Author: Paul Middlemast, Chartered HR Practitioner
Management Strategies: Organisational Change in a (Post-) Pandemic World
There is no returning to normal post-pandemic. But there is a path forward: by embedding new ways of working post-pandemic.
After some 18 months of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread lockdown, we must now take stock of how the crisis has disrupted the strategic decision-making framework for organisations and try to build a new one and to look beyond the immediate crisis.
Focusing on the return to work alone is not a viable option, as it will not allow organisations to capitalise on all that they have experienced and learned over the past few months. Instead, we believe organisations should embrace the perspective that humans who want to adapt in an age of acceleration must develop “dynamic stability.” Rather than trying to stop an inevitable storm of change, draw energy from it, but creates a platform of dynamic stability within it.”
The return to work and the emerging themes; organisations should seize this opportunity to step back and make sure that they are creating clear connections across individual jobs, team objectives, and the organisation’s mission. To strengthen the link between belonging and organisational performance, organisations need to do more than treat their workers fairly and respectfully; they must enable a deeper connection by drawing visible linkages as to how their contributions are making an impact on the organisation and society as a whole.
To help address the most pressing of some of these emerging themes this article; is one of three exploring the new world of work from a people management and compliance perspective in jurisdictions of the UK and Ireland.
Where thousands of businesses during the pandemic have experienced a burst of acceleration: fast-forwarding into the future of work in ways that stress-tested their ability to blend people and technology in the most dynamic business environment many of us have ever seen.
The three articles are:
- Management Strategies: Organisational Change in a (Post-) Pandemic World
- Organisational Re-Design: Downsizing and Redundancy: Post Covid-19
- Remote and Flexible Working: Post COVID-19
The COVID-19 shift:
The pandemic reminded us that people are motivated at the highest levels when they can connect their work contributions to a greater purpose and mission. Consider, for instance, how workers at some consumer products companies have found meaning and inspiration in their jobs as their companies increased production of (or in some cases, pivoted to start developing) disinfectants and sanitizers. People want to contribute to their organisations when they understand how their unique talents, strengths, and contributions are making an impact on larger goals.
Effective strategic positioning enables an organisation to respond quickly and effectively to continuing changes in the marketplace to achieve its strategic intent. Therefore, change must be considered in two contexts:
- the organisation’s ability to deal with change on an ongoing basis and
- managing change separately as each change comes along.
Managing change implies managing the move from one status quo to another–the “unfreeze, transition, refreeze” paradigm. In today’s environment of post pandemic, however, there is no status quo for most organisations. There is only continuing change.
The management of change
The management of change is an overarching approach taken in an organisation to move from the current to a future desirable state using a coordinated and structured approach in collaboration with stakeholders and employees.
Below, we provide a view on how to start that process by leveraging — a set of reflections, recommendations, and frameworks which we believe are more critical than ever as organisations head toward recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.
COVID-19 has challenged business leaders to do three things at once:
- stage the return to work.
- understand and leverage the advancements they enacted during the crisis and
- chart a new path forward.
What is Change Management?
Change management addresses the people side of change. Creating a new organisation, designing new work processes, and implementing new technologies may never see their full potential if you don’t bring your people along. That’s because financial success depends on how thoroughly individuals in the organisation embrace the change.
Change management comprises the processes, tools and techniques used to manage the people side of change and achieve desired business outcomes. Ultimately, change management focuses on how to help employees embrace, adopt, and utilise a change in their day-to-day work. Change management is both a process and a competency.
The new definition of the organisation has to be its strategic intent and that picture of the future has to include an organisation that is not anchored in procedures and processes but anchored in concepts, such as a common understanding of what the organisation is and how it adds value and common values in the way it does business.
One of the defining concepts in today’s environment must be embracing change, and the organisation structure and supporting processes must be flexible enough to allow that necessary response to a changing environment.
The new relationship with employees has to be one in which everyone understands there is no guarantee of lifetime employment, but at the same time, everyone’s success is tied to the success of the organisation. While an organisation cannot guarantee lifetime employment, it can guarantee to help those employees who are willing to invest their energy in staying highly employable by helping them maintain and enhance their skills.
Employees, individually and in teams, need to develop a vendor mentality. They must view the organisation as a marketplace within which they must compete, determining the needs of customers and providing quality service in order to get repeat business and stay in business; that is, to stay employed.
However, as of the change management process an organisation must prepare to ‘pivot’, make organisational and structural changes, and downsize where needed.
The reality of today’s environment, particularly in an organisation that has undergone downsizing, is that employees’ primary loyalty may well be to their work groups and professions. Blind loyalty to an all-knowing and all-wise employer is a thing of the past. People will commit to their work when they have invested themselves and have a stake in the outcome. The needed commitment will be more likely where there is significant employee involvement and the common purpose, commitment, and trust of empowered, high-performing teams.
