Change in the workplace was a reality even before COVID-19. And we all had ideas on how to cope and manage the changes.

Today organizations are at the mercy of a pandemic, rapidly changing laws and regulations by their countries, states and cities and new remote-work policies. And they’re now forced to have great business agility in the wake of changing customer behavior.

Strong change management practices — which Smarp defines as the “process organizations launch to improve current performance, seize new opportunities or address key issues" — are ever-so important today. Researchers at Gallup in a July report outlined three key steps for navigating change successfully: 

  • Clearly articulating the vision for change.
  • Involving the right people at the right time: limited vs. broad involvement.
  • Communicating the right information at the right time.

The best way to be good leaders in change management at the moment is keeping an open and honest line of communication with staff, according to Jase Rodley, founder of Dialed Labs. “We have no guarantee what things will be like moving forward for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Change Has to Be Intentional

Being open about change is one thing for organizations. But being practical — and managing that change effectively — is another. “One thing has remained the same: change has to be intentional,” said Jessica Prater, principal consultant of J. Prater Consulting. “What has changed is the consequences if organizations do not manage change.”

Pre-COVID businesses, Prater added, could go with the flow and often would at least survive. The current market is increasingly competitive, and with that, organizations need to be intentional in managing change. “This functionally looks like: developing a plan, committing to action, regular evaluations and adjusting as needed,” she added.

Related Article: Have We Been Doing Change Management Wrong All Along?

Help Employees Identify Biological Indicators of Stress

Change can be really stressful, and you'll often hear that people feel stress in very different ways, according to Michaela Murray, head of marketing at Hacker Paradise. However, she added, that’s not to say that there aren't some universal indicators of stress, most of which we can identify when paying attention to our bodies.

“Hair loss, disrupted sleeping patterns, unusual sweating,” Murray said. “These are all symptoms of stress caused by changes to our brains, particularly to our limbic systems — the part of our brains that deals with fight vs flight. Given the current context, our limbic systems are in overdrive, and it's important to know how this biological change is affecting us so that we can better understand our stress levels and stress-related health risks. It's so important that organizations educate their employees on this subject so that stress can be self-identified and managed more effectively during this massive transition.”

Transparency, Empathy Rule the Day

Many pundits are discussing workplace leaders taking on more empathetic roles. And there’s even a recent study on it. For the last four years, more than 90% of employees, HR professionals and CEOs say empathy is important, according to Businessolver’s 2020 State of Workplace Empathy study. However, according to the study: “Employees feel as though their leaders are not doing enough to display empathy, and that was before the world was rocked by a pandemic. The importance of bridging that gap is now heightened by the current environment. Employees are depending on their employers to deliver empathy to help them overcome, adapt and move forward.”

Learning Opportunities

“During these challenging times, people react to changes in a more negative way because they are emotionally overloaded,” said David Morneau, co-founder of inBeat. “Humans are naturally resistant to change, and the disruption of lives caused by the pandemic makes it even harder.”

Morneau encourages workplace leaders to “give people a ton of empathy,” one of the essential leadership qualities. “But now it is more important than ever,” he said. “You need to prepare people for change, encourage open conversations about it, and ask for honest feedback throughout every step of the implementation. Make people feel safe to acknowledge that they are struggling without being judged.”

Are your employees aware and prepared for the change? If employees understand why it is happening, they will enact the change instead of resisting it, according to Morneau. “Have regular catch-up sessions with your employees to listen to their concerns and minimize distress,” he said. “Training sessions and learning resources to tackle gaps in development and readiness for the new working environment will enable people to continue being efficient once the change takes place.”

Related Article: Why Human Behavior Is Key to Successful Change Management

Managers Must Adjust Mindsets

Managers have a huge role in managing change for an organization. Greg DeLapp, CEO of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), said that while the best managers are adept at increasing engagement, productivity, profitability and a host of other bottom-line issues, few have virtual management experience.

“Efficiently managing a remote workforce requires a significant mindset shift, particularly as they are now required to extend their influence to people they may rarely see and may barely know,” he said. “The pandemic has also caused business leaders to experience high levels of uncertainty about their personal, professional and financial future. These concerns and anxieties are leading to greater mental health issues at the upper echelons than ever before.”

Managers need to acknowledge and understand these anxieties or risk being unable to lead their companies back to pre-COVID productivity and engagement levels. “In recent years," DeLapp added, "more high profile executives have been transparent about their seeking mental health support. By being more transparent, business leaders would make their 'at risk' employees more apt to seek out help as well. The emergence and increasing embrace of telehealth has the potential to break down barriers and provide executives with the flexibility, discretion and support they need to be the leaders their workforce needs.”