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Focus on employee needs when leading change virtually

Leading change in any organization can present challenges and obstacles to leaders and change agents. With many organizations shifted to a virtual workplace for the long term, planning for and navigating through change can become even more difficult.

Some of the pitfalls that a virtual workplace may present when leading change include:

  • Fewer real-time opportunities for social learning -- that is, those natural interactions that spark dialogue and just-in-time learning when employees are present together
  • Less visibility among managers and change agents during the change process
  • Fewer informal occasions for managers to communicate and reinforce key messages to employees during the change process
  • Less chance of reading nonverbal cues from employees that reflect how they are reacting and responding to the change and transitioning from current to future state
  • More temptation for quick, one-way flows of information versus robust two-way feedback loops
  • Less recognition and celebration when the change is successfully moving in the intended direction

Despite these challenges, organizational change successfully can be managed in a virtual workplace with a strong strategy, robust plan and effective communication approach that address both the organization’s and virtual employees’ needs.

So, how do you pivot your change-management strategies and approach from a more traditional, in-person workplace to a virtual one? Let’s examine several critical considerations.

Don’t forget the fundamentals

Leaders and change agents should not be deceived into thinking that fundamental change-management principles do not apply in a virtual environment. The core principles that focus on employee needs through the change process include:

  • Explain the "why" that is driving the change
  • Connect the initiative to the "what’s in it for me?" so that change becomes personal
  • Craft a compelling vision for the change that inspires employees and prompts their desire to move forward
  • Clearly outline the negative effects of not changing
  • Indicate what will remain the same
  • Consider and communicate what the future state will look, feel, and even sound like
  • Design an actionable roadmap toward the future state and ensure that employees understand their role through and after the transition

Adhering to these principles will fortify your change efforts, regardless of whether employees are reporting to a physical workplace or logging into a virtual one.

Communicate -- and then communicate some more

A robust communication plan adds vitality to your change initiative. Consider how you will pulse clear, consistent messaging throughout the change process. In fact, in a virtual workplace, commit to overcommunicating. This will ensure that employees have every opportunity to learn about the change initiative, receive answers to their questions and understand their role throughout the process.

  • Communicate frequently with your virtual employees, and find multiple channels for distributing your message
  • Don’t wait for the perfect message or to have perfect information before communicating, especially during times when change is occurring rapidly or even chaotically
  • Ensure well timed communications, even if the message isn’t as polished as you would prefer
  • Consider the channels where you naturally communicate with your employees, and weave your messaging into these channels
  • Leverage ongoing communications to raise employees’ awareness, interest and desire, with the ultimate objective of evoking action

In addition, consider the following:

  • Starting the work week with a virtual team huddle
  • Hosting brief online chats at designated times
  • Leveraging internal social media to distribute important and timely messages
  • Implementing collaboration applications, such as Microsoft Teams, where employees can post and respond to questions, search for information as needed, and initiate impromptu interactions with each other throughout the change

Diversifying your communication channels ensures that your employees readily and quickly can access important, timely information related to the change, regardless of how or where they are working.

Feedback is a two-way street

Even though leaders and change agents might not see their employees as often in a virtual workplace, that doesn’t mean that employees have any less need to be seen or heard during the change process.

  • Resist the temptation to favor a lean channel of communication, such as e-mail. Although lean channels might allow you to quickly communicate information across a broad, virtual audience, they don’t capture how employees are reacting to the change
  • Leverage rich channels to support more meaningful, two-way exchanges among leaders, change agents, employees and other stakeholders
  • Create a cadence for seeking feedback so that you can assess how your employees are emotionally transitioning throughout the change process

In a virtual workplace, use lean channels when informing your employees of an impending change and raising their awareness, but leverage rich channels to engage them.

For example, after sending an e-mail notifying employees of an upcoming change, follow up with virtual office hours or coffee chats to foster more meaningful interactions. This two-way dialogue provides your employees with opportunities to ask questions, raise concerns, brainstorm, and work through challenges.

Simple online polls during virtual interactions can generate information on the team’s mood and overall reaction at any point in the change process. Group chats or live streaming events that incorporate thoughtful discussion prompts can assess whether employees understand the change; know their role during the change; and emotionally connect to the value and direction of the change.

Motivation isn’t enough

Even people with awareness, interest and desire in the change may be slow to adopt it because they do not have the knowledge and skills to perform successfully in the "new normal." So, leaders should:

  • Provide just-in-time, accessible tools and resources that assist your employees through the change
  • Ensure that timely, virtual support is available to your employees during the change
  • Create online learning forums to foster social learning
  • Celebrate wins that exemplify success in action

In a virtual workplace, consider a variety of resources to improve your team’s knowledge, skills and confidence as they transition into the new normal. Examples include on-demand videos, self-paced courses, self-guided instructions and knowledge databases. Ensure that your employees have the right technology and access levels to tap into these resources as they need them.

Don’t underestimate how quickly an orchestrated, virtual group can learn and adapt together. For example, create both formal and informal opportunities that bring employees affected by the change and experts together in a common, virtual space to accelerate learning.

As early change adopters and champions begin to emerge, connect them with people who are lagging or experiencing difficulties through the transition process. Nourish your team by fostering trust through psychologically safe learning environments, and role model knowledge and information sharing so that employees excel and win together.

Remember that recognition drives team progress, learning, engagement and overall momentum. In a virtual environment, recognition can occur in many ways, including peer-to-peer e-cards, online dashboards that track progress toward goals, and success stories highlighted in organizational social media.

Takeaways

As the old saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Despite a growing trend toward virtual work, prudent leaders focus and rely on proven change-management principles to support employees through transition.

Effective approaches anticipate and respect employees’ needs to understand the rationale behind the change; the effects that the change will have on them; and their role throughout the change process.

A thoughtful communication plan reinforces consistent and ongoing messaging that raises employees’ awareness, interest and desire, while sparking timely action. Especially in a virtual environment, leveraging rich communication channels will promote dialogue, brainstorming, feedback, peer support and higher engagement throughout the change.

Fostering individual and social learning through a variety of mechanisms – including self-serve resources and collaborative tools -- ensures that motivated learners become confident performers in the new normal.

Finally, highlighting and celebrating wins to maintain high energy, motivation and teamwork are essential until the new normal is well-established in workplace practice and culture.

 

Tony Gigliotti, MHRM, PHR, RCC, ODCP, is the director, talent management and organizational development, at UPMC, a world-renowned health care provider and insurer based in Pittsburgh. He has 25 years of experience in HR, leadership development, organizational development, change management, coaching and strategic planning, particularly in the health care industry.

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