Dealing with change is part of life, and part of business.
Change could involve moving to a new office (or remote work), new schedules, or introducing a new process or software system for everyone to use.
Some of us are naturally more comfortable with these sorts of change. Updating the work environment or way of doing things can bring a much-needed bit of variety to the workplace, and without it, many people would get bored.
But as most managers will tell you, actually going through with it and implementing these sorts of changes can be a right headache. You might be faced with direct complaints, hushed grumblings, or a general lack of enthusiasm when bringing in a new project.
With the complex, accelerating world we live in, we’re only going to be faced with more change in the near future. Businesses need to evolve and update the way they do things if they want to stay competitive. So we need to figure out why employees resist change in the first place, and what we can do to help make things easier for them.
The fear of extra work
Despite most business changes being brought in to increase efficiency in some way, workers can be concerned they’ll have to do more to keep up.
While changes to staffing hierarchy can shuffle around workloads, any organisational change shouldn’t increase the overall amount of work they have to do. (If it did, they’d have to renegotiate their job description.)
There is a bit of extra mental load when learning how to do things differently - like using a new software system, for instance. But systems like these are designed to reduce work burdens in the long term.
The remedy: make it super clear how the changes will benefit your team. New software sometimes has a bit of a learning curve, but if it’s going to remove a bunch of manual data entry or wasteful paperwork, then in the long run everyone will benefit. Make sure everyone knows that.
Worry about being replaced
Any significant shake-up in a company is going to provoke at least a little bit of fear. Especially so in the age of automation and machine learning; many knowledge workers are facing disruption to their careers by clever algorithms and industry-specific AI programs.
So management introducing advanced tech into the workplace is bound to occasionally stir up some fears about jobs being replaced by machines. Only you will know for sure whether that’s the case, but as long as it’s not, it’s up to you to make everyone aware.
People are inherently emotional and there’s always going to be interpersonal concerns; work is a source of dignity and meaning for many people, and if they’re afraid of losing control over their position, creative abilities, or social standing, it’s going to cause them to resist such change.
A strategy for avoiding this is offered by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in HBR:
"Change interferes with autonomy and can make people feel that they’ve lost control over their territory. It’s not just political, as in who has the power. Our sense of self-determination is often the first things to go when faced with a potential change coming from someone else. Smart leaders leave room for those affected by change to make choices. They invite others into the planning, giving them ownership.”
As well as getting them involved in decisions, keep employees reassured that the changes are there to help them, not replace them. Changes can sometimes provoke a bit of a crisis of confidence too, so a well thought out program of training and up-skilling workers on new processes will help them settle and keep their skills sharp.
You haven't communicated the changes properly
One of the most common reason that changes go wrong: bad communication. Folks have change thrust upon them with not enough warning or explanation for why it’s happening in the first place, and it leads to resentment.
When managing a big new project, it’s not always a priority to document and explain what’s going on in an intuitive way. One way to mitigate this is to try a bit of storytelling.
Take inspiration from the world of marketing - copywriting in particular. It’s the art of persuasive writing that’s intended to get people to take action - whether that’s to buy something, sign up for a newsletter, or request more information. If you can apply those principles to your latest new software implementation, rather than just saying “this is what’s happening and when”, people will be much more invested in what’s going on.
It might not seem as important, but your internal company messaging is as important as your external advertising. Those with high technical competence aren’t always the greatest at communicating persuasively, so it might be a good opportunity to bring in some help from a colleague that’s more of a ‘people person’.
They aren't happy in their jobs
There’s an interesting take on change perception over at Catherine’s Career Hub:
“Employees who experience a high degree of job satisfaction are better able to weather periods of change. They are more positive in their approach to their work and can see change as an organizational necessity. Unhappy employees, on the other hand, view change as just another annoyance in a long list of complaints.
Chances are, whatever the change, any disgruntled employees will view it as having a negative impact on both the organization and them personally."
While this quote almost seems to place the blame on employees for their own perceptions, it reflects more on the culture of the company.
If your company is stable and treats staff well, then you’re more likely to have satisfied workers. This means changes should be easier to implement. It’s worth stepping back before implementing business changes to ask yourself - are there other problems we should be fixing first?