How well do colleagues at your organisation handle disruption to the workplace? If you’re like many public servants, you’re probably thinking, “not very”. And you’re not alone. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruption to public sector organisations. But there are tried-and-tested ways in which you can address anxiety among the people you manage, so they adapt and thrive through change.
Change causes disruption – and increases employee anxiety
Workplace change comes in a variety of forms: an organisation may alter its policies, business processes, technology, and how it’s structured. Several types of change might happen at the same time. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic made it necessary for most employees to learn new technologies like Zoom and WebEx, and most managers were forced to provide direction and oversight remotely.
For public servants, these stressors may be even more acute. For the most part, major change comes slowly in the public sector. This is because political, regulatory and other factors can constrain managers’ ability to make decisions that disrupt usual ways of working. Therefore, when a major one occurs, it often makes up for action that had previously been delayed — and that can increase its scope and urgency.
“Government agencies must simultaneously deal with shifts in regulatory guidance, mission requirements, the availability of mission-critical skillsets, and challenges in recruiting and retaining a high performing workforce all while responding to increasing expectations for a high-quality citizen experience, the influence of Congress, and the rapid expansion and impact of technology.”
Major developments quickly become a source of anxiety for employees. They naturally become fearful about how a new directive will alter their ability to perform their job. While they had been successfully performing their tasks under the status quo, they do not yet have confidence that they will be able to perform successfully in the changed environment.
Overcoming employee anxiety about workplace change, therefore, becomes a matter of building their confidence. They need awareness, knowledge, and tools to successfully navigate the change. Confident and adaptable employees can even become change agents themselves, helping to make the organisation change successfully.
Employees need confidence to adapt successfully
In my experience as a strategic planning consultant for The Performance Institute, I’ve helped US federal government leaders develop effective strategies and implement strategic initiatives. These have had a significant impact on policies, processes, and technologies, which in turn have disrupted their employees’ normal work routines. In response, the employees affected become concerned and take proactive action to adjust and be successful under new rules.
I’ve experienced this phenomenon up close with recent clients when providing performance management advisory services. Many employees, at all levels, are focused on completing the tasks assigned to them, as they have always done. Planning desired outcomes, measuring results, and adjusting for improvement seems to be a time-intensive activity, distracting them from finishing their daily work. They fear they will continue to be judged solely by whether they complete their workload, not whether they achieved desired outcomes.
A solution is to address employee anxiety and build confidence that they can be successful. When I advise leaders on how to do this, I find one model provides an easy-to-understand, straightforward approach to overcoming employee anxiety over change. Jeff Hiatt at global change management consultancy Prosci points to five ways people adapt: through awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and reinforcement. As an employee progresses through these stages, they begin to understand the driving business rationale and develop confidence in their ability to successfully navigate change.
Awareness of the need for change
Make employees aware of what is changing in their environment at the earliest opportunity. When a change is being planned, employees should know it is coming. Don’t spring it on them suddenly, providing them with little time to process the disruption to come. Assure them that they will be kept informed — transparency is a good tonic for anxiety.
Desire to support the change
Provide employees with a sound rationale for making the change. Help them understand, with reference to what your organisation does, why the change is necessary. Where possible, have people who back the change (like senior leaders) explain the connection between the change at hand and your organisation’s strategy. Answer their questions and entertain their suggestions for implementing the change. Employees will commit more to something they have helped to plan.
Knowledge of how to change
Equip employees with the knowledge they need to adapt successfully in the changing environment. Train employees on new technology and processes so that they understand the scope of the impending change: what is changing, what is going away, and what is new. Coach managers on how to guide employees and build their confidence in their ability to change.
Ability to demonstrate skills and behaviours
Give employees time to apply their knowledge to their work. Allow them time to practice newly-learned skills and behaviours, while gently providing correction, as necessary. Let them build confidence that they can perform their work successfully after the change.
Reinforcement to make the change stick
Find ways to encourage employees as they adapt to the new work environment. Affirm those who have demonstrated their ability to adapt. Monitor compliance with the change so that it sticks, and make sure employees do not revert to old methods. Keep an eye on any lingering pockets of resistance that will require special attention.
Building an adaptable workforce
There’s been no way to avoid the newness brought on by COVID-19. But the modern workplace is undergoing change at a rapidly accelerating pace anyway. Organisations need to make sure their workforce can keep up. Knowing how employees process and overcome anxiety about change can help managers support their organisations to adapt and succeed.