Changes to working practices and working culture always
provoke some resistance. And as Smart and Flexible Working
involve changes to workplaces, technologies and behaviours,
there is always a risk of hitting a nerve.
Over the years we've seen and heard about many of
the reasons given for opposing changes to new ways
of working. Here are ten of the most common
reasons we've come up against. And some advice
about how to deal with them.
1. You expect me to do my real job AND change?
By definition, engaging with change means doing
something that you don't normally do. And that
can be hugely distracting for busy people who are in
all probability doing a good professional job.
What this means, though, is that for people who
think like this change is a marginal issue.
There's a problem here about engagement. That stems
underlying belief that the changes proposed are not
important compared to the service they are
delivering. Don't bother me with that useless
There's a job to be done to enable this person to
see how working smarter and more flexibly can
actually help them to do their 'real job' more
effectively. Perhaps the benefits are being
'sold' in general terms, but there has not been enough
time spent in working through how the changes will
impact on, and be adapted to, particular services.
Time to get working on the particulars.
But there's always a chance that this kind of
response stems from fear - fear of leaving the
professional comfort zone. Some handholding may be
needed to guide this person along the way. Are
the resources in place for that?
2. We're (I'm) special!
Smart Working is great idea - but it doesn't
apply to us! We're different. You may
have identified broadly generic workstyles.
But just don't try telling a social worker that
their workstyle has a lot in common with a planning
officer or (if you dare!)salesman. It's the
differences that define us.
Everyone likes to think they are unique.
People will say:
- My conversations are especially
confidential. So I must keep my own office.
Or it means my team can't share with any other
- It's a legal requirement we keep all
this storage. Around my desk, in case anyone
- We need a lot of lay-out space. So
we need a bigger desks than anyone else
- Our clients expect use to be available
in the office at all times. Really?
- Other teams can work remotely, but in
our work we need to meet at 8.30 every morning
because ... (add reason). I need
to manage by presence, in other words.
A good smart working solution will address
particular service needs. But the risk is that
the whole programme will die the death of a thousand
In each of these examples there are solutions
that can address the real issue without rowing back
on the principles of working smarter.
Confidential areas can be provided without
surrendering the principles of shared spaces.
Papers can be retained if the requirement is genuine
- but not cluttering up the office. Clients
want you to be available - so make sure the comms
system is seamless so you can be contacted wherever
you are. And so on.
Often the case is made and the solutions found by
having a solid evidence base of how and where work
is actually done.
3. It may be a total pit, but it's MY pit!
The only time I've seen heckling at a flexible
working conference was in Northern Ireland. A
senior civil servant was presenting on their plans
for new ways of working and a brand shiny new
flexible working environment. But the unions
had come along in force to shout him down.
In the presentation he'd shown pictures of the
current working environment: shabby Dickensian
offices, cluttered with paper, and rat-infested
portacabins with mildew on the walls. A total
pit, but it was their pit.
Protests like this may be at the extreme end of
the resistance spectrum. But people develop
over time a strong sense of ownership about their
offices, and in particular their desk and immediate
surroundings. They will defend it like the
There are 3 things needed to persuade people that
it's OK to surrender some ground:
- Clear communication of future arrangements -
how great they will be with a vairety of new
work settings and guaranteed access to a desk
- A clear understanding that change is going
to come, and what the business benefits are.
So in the end, resistance will not be not only
futile, but possibly career-damaging
- But on the positive side, consultation with
departments and teams can influence the design
of the new work setting: so the new shared
spaces are now 'owned' but in a more
4. We've always done things this way, and it
works fine for me
If it ain't broke, why try to fix it?
While there can be some wisdom in this maxim on
occasions, as a philosophy of life it's a recipe for
stagnation. What would Lewis Hamilton say if
this was the outlook of the McLaren F1 team?
There's always room for improvement, and it's a key
part of leadership to find a better way.
I once worked with a new CEO who was exasperated
by the 'lack of curiosity', as he put it, of his
senior managers when it came to new technologies and
processes that could improve performance.
Being curious about change and improvement should be
a core competence for managers, and they should also
be able to enthuse their teams about it too.
Moving towards Smart Working can also
involve looking at the leadership culture in an
organisation. Do people expect just to get by,
coasting along on 'good enough'? Or do they
take responsibility for doing the best they can?
So part of the process for introducing Smart
Working is to enthuse people with the possibility of
doing things better, and enlisting their support and
creativity in using the new work practices to do
5. The people at the top talk the talk but
don't walk the walk
I've heard this many times in interviews and
workshops in preparation for Smart Working.
And I've no doubt that sometimes it was a valid
criticism. Not walking the walk covers such
things as clinging on to personal space, preventing
individuals or teams adopting flexible workstyles,
not making funding available to upgrade the
technologies for remote working and wanting to keep
their immediate reports physically on hand at all
So that is indeed something that needs to be
tackled - getting the senior buy-in. And not
compromising because someone is too important to be
challenged about their take on Smart Working.
And that is often the issue. It's not that
the senior managers are trying to sabotage the
programme. It may just be that they have not
got the awareness they think they have about the full
potential of the new ways of working.
