Making change workable

The more things change the more they stay the same. Yeah right. In a company, the more things change, the more processes are developed, the more acronyms are coined and the more uncertainty employees feel about job security.

Of course, we all realize that change is inevitable. Without change, a company loses its competitive edge, processes become outdated and employees would have nothing to complain about over coffee breaks.

By and large, it’s not the change itself that is problematic, but the ways that change is handled from management all the way down through an organization. Like any good marriage counsellor would suggest, communication is the key to handling stressful moments within a relationship, even if it’s an employer-employee relationship.

According to Colleen O’Brien-Wood, director of professional services at the Toronto-based Self Management Group, technological changes within an organization can have a serious effect on its employees, both physically and psychologically.

“There are two big negative reactions surrounding change: fear and loss,” she said. “People fear the unknown, and change comes with a lot of loss. It might not be the loss of a job, but sometimes it’s the loss of a support system. You might get moved into a new department where there are new co-workers, new contacts and a new manager, and you don’t know who to go to for help. This can often result in absenteeism. Change is very stressful.”

O’Brien-Wood suggested that both a sense of control over the situation and a sense of confidence reduces the amount of stress that occurs in a changing environment. According to O’Brien-Wood, this type of stress reduction is best achieved by providing adequate training, adequate support and a strong communication network between management and employees.

Al Pinington, a consultant with IBM Global Services in Toronto, agrees that communication is essential for successfully managing change, but cautions that even with the best planning it can be difficult.

“It’s an inordinate amount of work,” he said. Part of the problem, Pinington said, is the perception of what the change will mean for the company and its employees. “People generally come up with scenarios that are five times worse than what they are actually going to be, and that’s why they end up having fears.”

Pinington suggests that this can be avoided by performing a readiness assessment before the company ever brings a new piece of technology into the building. This assessment, he explained, determines the issues that will pop up when change is introduced to both existing technology and the employee base.

“Change readiness assessment helps to understand the current environment and current culture, and its propensity to accept change. This needs to be done early in the game, through focus groups or by having a survey done,” Pinington explained.

Peter de Jager, a Toronto-based speaker and consultant on issues relating to change management, agrees that the best way to address change within a company is to involve the employees by providing a voice and a certain amount of participation in the process.

“If the staff is involved in the process, fear and concern about the change is softened,” de Jager said. “It doesn’t go away, but they know that it was partly their decision.”

de Jager likened the process of introducing change into an corporate environment to that of a child learning to ride a bicycle.

“Imagine a child who sees another child on a bike in the schoolyard. He or she thinks ‘that’s what I want to do,'” de Jager explained. “No matter how many times this kid falls down, he or she will get up again because its [his or her] decision to get on the bike.

“Now contrast that with a child who doesn’t want to learn to ride a bike,” de Jager continued. “You can’t force this to happen. If a kid says, ‘I don’t want to ride a bike,’ every little fall becomes a major traumatic event.”

de Jager linked this analogy to corporate change.

“If I tell a department they’re going to put in a new system, every time there’s a mess up, the employees are going to say, ‘I told you it wouldn’t work.'”

de Jager suggested that by allowing employees to have an opinion on the system before the implementation of the new technology begins, they are more likely to react like the child who wants to learn how to ride that bicycle.

“If you can make it their [the employees’] change, then there’s never a question of buy in,” he said.

Viraj Desai, a manager of consulting, innovation and growth solutions at Deloitte and Touche in Toronto has had first hand experience with the intricacies of technological change within organizations.

“There are two pieces to change: the human side and the tech piece. People need to be very much involved with change before it happens,” she explained. “They need to know why change is happening. Just throwing a new system in does not help a bit.”

According to Desai, companies that don’t outline what change is going to mean for its employees face unavoidable pitfalls once the new system is implemented.

“When management first puts a new system in, there’s never an efficiency gain right away,” Desai said. “One of the reasons is because either employees haven’t been trained or they don’t understand the system. They’re used to doing things in a certain way and don’t want to bother with the new way. It’s human nature to think that the old way of doing things was best. Even if it had its glitches, its better the devil you know. As things go wrong, people see inefficiencies and question the change.”

Desai suggested that there are important steps to take in expediting this efficiency gain and placating employees.

“Up front, spend time with folks. Tell them what the true change is and involve them in the change. They’re the ones who will need to use it, so train them,” Desai continued. “Another important element is to map out processes as they are now and see the needs of the organization right now. Also, get a person in senior management to be a strong change champion. This person has to communicate down to the level where the work is being done.”

As difficult as change might be for a company, the end result is almost always positive if the process is properly mapped out and employees adequately attended to.

“The more you can involve employees and make them part of the process, the more beneficial it will be in the long run,” O’Brien-Wood said.