Put People First: The Role of HR in Managing Change in the Workplace

Author: Bruce Walcroft, Solutions Consultant Team Lead
May 5, 2017

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Somewhere along the line, evolution didn’t quite get it right. In the early ages of man, our main concerns were about survival – ensuring we had enough food, water and shelter. And while humans have come a long way since the days of rubbing sticks together to make fire, the evolution of our brains has not kept up with the pace of change in our lives. Despite the vast number of technological breakthroughs that have radically altered how we live and work, the prospect of change – even by the smallest variable – can bring some people out in a cold sweat.
“If you look at it structurally, the network of the brain which is involved in noticing changes and deciding what to do – the prefrontal cortex – is one of the most energy demanding, easily tired and easily overwhelmed parts of the brain, so changing how we do even the simplest of tasks is a very complex process,” says Dr David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute. “This region is connected to every other part of the brain, and essentially works like a gating function, meaning everything slows down when you have to use it.”


Change management listed as top challenge for HR


This can, of course, be a problem for organisations, which, due to the fast-paced nature of business, need to change all the time, whether that is a department restructure or a new piece of software. It is perhaps unsurprising then that change management came out as the top challenge for HR in People Management’s ‘The Challenges and Opportunities Facing HR in 2017’ research report, with 39% of respondents citing it among their top three standout challenges in 2017.

Alison Carter, principal research fellow, Institute for Employment Studies, believes part of the problem is that organisations aren’t able to keep the momentum of change management programmes going. “Change is often seen as an initiative or series of programmes, which may or may not be connected to each other, and each one can often run out of momentum,” she says. This is something Andy Swann, a workplace consultant at BDG, agrees with. “Because many organisations still see projects as isolated schemes, they focus change management on information and training, rather than inspiration and connection,” he says. “Any change contributes to the future of an ever-evolving organisation – it’s part of a picture bigger than the project itself and needs to be approached that way.” He says the more connected people are to a change, the simpler it is to encourage positive adoption. Therefore he believes it’s important that organisations involve their employees in the process as early as possible, “because when people own a change, they engage positively with it”.

Mark Swain, head of the Henley Centre for HR Excellence and director of partnerships, Henley Business School, says he believes organisations struggle to make the transition from managing a project to something more transformational. “To guide something much more fluid and organic is going to be difficult,” he says. People’s fear of the unknown is essentially a problem about visualisation, he adds, therefore it is important that senior leadership illustrate what the change will mean. For example, what the business is saving through the change, or what quality and service improvements will occur as a result of it, so you can outweigh any resistance.


Have a clear vision for change


It is vital to have a strong vision for the change and why it’s better than the status quo, says Carter. “Why are we doing this? And is it being described in a way which connects with employees or stakeholders in an organisation? Ideally, it needs to connect at quite an emotional level,” she explains.

“I think a lot of management training about change is quite linear, whereas actually what connects people is the story about what the future would look like when the change is done. That is something people can relate to and rally behind,” she adds. It’s also important for organisations not to simply try and align changes with their current culture, in the hope of making them acceptable – “you’ve got to align it with the culture you want”.

Get employees involved from the start


Carter also believes organisations can do more to ready their employees for the next change. But is building agility in the workplace key to being able to handle change better? Swann says that until organisations recognise the world they operate in will never stand still, they will always see a change in isolation. “We’re still in the early stages of organisations building flexibility and adaptability as a standard and there is a long way to go,” he says. “It’s not a case of completely changing an organisation’s structure to allow constant, natural evolution, it’s more a case of unleashing people through the flow of information up, down and around the organisation. It’s not so complicated and when this happens, change can be adopted much more easily.”Swann has five golden rules for companies undergoing a change management programme:


1. Put people first

2. Consider the impact

3. Give everyone ownership of the change

4. Communicate constantly and openly

5. Think differently


“An effective change management programme can be defined by one which results in positive adoption,” he says. “Every company is unique, like every individual within it, and every change will impact teams, groups or individuals in slightly different ways, so a change management programme needs to tell a story that provides tools for a smooth transition at all levels. The same overall principles can be applied, but they need to be accessible and allow everyone to explore and connect with change in their own context.”

Communication is key


Matt Jenkins, head of consulting at Footdown, says it’s important that organisations are aware that employees go through the change curve at different speeds. “Adjust your strategy so people are supported through change and communicate with them as much as possible,” he recommends. But make sure communicate doesn’t equate to ‘e-mail overload’, but a variety of formats, such as newsletter, events and team building sessions. “Just as important is the need to listen to employee needs and ‘pain points’. Too often communication is an outbound process and inbound communication is forgotten. Constructive discussion can truly trigger significant improvements for everyone.”

Carter also believes it’s important to involve employees in the process. “It’s about it not just being top down – by engaging employees you make it bottom up as well. When you have change driven from the top that’s often where you get a lot of employee resistance, but if you have predominately employee driven change you risk not achieving the corporate objectives” she says. “It’s the space in the middle and how they connect that needs the careful handling. If you do both simultaneously, the change is also likely to happen more quickly.” And finally, make sure you capture the corporate learning from any change management programmes you have carried out, she says – what worked well and what didn’t – so the process can be improved for the next change.

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