So there needs to be a champion on the senior
team who has the clout to push forward at this
There also needs to be a clear vision and
statement of principle that form the touchstone for
making judgements about the right way to go.
All the same, foot-dragging and half-measures by
the people at the top should not be allowable as an
excuse by those lower down for ducking out of
beneficial change. Positive change can be
driven from below too.
6. This is our 5th change project in 3 years -
Of all of our ten reasons, this is probably the
most reasonable. When people get bombarded by
change, fatigue can set in. And if it really
is the 5th change project in 3 years, there's a good
chance this organisation doesn't do change well.
The key items to get right are timing, planning,
resourcing and communication. If everyone is
demoralised because they see people being laid off
against a background of uncertainty and confusion,
the prospects of a Smart Working project going down
well are slim.
I've also worked with companies where flexible
working is constantly put on the back-burner while
more traditional 're-arranging the deckchairs'
restructuring programmes take precedence.
People still work in the same old inefficient ways,
only in different offices and with fewer colleagues.
It's often worth challenging traditional
restructuring projects and business process change
projects. Could smarter working save costs and
save jobs? Is business transformation missing
a trick by not getting smarter about where and when
people work? There's mileage in presenting
Smart Working as the smart alternative.
7. Why bother? This project will fizzle
like all the others
While a cascade of misfiring change programmes
can demoralise or drive people up the wall, some
organisations are big on vision but weak on
delivery. The project is not taken seriously -
resistance here is basically a form of inertia.
One common cause of 'fizzling' is key decisions
constantly being put off. And often this is
because people do not know what to do, or project
management skills are lacking.
What's the remedy? Managers in this kind of
organisation need some serious training in managing
change. Probably a stronger central resource
is needed to go out to departments and do some
handholding while this upskilling is going on, or
calling in external experts. But that will
only work if the additional resource is given clear
and unambiguous authority to carry through the
8. We can't do this now because [insert people]
are not ready for it
One symptom of weak management in periods of
change is giving in to powerful interests - because
they don't want the fuss that confrontation might
For me, one of the most irksome aspects of this
is when timid people speculate about what kinds of
resistance might be encountered: so they backpedal
even before the resistance has a chance to show
A Smart Working change programme benefits
enormously from a powerful statement of intent from
the top level. This should empower those
tasked with driving the programme forward to deal
directly and openly with anyone who is or might be
9. I'm a social animal. This will
separate me from my
Those who don't want to change often tap into one
of the key genuine fears about smart and flexible
working. People (usually) value the
collaborative and social aspects of working.
Before experiencing new ways of working,
discussions are often set out in extreme terms.
WIll the team ever see each other any more?
How can team identity be maintained? How can a
team be managed when they never see each other any
These kinds of fears need to be addressed in a
very practical way that will help to move forward
cultural change. Workshops that address the
actual practical issues being faced, and which help
teams devise their own teamworking solutions.
Demonstrations of and training with the new
communications technology - this will help people
see the new possibilities for more effective
teamwork when people are not in the same place.
Old ways of working involve all kinds of cultural
assumptions that go unchallenged - e.g. about the
primacy of physical face-to-face, the need
for many and extended meetings. These need to
be challenged in an open and positive spirit,
involving everyone in the excitement and creativity
of shaping their new working practices.
There will still be some doubters and resisters -
but once they are clearly identified as a
recalcitrant minority and the others are buzzing,
the momentum for change will be irresistible.
10. My back hurts ... all of a sudden ...
and working from home is too dangerous for me!
There are Health & Safety issues to deal with for
any work setting. Check out Guy Osmond's
ergonomic tips for Smart Working.
But there's no doubt that some people who don't
want to change play up the H&S issues to put
obstacles in the way of change. At one
organisation when they moved to desk-sharing, there
was a sudden upsurge of people who claimed to have
back problems and needed their 'own' chair.
The solution was one that many organisations have
followed. Invest in good quality
fully-adjustable chairs and train people how to
adjust them. Then the only exceptions will be
people with genuine medical reasons for special
Others will try to put obstacles in the way of
home and remote working by radically exaggerating
the dangers of working with technology in the home
(that somehow don't also apply wth similar kit in
There are no show-stoppers here. Good
training, regular self-assessment and inspections
and support/guidelines in using the best ergonomic
kit are the answer. And there is a wealth of
existing good practice out there so there's no real
reason to wrestle with these issues anew.
And, it's worth pointing out: unless we are
soldiers, police officers, fire-fighters,
construction workers or miners, probably the most
dangerous thing we do every day is drive to and from
work. Anything that cuts that back must be an
* * * * *
Actually, there's also a simple and hard to
remedy '11th Thing' too. And it boils down to:
'I don't like YOU, or anything you suggest'!
Change is an emotional process. It affects
how we feel about our work, our tools, our working
environment - even our colleagues.
So if change is driven by people who are
universally disliked or distrusted, that's a problem
to start with.
But it may be that the dislike is irrational, or
based on false perceptions. Either way, the
whole change programme needs to surrounded by and
invested with as much positivity as possible, to
elicit positive emotional responses.
We'll look at how to do that in a forthcoming