Since COVID-19 struck all corners of the globe and impacting how people work in almost every organisation, we experienced a period of rapid and imposed change. This also raised a provocative question: If we changed so easily and quickly, what might change management look like in post-pandemic world?
The answer is simple – it will be the same as it should have looked in a pre-pandemic world. Let me explain why.
The pre-pandemic world
Pre-COVID, the external environment was already fierce, demanding that organisations become nimble, and more responsive to market forces to remain competitive. Often described as VUCA conditions (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity), businesses were under pressure to ramp up their innovation, learn from failure fast, and deliver solutions to customers more quickly. In turn, these new ways of working meant all employees needed to continually build on their existing skills with emerging skills including adaptive work styles and delivery.
For change practitioners, we were already expected to rethink the way we designed our change approach for these fast-moving, agile environments. However, adoption of new and innovative practices was sporadic. For many, the urgency to deliver change differently was not intense enough. There were pockets of slow adoption and experimentation of emerging practices.
A second element playing out pre-COVID was the disruption of power inside and outside organisations. Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms describe this in their book as ‘new power’. Once power was held by few, now it’s shared by many. Traditional, hierarchical models of organisational power no longer hit the mark in motivating people. This shift was prompting us to rethink our engagement and adoption approach.
This dynamic combination of VUCA and New Power provided clues to how to shift the ways in which we led and managed change. Many change practitioners were starting to add agile change practices to their toolkit and recognised the need to engage differently with their stakeholders and impacted users.
The pandemic arrives
Acting as both a disrupter and an accelerant, the pandemic did show us what ‘VUCA on steroids’ looks like.
Whilst we continued to experience the same pre-pandemic conditions of VUCA and New Power, we also became the receivers of rapid and imposed change. A global crisis disrupted many widely held beliefs about change management and how to deliver it. When the pressure was on to introduce change quickly, such as remote working, we saw how quickly it could be done. When businesses needed to pivot to survive, we saw how innovative and adaptive many could be to keep up with overnight introduction of new regulations and lockdowns.
This was a significant nudge for change leaders and practitioners – it showed us what can be done with limited time, fewer options and resources when you work collaboratively and iteratively, letting go of the need for perfection and the overhead of heavy process, review and decision making.
Emerging from COVID retreat
Now that we are emerging from pandemic retreat, workplaces are facing what is now termed ‘the greatest workplace disruption’. It won’t be the same workplace we left behind. This ‘return to work’ exercise will need strong change management skills that consider the conditions of VUCA, New Power, safety regulations, empathy and deep uncertainty. Now, change itself is on steroids, making it the ideal time to experiment with approaches we may have overlooked or avoided pre-pandemic.
So, what does change management look like in this post-pandemic world?
It seems the elements of how change is changing from my book Change Management The Essentials: The modern playbook for new and experienced practitioners that was launched just before the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a pandemic, remain relevant:
👊 More MVP, less perfection: Let go of the need for perfection, most times you won’t have time. 👊 More situational, less ‘one-way, same-way’: There’s a lot of advice on working remotely. There is no 'one prescribed way' to do this. Find the cadence and mix that works best for your organisation and people. 👊 More empathy, less process centred: We may need to discard processes, like outdated WFH policies. It’s okay to be vulnerable and not be an expert at everything. This new workplace has no template – it’s new and different for everyone. Focus on compassion and human-centric connection. 👊 More comfort with failure, less fear avoidance: Let's fail and learn more. Embrace now as the ideal time to experiment with new ways of doing things. Open conversations about what is not working, what is and embrace failure as your learning opportunities. This level of safety is needed to help people navigate the uncertainty. 👊 We need to keep in mind that while the way we deliver change is changing, the ways humans are hardwired to respond to change has not. People respond differently to the same change depending on their threat and reward triggers and this is explored in greater detail in two of my earlier posts: Why it's time to reframe our mindset about resistance September 2016
How much does change really hurt? September 2016
The ‘return to work’ reality
As you return to work and re-connect face-to-face with your peers, kick off discussions with these questions to co-create human-centred principles for the new workplace:
What have you learned?
What will you leave behind?
What will you do differently?
We know that while the way we deliver change is changing, the way humans are hardwired to respond to change has not.
Some of the key ‘return to work’ challenges which will be tasked to the Human Resources team are:
Hybrid working models: How might these look for inclusion, safety, connection, collaboration, recruitment, onboarding, coaching, mentoring, professional development, employee engagement, difficult conversations?
Reimagining the physical workspace
Employee well-being: Physical safety, mental health, emotional well-being and psychological safety
Mixed feelings about return to work including pandemic fear
Deep uncertainty and the impact on resilience, overwhelm and productivity
For change practitioners, this presents a unique opportunity to make a difference by offering our expertise in the people side of change as the workplace experiences the disruption ahead. We have the opportunity and challenge to help people make sense of what this means, not just for leaders, but also for employees, so we can play a meaningful role in supporting ‘return to work’. If you need help or support with the changes associated with ‘Return to Work’ in your organisation, please reach out to us at the Agile Change Leadership Institute or drop me a line via the Contact Form on this website.
Heimans, J. & Timms ,H. (2018), New power: How power works in our hyperconnected world and how to make it work for you, Sydney, Macmillan.
TED Talk by Jeremy Heimans, What new power looks like, 2014 on www.ted.com