A Faint Silver Lining Emerges From 2020: A Couple of Lessons Learned About Change
Author: David Heiden
It’s no secret that change can be difficult and slow, especially when it comes to changes at work. Just this week, I heard an executive say, “Anyone who tells you that change is easy hasn’t done it before.”
Yet this year, many of us have quickly embraced virtual collaboration tools. We’ve all experienced numerous other changes, especially as we untethered from the “40 hour+ work on-site” culture. Why have we been so quick to adopt Zoom, Slack, and Office 365? What can we learn from this recent experience so that we can support our colleagues through future change?
Let’s start with a quick story. Last year, I was working with a large government agency that was deploying Office 365. They did everything right—they communicated with employees about this new tool, trained people to use it, and followed up with numerous site visits. Some employees immediately embraced the new software, saying that it “totally changed how we work.” Yet not everyone adopted it. Perhaps their curiosity had not been piqued to the point of trying it out.
When things changed in spring 2020, people across the agency did start using the software because, suddenly, they needed to approach work differently. We can learn quite a bit from this agency’s experience. Three lessons emerge that offer guidance as we work with employees through change initiatives.
Go All In
When an organization fully supports a change, employees are more likely to embrace it. When I worked with this agency, I saw that some people hesitated to fully embrace Office 365 because they didn’t think they were allowed to use all of its features. One employee said, “The government works on-site. The remote access and collaboration features inherent in the new product did not apply to me.”
Faced with a sudden need for employees to work at home, the agency crafted and clarified guidance and policies to support remote work. Leaders held daily meetings to address challenges, both perceived and real, that were specific to remote work. Leaders and managers who were key to having policies run through the internal labyrinth of approvals found ways to fast track these. During the early days of the new work-from-home reality, the Director commended the IT organization in a broadcast message to the agency.
Leaders and senior managers from across the agency partnered to stand up a one-stop-shop SharePoint site to add clarity around remote work policies and how-to guidance for using remote work tools and software. Although the benefits of the remote work tools and software had not changed from earlier in the year, the agency’s marketing of and advocacy for their use quickly adapted to employees’ needs.
Notably, questions that employees asked about Office 365 shifted from “Can I really use that?” to “How do I use that?” Fortunately, the agency had dedicated resources and communication collateral ready to assist those who needed to quickly learn how to use the software.
For reflection: The next time your organization is undergoing a significant change, consider asking yourself:
- Is it clear to employees across the organization or company that they are encouraged to adopt the change?
- Notwithstanding a crisis, what can we do to support employees who want to change?
Keep Messages Simple
We are all inundated with information, which makes it challenging to capture someone’s attention, let alone motivate them to try something new. When communicating with people about a change, it helps to keep that communication as simple and straightforward as possible.\
Art critic Leonard Thiessen wrote that “The ultimate in sophistication is simplicity.” Another phrase that I find myself referencing is “Tell me why and I’ll comply.” When you are trying to gain traction for a significant change, be sure not to underestimate the power of a simple message. Frame the change as necessary rather than a nice-to-have. Generally speaking, employees do not have time to digest lengthy missives about a new technology or other change initiative.
Some agency employees who had been initially slow to adopt Office 365 began paying attention in March and April of 2020, once they started hearing, “Use Office 365 to work remotely.” The messaging sank in once it shifted from advising about product features and various benefits to letting employees know that it was not only acceptable but necessary to fully embrace the software.
For reflection: When you need to motivate employees to adopt change, consider asking yourself:
- Is the change you want employees to adopt framed as necessary for doing their job?
- What kind of messaging might you use to move a change initiative to your organization’s front burner?
Let Leaders’ Actions do the Talking
We often hear that leaders need to be engaged in any significant change in order to make it stick. But we often don’t know how to engage busy leaders. Leadership and senior management have plenty on their respective plates, so we generally can’t expect them to work in the trenches and move change forward indefinitely. Yet they can likely take on a few straightforward pieces to help others want to change.
For starters, leaders can set an example. In the organization I recently worked with, as the to-do’s were fast piling up, I heard a manager state that she was doing work outside her normal swim lane. Another manager said, “Chasing down needed input and writing FAQs for a SharePoint site is new to me, but it’s what’s needed right now.” No one had to say anything else—all involved were going to roll up their sleeves and do what had to be done.
We shouldn’t forget that what might seem like little things can have a big impact on how people perceive the change. At this same agency, senior managers and leaders updated their email signatures to point employees to a SharePoint site loaded with information—policies, IT tools, and other resources—about working remotely. Because the site was continually updated by a cross-organization group, it became clear to employees that the agency’s leadership fully embraced remote work and the technology that allows it to happen.
For reflection: When you need to help an organization through a significant change, consider the following questions:
- Is one area within the organization driving the change or is it clear that leaders from across the organization are behind it?
- Are leaders’ actions making it clear they are vested in making the change stick? Short of a crisis, are your leadership’s behaviors pushing people to see the need for change?
Employees embrace change for a variety of reasons. Some may think the change is for the collective good and simply want to be part of it. Others need more encouragement. Getting real change to occur takes more than simply wanting to do so. Crisis or not, supporting people through a change requires deliberate participation from across an organization, intentional communication, and leadership action.
David Heiden is a member of MITRE’s Enterprise Strategy and Transformation Tech Center. He has partnered with numerous federal sponsors to strategize and execute communication and engagement approaches to achieve mission outcomes. He has lectured at James Madison University’s Executive MBA program and at American University’s Key Executive Leadership Annual Conference. He holds a BA from the University of Virginia and an MBA in Marketing from Washington University in St. Louis.
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