Preparing the organisation for change involves working through five issues:
- The definition of the new anchors and boundaries that are needed as the organisation redefines itself to effectively deal with change.
- The extent to which the existing organisation structure and supporting processes are compatible with the new definitions.
- The extent to which the organisation’s culture, including the messages management sends by its actions is constant with the new definitions.
- The extent to which HR policies and programs, from reward systems to supervisory training, are congruent with the new definitions.
- The steps that must be taken for the organisational structure, supporting processes, culture and HR policies and programs to provide the support necessary to help employees succeed in dealing with change.
Defining New Anchors and Boundaries
Successful change is about letting go and moving on. Employees have to let go of some of the things they wanted to be constants in their work lives. This is hard to do. But without some idea of what is to replace the old idea of where they are going, it will be particularly hard to get people to move on.
Concepts and Values as Anchors
If an organisation has not given considerable thought to its strategic intent and defined itself in terms of its vision and values and therefore has not created a picture that everyone understands, it will be difficult to identify new anchors for members of the organisation to embrace.
On the other hand, if the organisation has gone through this process, it will be much easier. The key is to introduce the ideas that concepts and values, rather than cast-in-concrete procedures and policies, are the anchors on which members of the organisation can rely.
This is an excellent area for employee involvement. If the strategic analysis work wasn’t previously done, do it now. Communicate the objective to all employees–which the organisation wants to define it and what it stands for.
All “givens” should be clearly laid out in advance. For example, lifetime employment is not an option, dealing effectively with continuing change is a must and so on. It is critical to find out what is really important to all employees in this regard.
It isn’t necessary to ask employees to write beautiful statements worthy of the public relations department. It is necessary to find out what concepts they think are important. This can be done through questionnaires, focus groups, etc. The results of this effort can be used to create a “straw man” redefinition of the organisation and the employment relationship that can then be tested with focus groups, arriving at a final set of concepts.
Some believe that in the new world of flat organisations and self-managed work teams, boundaries are no longer needed. In fact, some will advocate that they be torn down and eliminated. This approach has a certain appeal, since boundaries that keep out information that might challenge the status quo are one of the major barriers to change. Likewise, there is clearly a need to break down those boundaries within organisations–the strict functional “silos”–that inhibit communication across functional lines and contribute to rigid hierarchies.
However, as attractive as eliminating boundaries sounds, boundaries are still needed. The key is that the organisation needs different kinds of boundaries. The organisation must move from authoritarian boundaries discussed above to authority boundaries, so that individuals and groups can establish a protocol for their decision-making and have a context for their daily work relationships with others. Without these boundaries, everything would have to be negotiated.
Defining Authority Boundaries
Authority boundaries need to be defined in these four areas that can be applied to teams as easily as individuals: authority–which is in charge of what; task–who is responsible for what; political–what’s in it for us; and identity–who is us and who isn’t?
Criteria for Establishing Boundaries
In establishing boundaries, three essential criteria must be met. First, the boundaries are porous. That is, they do not become barriers to communication and information, either from outside sources or sources within the organisation. Second, the boundaries are clear enough to provide “safe havens.” Change is tough enough as it is, and individuals or teams need boundaries that will help guide them as they and their processes evolve with changing times. Third, employees understand the boundaries and had input in establishing them. Boundaries should always pass the common-sense test–and common sense may be found most easily on the shop floor.
Existing Organisation Structure and Supporting Processes: Compatible with the New Anchors and Boundaries
Alignment, alignment, alignment. If the organisation has gone through strategic HR analysis and business/HR alignment, it will have identified and studied its organisational structure and supporting processes from the standpoint of alignment with strategic and business goals. Now the question is whether the organisational structure and supporting processes are congruent with the newly identified anchors and boundaries.
Focus groups of employees can help to answer the following questions and help think of other similar questions to ask. If an anchor concept is empowerment, do team members have to go through several layers of supervision to take action or talk to people in other parts of the organisation? If a boundary gives a team responsibility for purchasing routine supplies, do they have the authority to make these purchases?
There are various ways to accomplish alignment. Look at the structure and processes and consider whether they are congruent with the anchors and boundaries. When they are not, analyse why not and determine what needs to be done to make them so. Take each anchor and boundary and try to define what that would look like in actual application in the real world of the organisation. Compare that with what is and develop plans to close the gap. Again, employees who will be affected by the outcome should be involved in this task. The key is that the review takes place and the gaps between the new anchors and boundaries and existing organisation structure and processes get identified. In addition to employee involvement, however, executive management support is critical here. More harm than good can be done if employees do the work described above but management will neither support nor allow changes.
Is the Organisation Culture Compatible with the New Definitions?
This is remarkably similar to the previous step, but different in a significant way. Organisational structure and processes are normally well-defined and documented. They can be reviewed and revised in that context. Culture is somewhat different. It is often simply understood rather than written down anywhere, but it is immensely powerful in its influence on the organisation. There are many definitions, but essentially culture is the way we really act, the things we really stand for, the things that really count in the organisation, the behaviours that are understood to be acceptable, etc.
