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4 Essential Lessons in Change Management from 2020

from  August 27, 2021 | 3 min read

If you thought we were through the pandemic and about to start returning to normal, think again. The world of work just went through a crash course in change management — and for many organizations the net was an overall positive, if not an eye-opener to what a thriving workforce really needs to perform. But we’re not done. 

We’re going to have to keep drawing on those lessons for a number of reasons: the latest Delta wave is just one. Amid scarily rising cases we’re seeing workplaces trying to carefully weigh their next move, despite earlier plans. SHRM’s recent survey of 1,000 HR professionals found that half of U.S> organizations are concerned about the Delta variant — and will encourage employees to get a booster jab if there is one.

The good news is that we’re not starting from scratch: we’re far better equipped and far more aware of what we’re dealing with. We know how our workforce did — and we likely understand what approaches will work. But now we need to not only continue to apply these approaches, but we also need to improve them to keep moving forward.

What are the 4 most important lessons learned, and where do we need to keep growing? They draw on trends that had already started before the pandemic — and highlight just how important they remain now. 

Flexibility is Strength

Be willing to change course. You know things have changed when Wall Street hedges its bets on reopening plans. Some big tech firms are now delaying reopening plans as well. The brand messaging on this also represents a big shift in itself — one you should pay attention to as an employer brand. It used to be a best practice to commit to a mission and a course and stay there — it was perceived as a way to demonstrate integrity and find a unique position in crowded markets. Not so given the pandemic. Now, forward-thinking companies are paying attention to new conditions and owning their change of course.

It speaks to the new understanding of how employer brands are built and broken down — and the importance of keeping people front and center in any workplace decision. It’s also a good sign when an organization has the confidence to adjust — likely, it has the technology that enables it to happen, whatever shape the workforce takes for the near future — on-site, hybrid, or remote. Own your course-correction — and make sure you have the digital platform to make it happen and ensure your workforce can function. 

Well-Being is Critical

We need to get better at recognizing and addressing fatigue. I’m seeing leaders and managers exhibiting what you could call pivot fatigue, and for good reason. We shifted so quickly and radically into different modes of working that the word “change” doesn’t even seem accurate. It has been an exhausting endeavor to achieve safety as well as productivity when at times it seems the two were opposing objectives, with little margin for error. This is true for leadership and management at all sorts of workplaces and on all levels. 

Everyone needs to play a role in recognizing their exhaustion and stress as well as their colleagues’. Self-awareness and empathy are both critical facets of emotional intelligence — and we know how important that is for anyone in a leadership or supervisory position. Look for signs of stress and fatigue and look at what’s underpinning them. For instance, those complaining about needing to get back to normal may also be anxious that they never will. Check in with yourself and your teammates. It’s hard enough going through one crisis; when it repeats itself (or never ends) that really takes a toll. Prioritize self-care and mental health, from leadership to management to all levels of the workforce. 

People Come First

Listen to your employees or face the consequences. Recent news that Apple employees made a heartfelt and convincing request to continue to be allowed to work remotely has reverberated across the HR space. The letter was in response to Tim Cook’s announcement that Apple was returning to on-site working part of the week starting in the fall — and it reflected a gaping divide between employee concerns and the messaging coming from the C-Suite. 

Among the issues the employees cite in their letter: inclusivity, family responsibilities, safety, and the undeniable reality that if they don’t have flexibility, they may have to choose between “either a combination of our families, our well-being, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple.” In other words, the Apple magic that keeps us coming to work. It’s over. It’s predicted that we’re going to see a robust jobs market in 2022 — and with it will come the increasing need to find highly skilled employees to fill those positions. Is this a time your organization wants to alienate your best talent and 

Technology Empowers

Lean on the digital platforms that support your workforce. None of the pivoting we did — to remote, to safer social distancing, to new work schedules, to hands-free transactions — could have happened without technology. But it’s not just video calls that made the difference. Shifting work functions to a digital platform was vital — including creativity, collaboration, communication, and information. 

The workplaces that most successfully made the shift — were those that saw the need to create an entire digital ecosystem — including such elements as robust ERP, HCM and financial functions, as well as the growth culture that empowered people to explore it, navigate it, and most of all, use it. They leveraged sophisticated solutions to streamline complexity that don’t reduce functions and features. And very likely that right now they’re still using the same digital platforms — still operating from that new and singular source of truth. And that’s often a reason why they can be flexible without fear in the face of potential new crises — and yet accommodate a range of employee needs in a way that still lines up with their business objectives.

There are certainly more lessons to be learned from how we approached change management in our organizations. I’m heartened by workplaces that have recognized how vulnerable their entire workforce has felt — and instituted support systems and well-being initiatives that bolster everything from productivity to mental health to social safety. I’ve seen leaders take a hard look at their work culture and ask the hard questions, such as whether it truly fosters diversity, inclusion and belonging.  We saw what happens with employees who are left out, and I predict that’s going to be a trend. Again — we’re faced with just as much pressure as ever to retain our workforces; soon it may be more. Embrace the human capital that powers your company right now, and give them the technology, the support and the opportunities they need and want to come to work — wherever that may be.

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