were uninterested in any degree in change, both operationally and in their physical workplace. Rumors were already spreading about the change amongst employees and talks about recent publications on ‘open plan’ and ‘alternative workstyles’ were brewing.
There was a desire to jump in, be reactive and begin communicating the benefits of their future workplace such as increased collaboration, community and happy employees. These benefits, while a feel-good story, wouldn’t justify the shift in workplace strategy because employees were already happy and felt engaged in their current environment. Furthermore, these benefits revealed nothing about the actual impact to staff day to day—what staff had to think, feel and do differently in order to realize these benefits. Therefore, rather than being reactive we began by hosting casual roundtables with employees to ask questions such as:
- When you get stuck on a work-related task, who do you go to?
- Who do you speak to for advice?
- Do you receive more helpful responses from people via email, in person, meetings, phone?
- Why do you share the information the way you do? Has it always been that way?
- What does innovation look like? How does it happen?
- If you had a great idea about a new service offering who would you speak to?
- How many people have overheard a conversation from the next cubicle? What was the conversation about?
- Do you think your cubicle neighbor would have overheard your conversations?
- Tell me about the different private & confidential conversations you need to have throughout your day.
Through these extensive roundtables, along with the data collected during the workplace strategy process, the team gained insight into the existing ways employees utilized their space. Their interactions and these findings informed our impact and change readiness assessments. In their book ‘Emotional Intelligence 2.0’ (2009), Jean Greaves and Travis Bradberry state that just learning about emotional intelligence makes you more emotionally intelligent. Similarly, discussing the existing workplace environment ignited employee’s brains to create new neural pathways which allowed them to be in a heightened state to consider new ways of working and exercise new understandings. In this roundtable, employees were given an opportunity to question what their best work looks like and how an ideal way of working could be reimagined. The Charles Kettering quote referenced earlier certainly applied in this scenario, as employees were not convinced that the ‘old’ ways of working made sense any longer nor did they align to how they actually wanted to work moving forward. It was no longer a question of new v. old, but the result of providing employees adequate information, business impacts, and introducing activities not only informed by practice but tailored to each developing workstream which allowed individuals to begin their change journey with an opened mind.
Furthermore, we equipped employees with new language to discuss the change; both reflectively and with fellow employees. The link between language and both psychology and behavior is evident in multiple studies, “our words create our world…changing that can change everything” (Denise Fournier, 2019). Rather than allowing the rumor mill to overwhelm the conversation we encouraged discussion about what works and what does not work in the existing workplace as well as encouraged a shift from ‘I should do’ to ‘I choose to do’. This practice is often known as brain-based coaching and when given the opportunity, can do wonders in influencing lasting change in at organization.
Assessing Change Readiness/Psychological Safety
The Einstellung Effect is the development of a mechanized state of mind. “It is the state where a person chooses to solve a problem in the same way they are used to even when a better or more appropriate method of solving the problem exist” (McCullen, 2018). In her Forbes article, ‘The Hidden Cost of Operating On Auto Pilot’ Margie Warrell shares that while there is a benefit to operating on auto pilot there is also incredible risk. ‘Mindless’ decisions can have a big impact on the trajectory of our careers and shape of our lives. The power of the ‘familiar’ in influencing our everyday decisions and of our psychological safety is strong.
This perception of psychological safety and the Einstellung Effect are often the two most difficult obstacles for any organizations to overcome and doing so requires organizations to trust that their engaged change management team understands their business intimately. When employees feel that their needs are heard and understood it allows for open communication and greater understanding of change and alignment. As referenced above, the roundtable discussions tend to spend a lot of time discussing inconsistencies between perception and reality. Cubicle walls give the perception of privacy, when the reality is that most conversations can be audibly distinguishable by neighbors regardless of cubicle height.
The way we work today is changing. Even though the world is getting faster, we still need time to process new ideas and understandings. Workplace transformation projects can be long endeavors which can add stress and strain to employees who may be negatively impacted by a longer commute or a change in routine. During these stressful times it is key to have a plan in place which individuals can refer to and see where they are in the process, and appropriately plan any personal impacts. It is of great importance to make sure we don’t only focus on where we are going but where we’ve been. This is the greatest insight that a change impact assessment and comprehensive change strategy provides. It is a holistic report which includes documentation of employee’s current mindset and workstreams, the business-driven targets achievable by the workplace transformation project, and the roadmap which will help employees transition their workplace habits to meet those targets. As with all relationships, communication between all members is paramount in the success of the project.
We’ve yet to complete a project where the negative feedback comes close to eclipsing all of the benefits of a well thought out workplace transformation project and associated change management plan. While some individuals may thrive on drama, we find that most want to feel safe and valued in the workplace and that listening, understanding, empathy and communicating are the best resources we as change managers can provide our clients.