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  • Harry Rowley

How to make change remotely possible

Much of the discussion around “smart working” has, in the past, focused on process modifications and the technology to actually make it feasible to work from home. These issues absolutely need to be figured out. However, the other component that can’t be ignored (but too often is) is the human impact of such a significant shift away from traditional, office-based workplaces.

Yes, there are benefits to working from home, not least in the lack of a commute and a better work-life balance, but it has also caused huge disruption as organisations around the world have scrambled to quickly equip their employees with the necessary tools and training to continue to do their jobs in an isolated environment.

The growing importance of dedicated change management

We are now in an almost-constant state of change – even pre-pandemic – with many companies struggling to react to the accelerated pace of regulation and innovation in ways that don’t hamper productivity and profitability. Really, it’s now more about embedding pre-emptive flexibility rather than taking remedial action once a change has already occurred and the impact has been felt. A large part of this is down to how the people side of change is managed, how we transition employees from current ways of working to new ones. Too often a last-minute email and an ad hoc training session are considered sufficient preparation of users who will likely remain uninformed about and unimpressed with changes that are being forced upon them with little notice or instruction.

Here’s a change curve illustrating the controlled trajectory of employee-linked productivity during a generic change. As you can see, a certain level of discomfort and resistance is expected with any move away from the status quo, albeit temporary; however, where change isn’t effectively managed (see dotted line) this dip may continue in perpetuity, leading to active pushback from those impacted, directly affecting operations and offerings.

Change curve: Poorly versus effectively managed change

One factor that often separates these two scenarios is dedicated change management, accounting for employees’ needs, identifying and involving the right people in the process, and structuring essential activities like colleague communications, user training, and management coaching. The sooner these efforts are integrated into the deployment of a new tool or technology, the greater the chance that they will be accepted by those targeted.

Facilitating change from a distance

Change is hard, and the process of convincing individuals and groups to leave their comfort zones becomes even more challenging when done at a distance, without the luxury of face-to-face contact. Sure, technology bridges some of that gap, not least in its immediacy, but it can’t make up entirely for the ad hoc chats and informational osmosis that offices facilitate.

It’s also sometimes difficult to define direct results of change management, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a priority; if anything, it’s more important now than ever in such uncertain times. In the long-term, it’s about creating a culture that allows for smoother transitions, whatever the change.

Whether the trend towards remote working is temporary or permanent, it’s now even more essential that employees are involved in changes that affect them. So, here are a few ideas on how to create a change-ready environment:

Embrace change

  • Adopt new technologies such as video conferencing and virtual whiteboards

  • Work with employees to understand their needs and get their insights

  • Remember not everyone will be at the same level of understanding

Communication is key

  • Find new ways to stay connected; target different groups with relevant channels and content

  • Consider the right messaging; emphasise consistency and transparency

  • Increase the frequency of communications; rarely in organisations is there such a thing as “too much” communication

  • Be creative to keep employees engaged

Training and support are critical

  • Empower employees through self-service training resources that they can access in their own time

  • Offer multi-channel approaches to training (e.g. video-conferencing, phone and/or digital whiteboards)

  • Consider those for whom remote / digital technologies like Zoom or Microsoft Teams are new, and tailor their training accordingly

  • Reinforce training with refresher sessions, also supporting users who experience technical issues

We cannot have the same performance expectations immediately

  • Manage expectations for change and productivity; be honest with your employees about what’s possible and what progress is being made.

  • Take time to adapt; sustainable change is rarely the result of a quick fix

Stay positive and consider the benefits

  • Understanding and articulating a clear set of benefits for those impacted by change is an essential part of the case you’ll put to them. In the case of remote working:

o Limited or no commuting, saving time and stress

o A better work-life balance, with more time for our families

o Lower costs associated with the likes of travel and subsistence

  • Employees’ mental health has never been more important, or more in the spotlight; look for ways to maintain contact with your teams, including regular check-ins and an understanding approach to the realities of working from home.

Whether we like it or not, the current global pandemic is forcing many businesses to fundamentally rethink the way they work. Those that come out of this ahead will be the ones who have successfully adapted to the new “normal” of a decentralised workplace and a change-responsive culture.

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