Managing change in a post pandemic world

Written by Brendan Barker

Managing change has always been tricky. But if the pandemic taught us anything it’s that people were more open to change than we thought.

All around the globe people embraced digital transformation in their organisations because their livelihoods depended on it. We must acknowledge now there is a new normal. We can’t return to the organisational structures we has before the pandemic. So how do we manage change in a post pandemic world?

I’ve said this before, the job of management is not to control people, it’s to build great teams, but all too often leaders try to manage organisational change by controlling how people think, feel and act about it. Even now, with a geographically dispersed workforce, many managers are trying to control their people virtually. I’ve heard many of the platitudes before – ‘we should be excited about this change’, ‘this is going to make things easier for you so get on board’ or ‘if you don’t embrace the change then you’re going to get left behind‘. Each of these tired little bromides carries a single underlying message – ‘we expect you to be excited about this change, so just do it – and it must be on our terms’. When I hear these kinds of statements, I start thinking maybe the reason people seem resistant to the change is because they’re really resisting the person trying to push them through it.

So, here are 5 ways I think we can be better at guiding change in the post pandemic new normal.

1. View change as a journey and bring people along

Our traditional perspective on organisational change is to view it as an obstacle to be overcome. Even at best we can sometimes view change more as a milestone to be achieved. But if you want to embrace true transformational change, we need to view it as a journey to be taken – a journey that can sometimes take years.

When we take this perspective the traditional tools and attitudes normally associated with organisational change begin to dissipate and what we’re left with is a shift in mindset, both individually and collectively that gives rise to a palpable level of enthusiasm. Change becomes exciting because it transforms the organisation and its culture into something better.

2. Start with trust

If you really want people to view transformational change as a journey though you need to start with trust. When an organisation has lost the trust of the people then everything goes a little pear shaped. Morale, productivity and engagement levels will all go down. Attrition, conflict and resistance will go up. So, when it comes time to drive change in the organisation you are going to face an almost impenetrable wall of resistance.

To build a genuine culture of trust we need to become what Forbes magazine called “phygital”, a hybridization of the physical and digital worlds. You are managing for output now more than efficiency so step back and trust your people will do what they need to do when they need to do it – and let them enjoy a work life balance that includes working from home. You know they can do it.

3. Embrace agility

Your workforce has proven they can work more flexibly. Prior to the pandemic most organisations wouldn’t given credence to the notion that large numbers of their labour pool can work successfully from remote locations, but now you know they can.

If you want your people to embrace ongoing change let them run with the changes the pandemic forced on all of us. Don’t try to force them back into the office just because you think that’s what they should do. I know of one organisation attempting to do just that by making the request and approval process for working from home so complex it becomes impossible to achieve. But ask yourselves, how do you think your people will respond to ongoing change if you try to remove a change the pandemic forced on you just because you don’t like it.

4. Forget efficiencies and become robust

We have always lived in an unpredictable world – no-one can predict the future – but that world is perhaps now in its most unpredictable state. The rules are changing constantly and organisations are being forced to embrace rapid pivot strategies to keep up with the pace. So the time has come for us to forget managing for efficiencies and become more robust and that means managing and preparing for events that are generally certain but which remain specifically ambiguous.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) spends a great deal of their time developing and manufacturing vaccines for a huge range of different diseases, because what they do know – the ‘generally certain’ part – is there will be more epidemics and pandemics in the future. What they can’t predict – the ‘specifically ambiguous’ part – is when and where and what. So they devote a great deal of their time to developing and manufacturing vaccines knowing many of them will never be used. That’s inefficient, but it’s robust because it allows them to react quickly in the event of an outbreak.

When these outbreaks occur, coordinating a speedy vaccines rollout all over the world requires great relationships across different nations and cultures. So CEPI spends a great deal of time cultivating and maintaining those relationships, know some of those relationships will never be called on. Some may see that as inefficient, but it’s robust because it allows them to coordinate vast rollouts at a moment’s notice.

This is a difficult concept for many organisations to embrace because we have been so enamored to efficiencies for so long it’s difficult to see that this model of organisational management is really broken. If you want to manage transformational change for the future, become more robust.

5. Seek contributions

Have you ever heard of The Ikea Effect? Put simply, we tend to attach greater value to something we’ve had a hand in creating ourselves. When people are given the opportunity to have input into how the change is implemented, they can be more committed to it.

Peter Senge, Senior Lecturer and MIT’s Sloan School of Management said ‘people don’t resist change, they resist being changed’. So let them develop the change journey with you. We already talked about treating people like people so let them share their concerns and their anxieties with you and then let them give you their ideas for implementing the change with the least amount of disruption possible. If you can do that, the change implantation will run much more smoothly.

In the end, change is inevitable.

The late American journalist Sydney J Harris wrote ‘our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better‘. I couldn’t agree more but I think what we really want to stay the same is our comfort with the current situation. When we address people’s comfort levels through change I think we have a real shot at a smoother and more inclusive implementation system for change.

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