The rate of organizational change has accelerated dramatically over the past ten years, for many different reasons.
Sometimes workplace change must occur rapidly and without employee consultation, like during the COVID-19 pandemic. In other situations like mergers or acquisitions, changes are confidential until the contracts are signed, and the press release is published.
Corporate leaders trying to manage increasing change confirm that failing to do so adequately can be costly: Employees upset by change are generally less productive.
This blog covers how to successfully implement workplace change and help employees positively cope with change.
Approach Workplace Change With Empathy
To help your employees through the process of change and encourage them to support the change, you must first understand the emotions they may be experiencing at each phase. As soon as you announce a change to your organization, employees’ emotions will range from fear to relief and even excitement.
An array of emotional responses is expected depending on the type of change and why it’s occurring.
It’s important to remember that change is personal, and you must earn your adopters one by one. Each employee’s degree of resistance will be determined by how severe they expect the change’s impact to be on them.
Coming to accept it will depend on how much resistance they have, their coping skills and their support system.
When change and uncertainty swirl inside and outside the workplace, follow these tried and true methods to help employees embrace change and strengthen their resilience.
Create a Compelling “Why” for Every Change
Regardless of how you believe employees will react, you must set an honest, positive and compelling narrative for the changes you want to make before any anxiety, confusion or rumor take root.
Studies suggest that this is where most leaders fall short in communicating change. Momentum can fall flat when employees feel their leaders are not clear enough about what they hoped to achieve through change or their role in implementing the change.
Remember that the best way to gain the highest level of compliance and buy-in is by actively empowering your employees.
What to do:
Celebrate successes or work done under the old system to help employees feel appreciated and encouraged to take on the next challenge.
Explain to employees why the company needs to change and why it needs to be now.
Discuss the pros and cons of the proposed changes to help employees feel heard and uncover possible roadblocks and resistance.
Express what you want in terms of outcomes, not tasks.
Share how the changes made will effectively improve the organization and individual job security.
Communicate How the Change Will Be Implemented and Keep Employees Updated
After you introduce a proposed change, employees need to understand their role in the new structure
Defining clear roles for all involved employees allows each person to understand their level of accountability and who is responsible for facilitating communication throughout the change process.
Once individual roles have been defined, you can set milestones and check-in schedules that help establish a rhythm of communication for everyone within the organization.
Just as change is personal, so are learning and reception styles, so consider more than one change communication channel. Some employees may find it meaningful that communications come from multiple sources, such as management and HR.
What to do:
Ensure management is empowered with how the change will be implemented: tasks, timeline, challenges, etc.
Let employees know how and how often you will update them as the change initiative unfolds—then commit to it.
Allocate the right people and resources who can help you signal to the organization that change is essential. These individuals can also help answer questions and gather information about how employees are coping with the change.
Change the agendas of senior team meetings to focus on your change priority first.
Proactively approach your workforce through weekly emails and communications to address any confusion and potential setbacks before they become problematic.
Remove Barriers and Reward Acceptance
As with any new product, idea or change, you’ll always have early and late adopters. Identify your early adopters and reward desired behaviors instead of chastising negative ones.
Don't be afraid to ask early adopters how you can make it easier for others to follow suit.
When you’ve established how new processes will work, remove the pressure of committing them to memory right away by providing employees with job aids or instruction guides as a point of reference to aid in assimilating into the new workflow.
What to do:
Before you start implementing change, evaluate employee readiness with quick assessments or self-evaluations, which will allow you to identify areas in which your company will need the most training.
- Make sure that the new processes are clearly established and that there's proper training and reference documents to help commit the change to memory.
Empower employees to contribute to the change by holding consistent team meetings where you can identify what they think can be improved throughout the transition process.
Generate Short Term Wins
Remember, change takes time – sometimes months, sometimes years. This time frame can be discouraging to employees, and you may find it challenging to keep the optimism and enthusiasm for change alive.
Until the change is actually embedded in your organization’s culture, it will remain vulnerable to resistance.
According to the Kotter method, a widely adopted approach for managing organizational change, the final stage for successful change is linking the change to corporate culture through norms of group behavior and shared values.
What to do:
Link the change to previous, positive changes to remind employees that they can succeed and help reduce anxiety.
Create conditions that support early successes and recognize the individuals who helped make the first steps toward change possible.
Break the change into small steps so that your team can establish feelings of accomplishment along the way.
Coping Strategies to Help Your Employees Through Workplace Change
Share the following tips with employees in a well-being newsletter or encourage your mid-level managers to leverage them in one-on-one meetings with employees.
Face your fears.
Instead of letting them swirl around in your mind all day, write down your biggest fears or anxieties resulting from this change. Talk through these fears with your co-workers to see if others might be sharing them, and then create a plan for how you will address the fear should it come to pass. Just knowing you have a plan can help to ease the anxiety.
Be part of the change.
Try to adopt an attitude of excitement and view the change as an opportunity to learn a new skill, gain some leadership experience, or meet some new people.
Reduce stress and anxiety.
To make rational decisions during what appears to be a time of chaos, focus on your health. If left unchecked, unwanted change can lead to a surge in stress-related hormones that can disrupt your sleep, appetite and productivity. Care for yourself by:
- Exercising. If you’re new to exercise, adding a short daily walk around the building could make a huge improvement to your mood throughout the work day.
- Stretching. Stress can very quickly turn into an aching head or aching muscles. Take a few minutes each day to gently stretch and relax your body.
- Meditating. Take a few minutes each day to deliberately slow and quiet your mind. During this time, no thoughts of work, or the change are allowed in.
Creating a culture of wellness that encourages employees to be mindful of these strategies and more year round, instead of solely through periods of change, can ease the burdens on senior leadership, human resources and management.
Improve Employee Resilience and Reduce Change-Related Stress
If operations are changing due to COVID-19 or your business is undertaking significant transitions like a merger or acquisition, you’re bound to hit obstacles along the way, and some employees may feel more change-related stress than others.
Help employees cope with unforeseen challenges and changes with our new coaching program: Navigating Change.
Navigating Change was developed by Cleveland Clinic during the COVID-19 pandemic to help support employee health and well-being during times of uncertainty and change. Participants focus on maintaining a healthy diet, exercise routine and learning coping strategies for stress, whether brought on by personal or professional matters.
Gartner. Change Management. Accessed December 10, 2018.
Harvard Business Review. How to Communicate Clearly During Organizational Change. Accessed December 10, 2018.
Kotter, John. (2014). Accelerate: Building strategic agility for a faster-moving world. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Forbes. 10 Ways Managers Can Help Employees Adjust To Change. Accessed November 27, 2020.
Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Communicating with Employees During a Crisis. Accessed November 27, 2020.
WiseStep. 10 Best Ways to Help Employees Adapt to Change Quickly. Accessed November 27, 2020.
Forbes. 8 Steps For Helping Your Employees Accept Change. Accessed November 27, 2020.