5 Tips for Managing Change in the Workplace

By Robert Half on March 31, 2020 at 5:22pm

In business, the goal of managing change in the workplace is twofold: create as little disruption as possible and get employees to accept — and ideally, embrace — the change. The COVID-19 outbreak has made it incredibly challenging for companies to do any of those things. However, as businesses adapt to the “new normal” of operating during a pandemic, managers still have an opportunity to guide their teams effectively through this uncertain time using several basic principles of change management.

These principles are often applied when an organization is undergoing a more typical change event that is planned for well in advance and can take weeks or months to unfold. Some examples of these changes include a business systems implementation project, organizational restructuring due to a merger or acquisition deal, or even the launch of a digital initiative designed to drive innovation and make the business more competitive in the future.

But the following five principles of change management can be just as useful in the current situation, which demands that companies move fast to manage change effectively, for the sake of their employees — and the business. Here’s a look at the principles, and what they entail:

Principle #1: Provide crystal-clear communication

Change management is about managing people — perhaps even more so than managing the change itself. And, just as it is for staff management, communication is a critical element to managing change in the workplace. To realize positive outcomes during and after a major change event, managers need to be proactive, thoughtful and strategic in their approach to sharing information with their employees at all levels of the organization.

Because COVID-19 has most people working at home, managers don’t have the luxury of talking to their staff in person about changes already underway or expected. However, a video conferencing application like Zoom can be a highly effective channel for talking to an entire team, or for meeting one-to-one with employees, face to face. Managers may want to hold both types of meetings regularly to ensure everyone hears the same message, and to confirm individual workers are adapting successfully to the change.

Consider using tools like Slack or Chanty to provide regular updates and relay essential information to employees, and also help your team stay connected throughout the change event. Emails can be effective for sending general updates and sharing resources. The company’s intranet is an obvious resource as well, provided that everyone working off-site can easily access it.

Of course, communication is a two-way street. Ask your employees for their feedback and maintain a virtual open-door policy. Let staff members know they can approach you at any time to ask questions or express their concerns. Two-way communication not only boosts your staff’s awareness and understanding of change but also creates a sense of trust among your employees and inspires their support for change.

Principle #2: Keep corporate culture in focus

When managing change in the workplace, it’s essential to keep your organizational culture in mind. The elements and attributes that define your company’s unique culture are especially important now — and easy to lose sight of when everyone is working remotely and feeling uncertain about the future. So, tap into your organization’s shared assumptions, values and behaviors to determine how to approach change.

One way to make things easier on your employees as your business goes through this period of dramatic change is to accentuate aspects of the organizational culture that you know they appreciate and enjoy.

For example, if your small business has long maintained a collaborative atmosphere, try to promote that same feeling while working remotely. Here again, technology like Slack or Zoom can be helpful. And, because collaboration is also about productivity, you will want to make sure essential documentation is available to your staff in a centralized location. Tools like SharePoint, Smartsheet, Dropbox, Google Docs or a wiki can help with that, as this post on how to manage a remote team explains.

Work to build a sense of community around the change as well. Encourage employees to share stories of how they are adapting to the new status quo and helping their colleagues to do the same. (Be sure to contribute to these conversations, too.) And consider scheduling virtual social events, like a midweek video coffee chat, to help the team feel connected — and remember what they like about each other, and working together.

Download our free report on organizational culture to get more insights on why a company’s culture is so critical for motivating and retaining employees.

Principle #3: Pace yourself

Next up on the list of principles of change management is this simple advice — which isn’t always easy to carry out: When it comes to managing change in the workplace, you need to pace yourself.

Change management is a marathon, not a sprint. Granted, the COVID-19 outbreak has caused many businesses to sprint out of necessity. But as the urgency to institute change — such as requiring all employees to work from home for an indefinite period — subsides, managers will want to try to pull in the reins on disruption the best that they can.

To the extent possible, give your employees some time to accept the change. Avoid setting unrealistic goals or timelines for the transition, and don’t sidestep discussion about potential challenges the change may bring.

Yes, you want to keep business moving forward and everyone feeling optimistic. But it’s important to be understanding if some workers struggle with the transition. For example, many workers must manage personal demands, like taking care of young children, while trying to work from home. They are grappling with disruption on top of disruption.

So, be patient. And keep in mind that when the current crisis subsides, employees will remember what the company did to help them succeed during this challenging time. You want them to come out of this experience feeling like they had ample support and encouragement.

Principle #4: Create accountability

While you don’t want to push your team too hard right now, you also need to give them a well-defined set of responsibilities. That will help drive accountability. But it also helps to empower and engage your staff members because they feel they have a hand in helping the organization through a time of change.

As more employees work from home, you may need to be flexible about some roles and expectations. Fortunately, because remote work was already on the rise before the pandemic, there are many best practices you can look to for getting a remote team to perform well. For example, you’ll often find that companies successful at allowing most or all of their employees to work remotely focus more on employees’ outcomes than how much time they spend “on the clock.”

Every business is different, and you may need to require your staff to work a set schedule and adhere to specific guidelines. But again, when managing change in the workplace — especially in an all-remote workplace — try to focus more on what your employees need to accomplish rather than when or how they do it.

And, when your team members do achieve set goals or exceed them, be quick to highlight their successes and express your appreciation. Even small accomplishments may be worthy of a team celebration during this time. Those actions will help to keep morale high and productivity moving forward — even more so than outlining expectations for accountability.

Looking for ideas on how best to show gratitude to your staff? See this list of 20 recognition tips. You can apply many of these ideas in a remote work environment if needed.

Principle #5: Track your success

No one knows how long the COVID-19 crisis will last. But it will eventually subside, and businesses will have the opportunity to reflect on how well they helped their teams to navigate this unprecedented disruption and stress.

Managers who are on the front lines of managing change in the workplace may want to start compiling a list of their team’s successes and setbacks. As for the latter, the most important things to document are how the problem was solved and what lesson was learned from the experience. This information can be used to develop a playbook for meeting similar challenges head-on when they arise.

The point is that all throughout the change process, you will want to assess what’s working for your team and what’s not — and determine which employees are adapting well to change, and which ones aren’t. By continually analyzing the situation in real time, you can make adjustments to keep your team moving forward.

The five principles of change management outlined above are meant to serve as guideposts for operating in new terrain. Change can be a disorienting experience, but with a reliable compass in hand, you’ll be better equipped to lead your employees through uncertainty — and help them focus on the future.

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