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COVID Learning #3: Change Management Is Important

COVID caused us all to pivot—to redirect toward a Plan B of some form or other. In fact, as we continue to navigate the pandemic, we’re likely to have done multiple pivots in our personal and professional lives. To sustain this amount of change management requires effort and uses up precious resources. As such, the threat of “pandemic fatigue” is a very real concern plaguing employees and employers alike. Encouragingly, many leadership teams are waking up to the need for more compassion, and a human-centered approach, to help their people pivot and thrive.

As part of our blog series reviewing the five classic “rules that 2020 broke”, we explore some ways in which organizations can both pivot and thrive. Get this right and it will help your business retain a competitive edge and remain relevant in your business area.

Our recent article explained the circumstances surrounding the broken rule:

You cannot just revamp/pivot the business if you have to. We learned that employees, leaders, children, PEOPLE will adapt more effectively than we gave them credit for. When the need for change was clear, we rose to the challenge. People will “hang in there” and adapt if they have these key things in place: a united experience through community where they find support (information + empathy) and connections through managers and senior leadership who are visible and share a vision.

This isn’t to say organizations draw from a bottomless tank of productivity and fortified culture—we also learned lessons in focused communication and education, showing gratitude and empathy, and the cost of burnout, imbalance and unsustainable pace/stress. If we accept these lessons and pave a more enduring path, we can achieve an ambitious, agile and healthy workforce.

What made it possible?

  • Focus on employee health and wellbeing (this started out as a health crisis after all). The reality of working from home and living at work lead the way for more astute and intentional methods for providing work-life balance. For example, allowing flexible telecommuting, knowing a parent needs to take a moment to set up their 3rd grader’s Zoom school call, or accepting a team member wants to stay off camera due to Zoom burnout.
  • Organizations realized “autopilot” was now off. Suddenly, everything was on the table for how to continue working and meeting new demands in new ways (picture most of the inspiring scenes from the 1995 Apollo 13 movie). When we called upon our creative resources and ask people to come forward WITH us, we built community, resilience and agility that enabled a surge of unprecedented adaptiveness.

New rule: We can pivot when we need to. Being uprooted is not always a bad thing but it does call upon skill sets organizations may not have used much.

Top 5 Change Management Tips for Your Organization

Use the following best practices for enabling your organization to navigate change, doing so in a way that enables your business and people to thrive:

1. Top-up your “engagement capital” (before it is too late)

Think back to the onset of the pandemic. Organizations had to respond, quickly. For the most part, we witnessed a surge in employee engagement as employees at all levels in businesses rallied together with energy and determination to face up to unprecedented challenges and new ways of working.

To some extent, we’ve seen this before: Humanitarian crises cause acute responses in organizations that inflate survey responses. For example, following 9/11, global levels of employee engagement increased—and they especially bumped in the US because of a massive burst of patriotism and unity. Organizations had “engagement capital” that helped them to recover.

The notion of engagement capital is a similar concept to John Gottman’s extensive research on divorce prediction and teachings for marital stability, where he would tell couples that they can “bank” their shared positive emotions to help them through later tough times. Through decades of meticulous research, Gottman also proposed that couples who experience positive to negative emotions with each other in a ratio of 5 to 1 are better able to navigate disagreements and upsets. What does this mean? For every one negative feeling or interaction between partners, there should be five positive feelings or interactions.

Top tip:

Build positivity resonance and draw on it later. Keep making small investments in your engagement capital so that it accumulates, earns interest and pays out dividends in the form of passionate and committed employees. The onset of pandemic fatigue is real. Signs and symptoms of burnout are becoming more prevalent. Find ways for your employees to experience positive interactions at work, before it is too late.

2. Listen deeply

If you are looking for solutions, then start by listening. Listening to your employees will help you identify the signs of exhaustion and stress, but only if you listen in ways where you dig deeper than to elicit responses of “I’m fine.” Asking people how they are doing is great, but they will only tell you if they are anxious, overwhelmed, lonely, burned out or struggling if you create the time and space to listen deeply.

Top tip:

Listening connects people on a deep, personal level. Train your leaders in deep-listening skills. Encourage people to share their thoughts during 1:1s with leaders or in virtual focus groups with their peers, where openness and transparency is key.

3. Act swiftly

While listening is an intervention in itself and it can be cathartic to express your feelings to someone who truly listens to you, employees want to know that their feedback is being used to drive action. Throughout COVID, many organizations quickly pivoted their listening strategy. More frequent pulse surveys are being used to support the adjustments required for virtual or hybrid working or to check-in on wellbeing, change management or work-safety issues.

Acting swiftly on employee feedback matters now more than ever. People talk of survey fatigue, but we’ve shown in other blogs that this is really inaction fatigue. People have a vested interest in giving you their views about barriers at work, but it is in turning their feedback into action and improving the employee experience by removing those barriers where you will reap the most reward.

Top tip:

It is quick and easy to administer pulse surveys, but don’t run surveys if you’re not willing to listen and do something with the results. Define the purpose for each survey and clearly articulate roles and responsibilities for interpreting results, sharing findings and acting on priorities.

4. Be purposeful

Often, a first step in change management models is to “unfreeze” from the current state or to “create a sense of urgency” for change. COVID disrupted the status quo and many businesses have used the disruption as a catalyst for further change; to reimagine the organization.

A company vision, alongside goal setting and performance management, will help people know what they should be doing at work, but it is a purpose-driven strategy that really helps people connect with why they should want to be doing it with you.

Top tip:

In order to thrive as you pivot, remember to be purposeful. Be true to who you are or what you truly aspire to be as an organization.

5. Adopt human-centered design

Human-centered design is an approach to problem solving that develops solutions by involving the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process (people are immersed in all stages of the process from brainstorming, modeling, prototyping, implementation and in monitoring and adjusting the solution).

We don’t know exactly what the world will look like, even in the short term. To progress toward a successful future-state in this changing world, organizations will likely require some adoption of the key tenets of a human-centered design—i.e., involving employees in developing solutions that fit their needs, as well your business needs. Whether it’s providing hybrid work arrangements, managing workloads or fostering inclusive environments, organizations need to understand and react to how stakeholders are affected in these different scenarios.

Top tip:

Human-centered design enhances the effectiveness and efficiency of systems development, as well as user satisfaction, accessibility and sustainability. This is achieved by involving people in all steps to formulate and evaluate them. Be intentional with how you communicate with you employees, and in using their feedback to create effective and sustainable work design.

See The Way Forward

Large-scale change management was forced upon us in 2020. For the most part, organizations responded swiftly and emphatically. It’s again been proven that employees and employers can rally together in the face of crises; we can pivot when we need to. But we’re not done yet: “change management COVID” might well require pivot-after-pivot and as such, organizations will want to apply human-centered design as they listen, act and remain purposeful in guiding their people through sustained change.

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