With approximately half of the U.S. population now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, businesses continue to prepare to return to the office. While the delta variant is putting some of the plans on hold for the moment, it’s critical for leaders to manage workplace changes, whether that means bringing all of their employees back to the office full time, choosing a remote/work-from-anywhere option or transitioning to a hybrid-work model.
This new era in the American workplace, like others before it, will benefit from strategic change management. Organizations that communicate early with their employees, anticipate and manage change fatigue, and follow a change-management model will be more successful during this transition.
Clearly communicate with employees early and often.
Fortunately, as organizations approach the “new normal” in the post-pandemic United States, businesses have time to plan changes to workplace arrangements and communicate those decisions to their employees.
Addressing workplace changes with employees in advance gives them time to prepare logistically and emotionally. Employees who worked remotely during the pandemic may have altered aspects of their lives that they’ll need to adjust again when returning to the office — such as childcare, pet care and transportation. Change can also spark emotional responses such as anxiousness, excitement, fear or unease.
Regardless of how employees feel about changes to their work arrangements, it’s important to give them adequate time to process their emotions in advance. Clearly communicating about planned changes can alleviate resistance by providing clear expectations and the necessary resources to navigate those changes.
Any change in a company will be more successful when leaders help employees understand why it’s occurring. Citing organizational values to explain the reasons for changes increases understanding and buy-in, builds trust and prepares employees for the change. Frequent communication keeps leaders and employees informed and focused on the rationale behind the change, thereby reducing confusion, speculation and misunderstandings.
Anticipate and manage change fatigue.
Regardless of their size, all changes require people to expend energy. As a result, employees, work teams and businesses as a whole can experience change fatigue.
People can only handle so much change before becoming exhausted. As we begin to see signs of normalcy returning after the pandemic, businesses that regularly check in with employees before announcing new change initiatives will help minimize change fatigue.
Otherwise, leaders put their own businesses at risk. Research by the firm Gartner found that 73 percent of change-affected employees report moderate to high stress levels. Employees with high stress also perform 5 percent worse than the average employee.
Poor communication and inconsistency from leaders can cause change initiatives to fail. Because of their own early and close involvement with organizational changes, leaders often view those changes as complete long before employees do.
Leaders tend to develop change strategies and then pass them on to others to implement. But for change to stick, leaders must stay engaged throughout the change process. Doing so also helps ensure the change will achieve the desired result for the business.
Listening to employees during change initiatives promotes their understanding, trust and willingness to adopt the change. Surveys and other feedback tools during the post-COVID workplace transition can help companies gauge employee preferences for work schedules. When their input is heard, employees are more likely to be engaged with their work and to successfully adapt to changes.
Follow a change-management model.
Leaders who make changes in their organizations face barriers such as company culture, organizational inertia and human psychology. Change-management models, which provide a framework of stages by which organizations can understand and bring about needed changes, also help businesses handle workplace transitions.
Numerous change-management models are available, including Prosci’s ADKAR model, Lewin’s Change Management Model and Kotter’s Change Management Model. While each model employs slightly different tactics, they are all designed to help organizations plan and implement change more strategically. Prosci’s model is popular because it uses psychology, applies years of research and recognizes communication as fundamental to successful change.
Unfortunately, leaders often think of change as a one-time event. As a result, they overlook important elements of change management, particularly communication and how people navigate change. Conversely, viewing change management as a process — and following a change-management model — helps build momentum and sustain progress throughout any change the future may hold.
Ayme Zemke, APR, executive vice president, client service, leads client partnerships at Beehive Strategic Communication, a purpose-driven strategic communication firm specializing in integrated communication and other services. Zemke is a certified crisis-communication leader and has more than 20 years of strategic communication experience.
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