People don’t like change. That’s just a fact of life.
Unfortunately, change is also a fact of life. And as you’ve probably noticed, it’s also a huge part of business.
Even before all the turbulence that was brought on by the pandemic, change management practices were being put to the test in recent years, as these shifts have been coming faster, and with more complexity and broader consequences.
Our natural resistance to change, coupled with all of the different kinds of change organizations go through on a regular basis, explains why effective change management has always been important. But now we’re dealing with yet another variable: the move to remote work.
The pandemic fueled that transformation, and in record time. While some employees have since returned to physical locations and others will be transitioning back, there are plenty of signs that remote work could become permanent for many companies. Employees are finding that they’re just as productive — if not more so — working from home, and there’s less pushback from managers now that they have the firsthand experience of managing a team of telecommuters.
There’s still a lot of uncertainty about what’s to come, but at least for the foreseeable future, remote and dispersed teams are going to be the norm for many organizations. And there’s one thing we can count on: The changes are going to keep coming.
Whether you’re a change management practitioner or an organizational leader, the challenge for you today is making sure you have a strategy in place that not only helps people get on board with change but also takes into account what’s different about a managing change with a remote workforce compared to co-located employees.
Let’s take a look at some of the challenges you might be facing as well as some actionable steps you can take to build an effective strategy for your remote work environment.
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Remote Change Management with More Challenges
When you’re managing change with a remote workforce, you’re still dealing with the same challenges of any kind of change management initiative, only now you have one more layer of difficulty to navigate. Here are just a few of the barriers that are intensified in a remote work environment:
Mindset Barriers: Positive change requires a mindset for change, and mindsets are powerful things. A mindset can be so deeply anchored that it won’t matter how many facts you give someone about the reason for the change or why it’s so important — they’ll reject it out of hand before ever giving it their full consideration.
When you add in the physical distance as well as the disconnection that can come with remote work, it can be even harder to penetrate these mindset barriers. It takes energy and motivation for someone to change their mindset, and if they’re feeling one step removed from what’s going on, they’re probably not going to bother.
Communication Barriers: Communication is critical during any kind of organizational change or business disruption, but even in the best of circumstances, leaders can trip up here. Without the context and connecting points as well as the data and details, people have a tendency to fill in the blanks and decide “what’s really going on” with the change. Those assumptions can create cynicism, resistance and fear — and derail the change entirely. It’s why a lot of mergers and acquisitions either outright fail or cause more disruption than they should.
In a remote work environment, communication is already a little more challenging, especially since you can’t just drop by someone’s office to check in or pick up on body language cues and other signs you might notice right away in a traditional co-located environment. And while we’ve never had more options for communicating remotely, the risk of misunderstanding or taking something out of context is also much higher with many of these tools.
Individual Barriers: One of the biggest issues of managing change is managing the fear of change, which can manifest itself in different ways depending on a person’s thinking preferences. Some team members may be uncomfortable with the ambiguity and emotions created by change and the unknown. Others may fear the lack of security and unpredictability of change. Some may react overemotionally and tune out the reality, while others may worry about how it’s going to constrain them or what it means for their future.
These thinking preferences are, in a sense, our “default” modes. Everyone has them. The risk, when you’re not face to face with your team every day, is that you can fall into your own default mode of thinking and overlook the concerns of some of your team members. That can make their fears feel validated.
Making Change Easier for Remote Employees
Each of these barriers is really about people and their reactions to change. When people are dispersed, it’s not only harder to manage change, it’s harder for them to feel in the loop and on solid footing, especially when there’s so much volatility overall. So develop your strategy with people in mind.
We know that people adapt more easily when they:
- can find the benefit in change
- aren’t surprised by change
- are able to stay grounded and focused
- have the skills and support they need
Here are a few action steps that will make it easier for your remote employees to deal with change:
- Make change personal. One of the best ways to get people on board with change is to give them a stake in it. It’s also one of the best ways to make change successful, because it expands the thinking and ideas you have access to. With remote teams, you’ll need to have the tools and processes in place to effectively engage everyone and keep the momentum going.
- Communicate more frequently and more thoroughly to avoid misunderstandings and assumptions. Just as important, make sure you’re communicating in ways that address the questions and concerns that matter to everyone, not just what you think is most important.
- Counterbalance uncertainty with routine. Distractions are everywhere these days, and working from home takes it to a whole new level. Even when so much is up in the air, you can establish some solid routines that people can count on and encourage everyone to stick to them.
- Prioritize learning and development. To effectively coach and support their teams, managers need to be able to decode how different team members will react to the disruption and how specific changes will push them outside their comfort zones. It’s also critical to build resilience in your remote employees to navigate ongoing change and uncertainty.
Change is inevitable, and it’s never easy.
The remote environment only adds to the challenge to develop resiliency.
But by thinking ahead, you can set the stage for remote team members to deal with it more effectively and make the process more predictable and successful — and hopefully, less painful for everyone.