Managing Workplace Change: Five Considerations 

Kelly Moore and Jackson Fox of Gensler share five considerations for change management rooted in preparation, communication, understanding, and empathy.

Image by Gensler

The past several months of global disruption have ushered in a new era of workplace change with unprecedented magnitude and speed. While the pandemic has accelerated the momentum of some familiar, pre-pandemic trends (like work-life balance, virtual collaboration, flexible work models, and a general emphasis on wellness), it’s also sparked a new series of workplace considerations that have long since been out of focus—requiring reevaluating work at scales big and small. How will team norms change? How will an increasingly decentralized workforce be managed and engaged? What role will the physical work environment play in the next generation of work?

As we continue to measure expectations and sentiment around these questions, our latest research tells us that we need to envision a future of work which is empowered by more employee choice, autonomy, and preference.

In addition to the disruption of the past, we also recognize the workforce demographic is clearly changing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 54% of the U.S. workforce is now under the age of 45. Coupled with the ever-present war for talent, understanding these broad, generational differences in expectations and values is more crucial than ever.

From real estate, talent, culture, and technology–to the daily work experience and our more personal measures of productivity and fulfillment—it’s difficult to grasp the impact of these disruptions and complexity of these decisions at nearly every level of the organization. Change is hard because what’s at stake can be overestimated, and the potential for positive change, underestimated.

Below (in no order of importance) are five considerations for change management rooted in preparation, communication, understanding, and empathy—considerations that are especially critical in navigating the workplace transformations of today.

1. Establish a shared vocabulary.

Words matter. Now more than ever, we’re inundated with fuzzy, ambiguous language—hearing terms like hybrid, agile, flexibility, hot-desking, coworking—the list goes on. People have mixed definitions and assumptions around these words—what they mean, how they work, and what they imply. Using these words interchangeably can create unintended confusion around their meaning, or the intent of the change.

One of the first steps in managing change is setting up a shared language. Choose words carefully and even go out of your way to clearly define them. This helps create a more meaningful dialogue in which people can more effectively and more accurately cut through the fluff to hear and be heard.

Image by Gensler

2. Build the right team.

If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that workplace change extends far beyond the jurisdiction of the facilities team. Delivering a well-rounded change campaign takes a brain-trust of perspectives not only from facilities, but real estate, communications, human resources, and IT as well. Beyond leadership, it’s important to build a network of change agents at every level of the organization—embedded eyes and ears that can garner trust, reinforce messaging, field, or direct questions, and reliably elevate concerns.

3. Define change using “From—To” statements.

Change is a process, not a toggle switch. When framing expectations around new workplace behaviors, spaces, or processes, it can be a helpful exercise to craft a series foundational “change statements” that first acknowledge the current state before simply relaying the aspirational vision for change. For example:

FROM: Expecting individuals and teams to work from the office most of the time. 
TO: Empowering individuals and teams to work more flexibly, fluidly, and with more intention around their personal setting. 

A short list of these “from—to” statements can be your proverbial North Stars in articulating a desired change, measuring the magnitude, and guiding a consistent approach to messaging.

Image by Gensler

4. Think through the lifecycle of change communications.

It’s all about follow-through. Change campaigns feed off energy and momentum. From how a message is initially communicated, and applied into practice, to how it is continually reinforced over time—creating and sustaining a sense of energy around the change keeps employees engaged and makes the process stickier.

Starting with communication, employees should feel informed and understand the value proposition of the desired change. Here, more top-down, one-directional strategies are seen, like the creation of a change brand or visual identity, town halls, poster campaigns, and email blasts, etc.

After communication is initially delivered, the audience needs support in interpreting and applying it to their day-to-day work experience. Here, it’s important to narrow the gap between the broad organizational imperative and the individual’s “what’s in it for me” mindset. Strategies that are much more interactive and “hands-on” including targeted training, team charters or pledges, contests and games, mock-ups, and pilots, are implemented.

The final step is about reinforcement and sustaining energy. Employees need to feel reassured and empowered to carry the change forward. They also need to know where to look for help if they need it. In general, reinforcement strategies tend to be less formal—providing paths for employees to network and self-support laterally amongst their peers—managers talking to managers, admins talking to admins, etc.  Reinforcement is also about shining a light on what success looks like. This might include a spotlight series on employee stories, social media campaigns, or even a tip of the week.

5. Know your audience. Know your value proposition.

Everyone learns and adopts change at a different pace. Though we’re able to draw broad-stroke trends through survey research, the last several months have highlighted the uniquely personal factors that shape preferences around work—age, tenure, career trajectory, housing, commute, family care, etc. The deeper the needs of the audience are understood, the more targeted messaging, engagements, and reinforcement strategies can be to resonate with their values.

What does each audience need to know and when? What anxieties may be inhibiting from adopting change? What does successful change look like for them? For example, our research shows us that younger workers – particularly GenZ – have a different conception of the workplace. Workers across all ages prefer a mix of in-person and remote. However, younger workers have a more holistic vision for functions of the workplace. Supporting for a range of experiences and preferences will require a range of communication styles.

As we navigate into a redefined future, communication is integral to the change management experience. Timely, constant, and practical communication should be at the heart of any implementation. Bringing individuals along on the journey in an honest and engaging way can build trust and make the transformation successful.

Ultimately, change management should be fully integrated to both inform and allow for strategic direction. It should be based on a realistic assessment of an organization’s history, willingness, and capacity to change. We have an opportunity to allow the disruptions of the recent past, to be a catalyst for positive change in the future workplace.

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