My favourite story illustrating why change management is both necessary and important can be traced back to one of my first experiences of presenting a new office design to a client.

Miles McLeod

Workplace Consultant

13th Sep 2016


Along with the internal project team, we presented the new design at a large town hall meeting, with lots of colourful visuals that took in to account the various working styles, with quiet spaces and new collaboration spaces.

After the presentation, we were all very pleased with ourselves, and chatting about how much everyone present seemed to like the proposed design. This was interrupted when one of the staff came up and told us it was all very nice, but where was he to put his tuna? Doubt and scepticism clouding his face; he solemnly described that he brought in tuna for the whole week on a Monday – will there be space near him to store it?

Resistance to change can take many forms. Active resistance can include arguing, undermining, being openly critical and sabotaging change efforts. Far harder to pinpoint is passive resistance. Agreeing verbally, but not following through, withholding support or information, procrastinating and failing to aid in the help process (Hultman, 1995). So why, do people resist change? Kanter (1985) outlined ten sources of resistance to change. Let’s explore them in terms of how tuna-man might have felt:

Any one of these could be the source of resistance when trying to implement change, and there’s no telling what was worrying tuna-man. However, all is not lost, there are proactive strategies designed to counteract resistance. At Morgan Lovell, our change management approach focuses on participation, reducing uncertainty and educating staff about the new ways of working.

Participate

Participation of staff has been shown to be very effective. Coch and French (1948) demonstrated this in a study of a garment factory. They compared two groups of workers who were told they had to change their way of working. Group one were called in, explained the reasons for the change, told how to change their working process, and sent back out to do their job. The effect was immediate; output dropped by a third, and stayed low for the duration of the experiment. There was open hostility towards management, deliberate restriction of production and 17% quit within the first forty days.

The second group had a very different introduction to the change. The need for change was presented dramatically, but those present were invited to participate in designing the changes. In this group, there was an initial dip in output but this quickly recovered and rose above previous rates. There were no signs of hostility, and no-one quit.

Participation is therefore good. However, we also recognise too much participation can slow down change initiatives – nobody wants an office designed by committee. At Morgan Lovell, we advise building choice into the change process, such as creating ‘rules’ about how to use the space or allocating team walls for decoration. This way, the overall change is not slowed but staff feel they have control over the change.

Lead

First and foremost, create a ‘change’ team with a lead sponsor. Mitigating uncertainty from the beginning requires leadership to be fully behind the message. Staff look to leadership for direction and if they are not seen to be on board, change won’t stick. The team should involve key representatives from HR, facilities management, IT and influential people within your organisation who will be vocal and supportive of the change.

Communicate

Once an overall strategy and direction are agreed, such as moving to desk-sharing, it is important to communicate this in a consistent and strong way. Key is getting across the message that change is necessary, and providing the context for this (i.e. rising real estate costs, business growth). This coupled with a strong communication plan ensures that people are clear about their role, the project timeline, anticipated impact(s) and what is expected of them. Have a key contact as a go-to and prepare for the influx of questions by creating an FAQ page on the company Intranet.

Educate

Key to our philosophy at Morgan Lovell is addressing practical concerns: what do we mean when we say you can choose where you work? Practically, how do you switch workstations? Where do I go on the first day? Who can I talk to if I can’t find a locker? In the context of an office refurb, we often advise having furniture samples available to show staff in advance. Answering concerns mitigates both uncertainty and fears about the future, while also reinforcing the message that change is happening.

Recognise the loss

However much we frame it there will always be some loss with change. In the context of an office redesign, this could range from ownership of your desk to the loss of your coveted tuna shelf. Lawrence (1969) suggested that it isn’t the technical change that people are resistant to – it’s the social change that goes along with it. It’s potentially not the fact that they have to move desks.

It’s the fact that they normally sit next to Fred, who always helps them think of the right word, or across from Jenny, who is an excel whiz. That’s why it’s important to point out what individuals are gaining when they are blinded by the “loss”. You might be losing “your” desk, but you’re gaining a new lunch spot to socialise. You might not always sit next to your office pal, but you might get to know someone in another team better.

Change management is ongoing, and not everyone will adjust. Often we cannot tell what is going on in someone’s personal life, whether they have a lot of change happening or if it will affect other areas of their life. And yes sometimes, the threat is real. Honesty and transparency are valued in the workplace – don’t try to hide it.

As for tuna-man, we assured him there would still be tea-points, there would still be fridges, and in addition to all this, there would be a lovely new canteen to eat it. We do understand: it’s the little things that make the difference.