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10 Things I Hate about Change

Rolling out Smart Working involves extensive changes to ways of working, culture, property and technology. And some people are instinctively hostile to change. This is the first of two articles from 2012 that still resonate – on why some people resist change, and what to do about it.

[Archive article] 10 things I hate about change …

Resistance to Smart Working and how to deal with it. Part 1.

Why change?

Any change programme is likely to encounter some opposition.  Smart Working is no exception

There’ll usually be a ‘compliant majority’, made up of the enthusiastic and the dutiful, who will adapt to the new ways of working.

But there will be a minority of rational critics, cynics, saboteurs and heel-draggers who don’t buy it.

They have their reasons.  Here Andy Lake takes a look at ten common reasons given for resisting change, and proposes some remedies to deal with them.

Changes to working practices and working culture always provoke some resistance.  And as Smart Working involves 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.  Plus 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 from an underlying belief that the changes proposed are not important compared to the service they are delivering.  Don’t bother me with that useless stuff!

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 specifics.

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?

  1. 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!) a 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 team.)
  • It’s a legal requirement we keep all this storage. Around my desk, in case anyone calls. (I’ve built a nest of filing cabinets, and besides i don’t know how to find information online)
  • We need a lot of lay-out space. (So we need bigger desks than anyone else)
  • Our clients expect us 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 qualifications.

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.

  1. 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 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 Alamo.

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 variety of new work settings and guaranteed access to a desk when needed
  • 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 collaborative way.
  1. 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 his Formula 1 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 this.

  1. 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 times.

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 level.

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.

  1. This is our 5th change project in 3 years – AAAGH!

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.

  1. 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 changes.

  1. 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 bring.

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 itself.

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 obstructing change.

  1. I’m a social animal. This will separate me from my friends/colleagues/team

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 anymore?  How can team identity be maintained?  How can a team be managed when they never see each other anymore?

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.

  1. 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 Health & Safety 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 provision.

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 with similar kit in the office).

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 H&S plus!

* * * * *

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 article.