What's a pandemic got to do with workplace change?

Can you believe it’s been nearly a year since Australia first felt the full impact of the global pandemic? Those initial weeks and months were very tumultuous, with organisations and individuals facing uncertainty, fear and panic. We weren’t (and still aren’t) sure about how long it would (will) go on for, and the short- and long-term impacts to our lives and livelihoods.


What I have been interested to observe is the ranging responses to the threat of infection, to the restrictions, to the support provided, and how people have navigated adjusting to the changes the pandemic has brought.


What is particularly fascinating is how this correlates with the responses I have witnessed, and needed to manage, with every workplace change management project in which I’ve been involved.


Some people claim that they “embrace” change, seeing it as an opportunity for growth, a challenge, and a normal part of life.

While this may be true, for most people, change is daunting, and something that must be considered, managed and responded to, based on the individual’s frame of reference.


Of course, I’m not talking about small changes, like whether the printer paper is stored in the cupboard to left or the right; but big changes... restructuring, changes in management, mergers and acquisitions, organisational-wide system implementations, and so forth.


When big changes occur (like a pandemic) there will be a range of responses you can observe.

Firstly when a significant change happens, or the announcement is made, people initially enter a grief-like state, where they are mourning their old life, often going through similar stages of denial; anger; bargaining; depression; and acceptance.


At some point during, or at the conclusion of this grief process, they consciously (or subconsciously) conclude how they will respond to the change.


This is where we can have fun drawing the comparisons between respondents to the pandemic and respondents to workplace change. There is likely to be a direct link between how people in society are responding to the pandemic and how they do (or would) respond to workplace change.


Nay-sayer.

Pandemic | "Job Keeper isn’t fairly distributed and we’ll only be having to pay it back for generations to come".

Workplace Change | "We tried something similar in the past and it didn’t work; not sure what makes management think it will work this time".


Resister.

Pandemic | "I don’t need to self-isolate, I only had a precautionary test".

Workplace Change | "I’ll just keep doing things the way I always have until I’m told I have to change".


Supporter.

Pandemic | "If we all do our part we can protect the whole community!"

Workplace Change | "I think the new structure will make us even more productive than before".


Covert Rebel.

Pandemic | Thinks: "It’s only 3 extra people coming for dinner, I’m sure it will be fine".

Workplace Change | Thinks: "I’ll just pretend I didn’t see the email that said we had to start the new process from today".


Sceptic.

Pandemic | "I'm not sure that the virus is real and how likely am I to get infected anyway? I just don't see the point of all these restrictions".

Workplace Change | "I can't see how these changes will benefit the organisation, most changes are pointless and we end up doing things the same way in the end anyway".


Complier.

Pandemic | "I always wear a mask when I catch the bus, it's the law, you know."

Workplace Change | "I have attended all the meetings and followed all the instructions given, I don't want to be a target".


Opine.

Pandemic | "I tell you, the whole reason we are facing a global pandemic is because nature is trying to cull".

Workplace Change | "You know, they have decided to restructure because all of middle management were incompetent and they wanted a fresh start".


Effuser.

Pandemic | "There are so many positives that have come out of this pandemic; from the environment to work-life balance. Don't even get me started!".

Workplace Change | "I'm so excited for these changes. All these new people in our organisation, it's going to be GREAT!"

Interrogator.

Pandemic | "Why do we have to give up our rights to enjoy going to the beach? What difference will it make to the spread of the virus? Can they prove that people catch it from simply going for a swim at the beach? Does it spread through the air?"

Workplace Change | "What's the point of the proposed changes? What are we hoping to achieve? How is this going to impact my role? What will happen if I don't want to change?"


Speculator.

Pandemic | "I think that the only way we will be able to overcome the virus is if we all just catch it and build the appropriate immune resistance".

Workplace Change | "I predict that in another two years we will be going through another restructure, because the Executive will realise that this one didn't achieve what they were hoping".


Supplicant.

Pandemic | "If I promise to isolate for 14 days, can I travel interstate to see my family?"

Workplace Change | "I will do anything I need to to keep my job, just tell me what I have to do".


Conspiracy Theorist.

Pandemic | "The statistics are all inflated and this whole global pandemic thing is a beat up by the world leaders to take control of the masses".

Workplace Change | "They probably won't even go ahead with the restructure, they only announced it today because they are trying to reduce the share price immediately after yesterday's agreement with the new owners on a sale price".

Campaigner.

Pandemic | "I think that it's the right thing to think about protecting the elderly people in the community, that's why I follow all the guidelines, don' you agree?"

Workplace Change | "I can see how the changes will be positive for our organisation, just yesterday, I found that doing my job was so much less stressful as a result of the changes, you should give it a try"


Hypocrite.

Pandemic | Says: "I have no respect for people who don't follow the rules" Acts: On the train without a mask.

Workplace Change | Says: "I spoke to my new manager this morning, I think they will be great" Acts: Ignores all emails from their new manager.


Complainer.

Pandemic | "I hate wearing a mask, it's so uncomfortable, I just try to avoid going to places where I have to wear one".

Workplace Change | "I tried using the new system this morning and it seemed so much slower than the old system, they can't make me use it if it's going to take twice as long to do my job".


Floater

Pandemic | Says to one "Yeah, I figure if I just follow the guidelines it will be less grief, 'it is what it is', right?" Says to another "Oh, I agree, having to comply with the guidelines is so frustrating".

Workplace Change | Says to one "I didn't find it too much of an issue, either, we just have to get on with it" Says to another "Yeah, I had lots of issues too, but I didn't say anything".

You can probably relate to one or more of these types of respondents, and you likely have strong views as to which are "right" or "wrong".

While there are some responses to change that make communicating, implementing and enforcing the change more challenging, the various responses are not right or wrong, just different.


Even those respondents who appear to be "on board" e.g. the Complier, may look like they have adopted the change; however, they may be going through the motions without really believing in it and this in itself can be an issue to getting the change to stick longer term - requiring constant re-enforcement.


If you go into a change management process with the blind faith that everyone will happily come on the journey once they understand the benefits, you will disappointed. We certainly saw this with the public's response to the pandemic; with some people refusing to comply for the "greater good", willing to risk censure and monetary fines.


Understanding that you will face resistance, some overt and some covert, that there will be early adopters and laggards and set up your process to manage this, is vital to the success of a change management process.


At some point the majority will get to a place of acceptance and the "new normal" will just be integrated into daily life. Like checking in to venues, using sanitiser, wearing a mask, avoiding physical contact with strangers; and in the workplace, following the new processes, using the new system, taking on additional responsibilities, and getting along with their new team. However, there will always be those who want to bend, stretch or break the rules. It is for those people that we have the police in society, and Managers (and HR) to enforce policies in the workplace.


Change is hard, particularly en masse. Just look at the range of responses to the global pandemic.


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