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How to Manage and Support Employees Through Transformational Change

Metal compass on wood

If leading and managing change in the uncertain turbulent environment that existed at the beginning of 2020 was a complex challenge, the degree of difficulty has now been increased significantly.

The coronavirus pandemic has created disruption in business worldwide, among leaders and managers who were already stretched and who have never faced so many challenges and dilemmas. 

It is in such times of transformational change that individuals and teams look to leaders and managers to provide direction, stability, hope, and care as they transition to new ways of working.

There are several ways to manage and support employees through the transition into the new reality in a post-COVID world, including the following:

Create practices for sustaining remote working

The rapid shift to remote working has accelerated new and different ways of working while also contradicting traditional ideas that working from home leads to low productivity, less visibility and little opportunity for collaboration.

Remote working does, however, require leaders and managers to ensure that their employees have the adequate home infrastructure, technology and tools to work effectively. This means that managers need to understand individuals’ styles of working and personal circumstances in more depth than they have previously done. 

Furthermore, good practices need to be implemented, such as ways to remain agile in remote settings, new forms of management presence established, and virtual communication methods created to maximize productivity.

New approaches that balance remote and onsite work are also needed, such as work-from-home days, or a 50% model splitting working between home and the office.

What is essential in establishing new flexible paradigms for work is to set norms at the organizational level so that the change is implemented and new ways of working are sustained in order to avoid employees resorting to their old ways of working.

Engage employees with transformations

While the traditional top-down model of change management has been commonly applied in stable environments, it is ineffective at addressing the exponential increase in organizational complexity which we are now facing.

As uncertainty continues the responsibility of managers to engage employees in decisions about the workplace and work is vital.  Moreover, managers need to regularly interact with teams to engage them in decisions about what needs to change and how.

This means managers asking employees if there are things that they could stop doing and considering what that will mean, as well as enabling employees to challenge what they do and why they do it.

To do this effectively managers need to create spaces for dialogue, where employees can voice their issues, ideas, concerns and hopes, and importantly where they will be listened to by managers and leaders.

Take care of the wellbeing and resilience of employees

The COVID-19 crisis has caused an enormous amount of pressure and stress for many employees which has had an impact on their well-being.

To reduce individual’s stress and anxiety about a shift in the way they work, it is important that managers recognize that changing the ways in which they work can be very difficult for some individuals. It is also vital to ensure that employees are aware of techniques that can proactively enable them to achieve a better work-life balance, such as clearly distinguishing between work and personal time.

Managers must ensure that individuals are provided with the information and resources they need, not just for their physical wellbeing, but also for their psychological and mental wellbeing. In other words, it is more than just giving people a laptop. It means that managers need to help their staff create boundaries for ensuring that the norms associated with work are enacted at home, for example, that once an individual has ‘virtually’ left the office, their working day is finished.

To achieve this, it may, for instance, help to set ‘office hours’ for particular teams/groups; share good practice on how to track time, and ensure that employees know that there is no expectation that emails will be answered out of work hours.   

Furthermore, there is a need to be mindful of ‘Zoom fatigue’, especially if people are finding that they don’t have time to do work as they are spending so much longer on video conferences. 

So to ensure that stress levels do not increase managers and leaders will need to ensure that support is in place for employees' wellbeing at an individual and organizational level.

Build new capabilities

The global pandemic crisis has imposed a transformation in the use of technology in organizations (and in the home) that is impacting on the capabilities that employees require.  

To address the need for building new and different skills, knowledge and experience, managers need to work with individuals and teams to identify the gaps in their capabilities and identify ways to plug these gaps. This means learning new skills, not just in traditional training workshops, but also through a blend of live online sessions, on-the-job practice and coaching as well as regular rotations across roles, functions, and even external positions.  

Managers will have to support their employees in order to build capabilities, learn fast, and apply their new skills. Leaders and managers will also need to build their own capabilities, particularly in the mastery of organizational transformations, understanding complex systems, and being able to communicate effectively (through different channels - not just email).

Be Empathetic and Flexible

As organizations transition out of lockdown and adapt to a new reality of working, leaders and managers need to move from responding to the crisis to thinking about the medium- and longer-term impact of the pandemic on workers, work and the workplace.

To effectively support employees from a distance, managers need to ensure that individuals feel heard and know they are not alone. This means listening to, and understanding employees’ needs – being empathetic. This is about much more than just mindlessly asking how individuals are doing, especially when managers cannot simply walk past someone’s desk or stop individuals in the corridor and have a chat.

To ensure everyone feels fully supported managers must set up alternative methods of connection, such as having a coffee and informal 1-2-1 chat via ZOOM or a digital team meeting. It is important that managers have these virtual ‘water cooler’ conversations and ask people how they are, and how they are adapting to using technology from home.

Although, leaders and managers who care about employees do more than listen, they also know how important it is to implement tough and distressing decisions in the most humane ways possible, especially those that impact on role redundancies.

Managers and leaders need to demonstrate that they care by expressing compassion for the harm and emotional distress inflicted by the pandemic and the actions they will take in response to the impact of it on health and economic issues.

Remain visible

Managers and leaders need to remain visible during times of unprecedented change.  It is too easy during such times for them to send out the odd long diatribe in an email and consequently think that they are maintaining their presence.  This is such a misguided approach. 

In the age of ZOOM, managers and leaders need to use online platforms to create space for informal and formal dialogue. They need to ‘virtually’ connect with people regularly, not only to keep them updated but also to provide opportunities for informal conversations and to help to allay concerns and anxieties.

Communicate

Leaders and managers need to be transparent in their communications – this means being clear about what they know, what they don’t know, and what they are doing to learn more.

Thoughtful, frequent communication shows that managers and leaders are aware of what is happening externally and internally and are adjusting their responses as they learn more.

Furthermore, leaders should take care to ensure that each audience’s questions, concerns and issues are addressed. During a crisis such as COVID-19, although managers may not be able to stop or reduce many of the distressing consequences, they can support people by communicating when they will be safe from destructive and upsetting changes.

For example, they can protect people from waking up every day and wondering if they will lose pay or no longer have a job, by giving them as much information as possible about when they are safe from such changes, and when they are not.

Conclusion

Although it is a challenge for managers and leaders to alleviate all uncertainty and anxiety caused by the impact of the current pandemic, they can help by being visible, providing spaces for difficult conversations as well as spaces where individuals and teams can raise ideas, hopes and fears, and ensure that they focus on individual and organizational wellbeing.

When organizational members believe that leaders and managers care about their wellbeing, commitment, and concerns, it helps them transition through radical transformational change a little more easily.