— By Declan Foster
We are about to embark on the most significant change to the workplace in our lifetimes. The Covid lockdowns were arguably the most noticeable societal change since the second world war. And the mandatory work from home mandates that so many of us experienced was probably the most significant rapid change in the workplace most of us have experienced. However, as we return to work and consider the move to hybrid working, we can consider this change the most significant change to the workplace that any of us will have experienced and prepare accordingly.
When we started to work from home, that is for those who could, it was almost an overnight change in many cases. We can say that this change applied equally to everyone for office-based workers, and there was a minimal choice. The move to hybrid working, on the other hand, involves decisions and choices and will likely not be applied evenly across or even potentially within organisations. It is essential to recognise and acknowledge that individuals will have experienced enforced working-from-home differently. An employee who lives on their own might have experienced social isolation. An employee with a family might have found it difficult to balance looking after children and their workload. Equally, individuals will have various opinions and preferences when it comes to hybrid working.
To achieve a successful transition to hybrid working, I believe we need to leverage off change management models, approaches, and toolkits. I define change management as a structured approach to moving an organisation from a current state to a desired future state, focusing on the people side of change.
William Bridges Model
In his book Managing Transitions, William Bridges wrote, “it is not the changes that do you in; it’s the transitions.” He outlined three phases of every transition. There is the Ending or Letting Go phase, where employees need to be afforded the time to let go of the old ways of working. Next comes the Neutral Zone, which has been compared to Moses in the wilderness. Anxiety levels can increase, and motivation and performance can decrease during this phase. Conversely, this phase can also present opportunities for innovation and creativity.
Successfully transitioning through this phase leads us to our New Beginning phase, but as the French novelist Andre Gide wrote, “One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” Unfortunately, these phases do not occur in neat sequential steps, but instead they appear more like overlapping strata, and you are likely to be in more than one phase at a time. However, the importance of each phase to individuals will change over time. In addition, we need to cater to the added complexity of multiple changes occurring and overlapping simultaneously. In addition to the move to Hybrid working, what other significant changes will employees be going through, e.g., Brexit, automation projects, digital transformation and mergers etc.?
Leading Through Change
In my experience of advising on and leading change initiatives, I have discovered that the single most crucial ingredient for a successful change is how line managers/people managers are empowered and equipped to support and lead their teams through the transition. They may need additional training or development in areas such as leading hybrid teams, dealing with ambiguity, and leading with emotional intelligence. We need to recognise that line managers can wear multiple hats during a change. They will experience the change first as an employee and then as a line manager. It is a bit like the safety message you hear on an airplane – please secure your own oxygen mask first, and then you can assist others.
We should expect line managers to be a step ahead of the team, lead the team through the change and help resolve barriers in transitioning to new working models. Equally, line managers should reasonably expect the same level of support from their line managers that they are expected to provide to their teams.
My Top 5 Tips for Navigating the Change to Hybrid Working
Ensure you have measurable goals and objectives for this initiative. Measure your performance from employee pulse surveys, adoption rates for new hybrid working technologies, and employee aggregated data, including absenteeism rates and performance scores.
Create a roadmap for the transition to hybrid working. It needs to be precise enough to provide appropriate clarity and direction but flexible enough to allow for changing circumstances. Bridges’ Transition Model is a great starting point for developing your roadmap. Ensure you include a broad range of stakeholders in the process.
Communication & Engagement
Communicate with employees with consistent messages and at a regular cadence. I have yet to see a change initiative that failed because employees were overcommunicated with! Remember that communicating without listening is just broadcasting. Ensure that employees have multiple channels to provide feedback on the change. Employees may have accepted the directive approach to working from home due to the pandemic. Still, due to the lower sense of urgency for the move to hybrid working, there is an increased expectation of engagement and consultation.
Create a Change Champion Network
I define a Change Champion as someone who wholeheartedly supports the change you are undertaking and understands in detail the operations, processes, systems and people in a specific area where the change will be implemented. They can provide honest feedback from the frontline on how the change is landing and can act as a 2-Way Communication Channel, disseminating messages throughout the workforce and channeling messages back to the leadership or project team. Be clear on how you will support them in their new role, e.g., with training and regular key messages to share.
Ensure you have measurable goals and objectives
for this initiative. Measure your performance from employee pulse surveys, adoption rates for new hybrid working technologies, and employee aggregated data, including absenteeism rates and performance scores.
This will be a challenging process, so we need to take the time to recognise and celebrate the milestones and achievements of individuals and teams. This can help reinforce the change and build support among those who have yet to engage with the process.
Managed well, the move to hybrid working could lead to a more engaged, productive, and innovative workforce. If handled poorly, it could lead to reputational consequences for the organisation over the coming years.
Declan Foster is an internationally experienced and qualified change management practitioner and project manager. With a Big 4 Management Consulting background, Declan has over 20 years of experience working in HR Tech projects worldwide.
Declan is an internationally experienced and qualified change management practitioner and project manager. With a Big 4 Management Consulting background, Declan has over 20 years of experience working in HR Tech projects worldwide. You can contact him at email@example.com