Managing the Uncertainty Before Change: Do change better

February 22, 2016 Joanne Layne

waiting room of changeIn the working world, there is a place that comes right after a big change has been announced but before that change actually takes place.

It’s the waiting room of change.

This is an awkward place, full of disruption, frustration and stress. And because of the nature of seismic change, some organizations find themselves stuck in the waiting room for months, even years.

There are organizations, however, that have demonstrated a capacity to get out in front of uncertainty and attack it head on.

One example is an organization in the United States with more 50,000 employees.

The company was built primarily through acquisitions, which means it inherited a very large array of IT applications designed to manage administration and workflow. This mismatched collection of legacy systems began to impede the organization’s ability to achieve optimal performance, often because employees weren’t able to communicate and share information across systems.  

To improve overall organizational performance, the company implemented a five-year, $1-billion initiative to streamline IT systems and bring the organization under greater central oversight. It was a project that was going to mean profound change for almost every operating unit within the company.

“We’re trying to go from about 1,000 different systems to about 200,” a spokesman for the company said. “It’s a process that’s going to take us five years and we’re just at the three-year mark. In many instances, we’re taking apart stuff we built ourselves, brick by brick. The people who built those systems were really proud of the work they’ve done so it’s a painful process.”

Faced with this scenario, the number one task at the human resources level of this organization was effective communications. Specifically, ensuring that employees get as much information as possible, in a clear and timely manner.

“Where I find the most anxiety out of our employees is around uncertainty,” the spokesman said. “Our inability to tell people exactly what’s going to happen and whether it’s going to impact an individual. People don’t understand when we can’t answer all the questions. They’ll tell us, ‘You’re spending a billion dollars on this and you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen?’”

“The fact is that we don’t know all the answers out of the gate. We had to adapt and tell people what we did know and what we didn’t know. And then, we made sure we let people know the moment we did know something.”

Adopting a communication narrative like this was not just a challenge for the employee audience. Leaders had to be encouraged to “be a bit vulnerable” with employees and admit there were limits to everyone’s understanding of the total impact of the project.

To help with this challenge, the company introduced resilience training to help line managers personally cope with impending change. The program focused on tips for adopting a positive mental attitude, leveraging expertise to find solutions, and how to tap into existing relationships for additional support.

This was followed up by a program that helped managers take what they had learned and use it to redefine relationships with their employees. This work prepared managers to actually lead change and drive results during periods of uncertainty.

To ensure that everyone was on the same page, a second track of training was offered directly to employees. This included a version of resiliency training and a program to help them understand the nature of impending change through group workshops, webinars, and E-learning solutions.

The theme common to all these support programs was simple, but critically important: Life is full of moments when we are forced wait for change.

Throughout our lives we could be waiting for a child to arrive, waiting for the outcome of a job interview, waiting to hear back on admission to college. The challenge here is not to eliminate change, but to manage it to our advantage. And the key to convincing employees of the importance of embracing change is openness and transparency.

For another global organization, the power of information sharing is being demonstrated in dramatic fashion.

Operating in several countries around the world, this company has faced profound change because of economic volatility and rumors of a corporate restructuring. Change that has been profoundly felt by the company’s employees.

 “We try to get our people to focus on the work, on delivering the best service possible to our customers,” the spokesman said. “It’s about delivering upon our promise. If we can get people focused on the here and now, and not on the ‘what if,’ then we can get through this.”

To create the right environment for people to focus on their work, and not be distracted by looming change, the company committed to providing employees with as much information as possible, the moment it could be released. This included creating a website for its employees that includes bulletins from senior management, news releases, and information sheets that try to address the most frequently asked questions.

The website has become increasingly important as a way for employees to cut through the speculation that is often shared by the news media.

To ensure the dialogue is going both ways, the website also includes a “virtual water cooler” where employees can post comments or ask questions. “People will do a better job of surviving the stress if they know as much as possible about what’s going on.”

The organization also focused on increasing the capacity of its leaders to manage through change with resilience and change readiness training for managers that would not only help them deal with disruption, but also lead change in their organization. Included were follow-up sessions, offered between 30 and 60 days after their initial training, to ensure the resiliency skills had been fully transferred and were now being applied on a daily basis.

To date, more than 1,500 mid-level managers have gone through training specifically geared at preparing them to mitigate employee anxiety on the front lines.

The response to the training has been overwhelmingly positive, with 94 per cent of participants indicating it was highly impactful and helpful with their day-to-day interactions with the employees they are leading. This has resulted in a workforce that remains keenly focused on their day-to-day tasks and less downtime worrying or stressing about the change that has not yet materialized.

“People are concerned about whether they’re going to have a job, and whether can they provide for their families. At that level, we have to make sure we’re providing them with the information and skill sets to face that uncertainty. And most importantly, we have to show them we understand they are concerned about the future.” 

Business leaders and HR need to ensure that change announcement planning includes communication about the interim state and not just the end state.  If you focus too much on the finished product and ignore the waiting room period, the employee group can become very uneasy. Productivity will decline and turnover is sure to increase.

A timeline for change implementation will be key. This will allow everyone to see the benchmarks of change, and allow managers to let employees know at every stage how they could be affected.

As well, managers need to be tuned in to the rumor mill and set aside time weekly for “rumor busting.” These gatherings will allow managers to draw distinct lines between fears and the facts to keep employees motivated and engaged. 

Working in the waiting room of change requires a high-touch, high-talk approach. This will be infinitely easier if managers have the skills to ease their employees’ concerns and the information to answer their questions.

Change, and waiting for change, can be a complex challenge. However, it’s much less daunting when there is an open and engaging conversation about how to manage it to our advantage. 

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