How you engage will impact the acceptance of change – it’s all about how you tell the story.
Long ago and far away I had a boss whose mantra was ‘Do it right, do it once’. This is critical within workplace change. This is because we are dealing with human frailties; each participant brings a different variable to the table.
Now I’m not saying design by committee; reducing everything to the lowest common denominator is a non-viable investment and delivers more disappointment than joy. What I am saying is: know how to engage.
Change is effectively a story about a journey that creates itself in the telling. Confused? Walk with me a while….and let’s explore two tellings of a story that changed the world.
Story 1: It’s a story about a huge battle. There are swarming crowds of humanoids having a fight, lots of yelling, slashing, and strange, war-machine type things. There’s a big stand-off at the end between two of them, they both die. The end.
Do you care? Neither do I. Life is too short to invest in something that can’t be bothered to invest in you.
Let’s try that again.
Story 2: It’s a story about the innate goodness of people, of friendship and how a journey walked together forms the tightest of bonds. It’s about characters that slowly reveal their sometimes bruised lives, letting us connect and learn what forms their motives and inspiration to continue against all odds. They walk to stand against the absolute horror of oppression and murderous tyranny. They speak to you of the possibilities of a life not worth living while showing you the way to vanquish it. And when characters die, you grieve.
They are the same story told in different ways. Story 1 lands you in at the end. There is no context. It does not let you connect with characters and root for someone. It treats you like a commodity.
Story 2 treats you like an individual, introducing you to characters, experiences and emotions that you can identify with. It lets you immerse yourself in the tale. And once you have connected – it stays with you after the final page. That’s why this tale spawned a vast global market (and on reflection it’s a pretty good synopsis of a good number of other books or films that stick with you).
And this is what we get when applying this to a workplace change context:
Scenario: A business has traditional approach to workplace, everyone has a desk. Managers have offices. Space is territorial. The business direction is to expand headcount within the existing building footprint. Significant changes are required to meet business objective.
Workplace Strategy: Based on data analysis (utilisation studies, compliance assessment, densities, headcount forecast, business strategy including IT and Personnel). Decision-maker level meetings take place to discuss opportunities, including relocating headcount to regional (and significantly more cost effective) offices, risks and impacts per options. The Decision-makers arrive at a decision (for this exercise let us assume this excludes regional relocation) based on cost efficiency and speed of delivery, and the new workplace is installed. The employee’s engagement is limited to the grand reveal – and the glories of the rumour mill.
I can tell you now that people who have limited (usually zero) experience of a non-traditional working environment will not have a clue how to use the new workplace. Where is their ‘home’ for the day? Where are their friends sitting? Where does the boss find their team – and ensure they are actually working? Where do they find the boss? Effectively, where is my ‘tribe’, where is my leader?
It’s Story 1 all over again: the end user is a commodity; the concern was to complete a piece of work and short term financial gain. Someone, somewhere gets some glory (hence the grand reveal) and everyone is dragged along for the ride. I have witnessed instances of resistance and conflict caused by this method.
Badly landed workplace change will result in it being declared a non-viable option, a failure. The end users have been trained that agile working means their worth to their employer is diminished, this will affect morale. Be mindful of your well-poisoners, they can instil an equality of misery more swiftly and effectively than you can instil a positive view of the new workplace.
There is little you can do to come back from a Story 1 method. The emotions associated with work have been negatively impacted; damaged. And people have been bluntly, clumsily, told what to do with the expectation that they will obey. Trying to persuade people that something they have experienced, and been hurt by, is actually a good thing, no really it is – is nigh-on impossible. It’s the old ‘fool me once’ adage in action.
Let’s invest in a scenario that will work:
The powers that be decide on the same workplace strategy as before. Behind the scenes selected stakeholders from across the business (respected, level-headed influencers with a balanced outlook) are approached to be part of the concept working group. Group members include the key stakeholder and appointed workplace strategist/consultant. The group establish a communication strategy.
The Board then make an announcement to all employees, outlining why the change is happening, what the framework is, and when it will start. Why is important. Provide context and understanding. Representatives (approachable, responsible, possibly resistant to change because, let’s face it (and to quote my school chaplain) ‘there’s none so devout as a convert’) are sought for change workshops. Expectations are managed. Frameworks of influence defined. Then you ask a simple question….and listen.
This workshop is not about you, it’s about them. It’s a ‘safe place’ where they get to voice their likes, dislikes, frustrations, hopes, fears. Listen to the tone. See who holds the floor and the ear of others. Are there any introverts in this group; with 30-50% of the
workplace being introverted, one hopes so. Identify where there may be challenges – within the workshop group, the end users and the business’s processes. Nudge the conversation back on course, gently nipping rambling in the bud. Use your skills to obtain quality information.
Then, protecting anonymity as best you can, feedback the barometer; Personnel may need to develop management skills or change performance measurements. IT may need to get some investment PDQ. And exactly what is going on with the coffee machine on the 3rd floor?
Do this in each workshop, defining the parameters of each workshop on the outset. The first three drive out the workplace plan.
The second three, are to establish a ‘Charter’ of workplace use. This requires a different selection of people and includes ‘training the trainers’. This ensures a wider inclusion specifically including line managers – after all, how are they to support people in the brave new world if they are learning how it works themselves?
The ‘Charter’ is essentially how end users want to use their workplace. Is it ok to leave used coffee mugs on the meeting tables? Can we have the desks cleaned for us? Can I use my earphones? What about personal phone calls? Should the sofa area be bookable?
The Charter will be unique to each area of the business, it is critical that the end users lead this, thus reinforcing their feeling of ownership and contribution to this change. The Charter will be guided by the culture and moral compass of the business and the employees. Your role is to facilitate the conversation, to enable managers to feel confident leading the change post-completion, and to ensure timing of completion coincides with that of the workplace installation.
This is Story 2. Relationships have been forged. A journey travelled. We’re all in it together (including the bosses), we have not only survived but we have influenced direction; we have been heard. And when the big finale comes, we are ready for the dawn of a new day, for those first steps into a new workplace and we feel able to live here. We know how we are expected to behave. We understand our community.
And like many a good novel, there is an epilogue:
It is also critical that the leadership understands that the existing culture will take time to change so agile working is the norm. Changing the workplace is just the beginning; the workplace behaviour change will need to be regularly coached for many months after completion until the change is absorbed into the culture. Where habits return to the old method this is because the change “[Began] with a vision or story, but [failed] to put in place the management tools that will cement the behavioral changes in place.” 
 Susan Cain, www.quietrev.com and author of Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.