If the organisation has developed its strategic intent and its picture of what it wants to be, then it will know what it wants its culture to be in terms of values, philosophies, beliefs, and practices. This does not mean the actual culture matches the desired culture, so the organisation needs to test its current culture against the benchmark of the desired culture inherent in its strategic intent.
Team and Focus Group Questions
A questioning technique can be used with teams and focus groups to get at the real culture as compared to the cultural attributes raised by the new strategic intent; that is, “what do we really do vs. what we say we do and stand for.” These questions can be used to determine where gaps exist and where changes in the culture are needed.
As with structure and processes (which some may consider part of culture anyway), the key is to test organisational cultural reality against the new anchors and boundaries and to identify the areas where the current culture is not aligned with the new direction.
Are HR Policies and Programs Constant with the New Definitions?
When companies move to implement new organisational structure or new strategic directions, they often neglect to ask whether or not their HR policies and programs are congruent with the directions being taken.
For organisations that have gone through the business/HR alignment and planning phase, HR policies and programs will already have been tested against strategic and business goals from an operational sense. Further review against the newly defined anchors and boundaries will not be a difficult task.
A culture of trust, transparency, and openness
This period has required us all to be supportive of one another, as we all face uncertainty. Control has to some extent given way to trust. People are learning how to do work disparately and with far less oversight: they are learning “on the job” what works and what doesn’t work at home and holding virtual meetings that might have happened before but never to such an extent.
Ironically, in the midst of social distancing, many of us are getting closer. We are building more adaptive teams, are more consistently in touch with each other and connection has become a priority in the name of working remotely. But beyond that we are connected with purpose and as a community.
Working in a more agile way
It is unprecedented to have a large cohort of people, all over the world, start working remotely at once. The events as they have unfolded have shown how fast we can adapt though and have demonstrated that we can move faster and act in more agile ways than we thought.
Business leaders now have, in some sense, been gifted with a better idea of what can and cannot be done outside their companies’ traditional processes, and COVID-19 is forcing both the pace and scale of workplace innovation. Many are finding simpler, faster, and less expensive ways to operate.
All of this points to our innate ability to change, and to move away from prescribed approaches and standardized solutions. COVID-19 is a catalyst to reinvent the future of work and create opportunities for companies to look at things differently.
Our ability to recognize and proactively equip our teams with not just physical resources, but skills, mindsets, behaviours, and values, will be critical in ensuring that we build back better.
organisations face unprecedented upheaval due to the COVID-19 crisis—but its impact can also lead to a chain effect of additional crises—from dramatically different customer needs to business model shakeups to seismic market shifts. Strategies that have quickly pivoted to meet sudden drastic change will likely need to be further adjusted to address additional business fallout. How do you manage all these reverberating changes and survive?
Change management is a methodology to help you prepare and support employees to adapt resiliently and confidently to change in order to keep your organisation strong. Being proactive about managing change helps reduce chaos as the change is implemented. What will change and why (the content) must first be shared. The process by which the change will occur also needs to be discussed and outlined in detail. In addition, the people who will be responsible for making sure the change comes about must be designated, along with those who will be impacted by it.
The change management process seems logical, but it can quickly become complicated by the number of people involved in the change effort. To keep change from becoming difficult to manage, a change leader (normally a HR professional) must be appointed to give direction to others throughout the change process. Other key roles include the change sponsor, normally the CEO, MD or a member of the board who initiates the change, the change agent, who must see it through, and the change target. The change target includes any employee who must actually change what they’re doing in order for the change process to be successful. In addition, change advocates are those who are actively supporting the change, but do not have actual authority to implement it.
Since all people respond differently to change, it’s also crucial to consider how to deal with change overload. This can manifest itself in many ways, including employees feeling excluded from the change process, expressing concern over unrealistic timelines, feeling overwhelmed by what they perceive as too many changes coming too quickly, poor engagement, concerns about insufficient resources, and more. Those leading change must proactively establish guidelines for dealing with change overload, and strategize new ways to gain buy-in, remove silos, communicate openly, and eliminate barriers.
Osprey HR Practice can help
The pandemic presented a multifaceted challenge to employers and employees alike. With business closures, and the potential for business to radically slow down, many employers will be seeking to cut costs to keep their businesses afloat. But reducing staff numbers without following the proper procedures can expose employers to liabilities for breach of contract and unfair dismissal. More importantly, as illustrated above the process of re-alignment and pivoting the business through the management of change, in the long-term will be more beneficial in coming out the other-side of the pandemic `
We at Osprey human resources consultancy practice are very experienced in business re-organisation, change management and the difficulties associated with the short-term challenges to business in these contexts. If we can assist in any way with the challenges that your business is facing, then please do not hesitate to contact me or one of my colleagues: Paul Middlemast, Senior Partner at or call 07831 427234.
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