Managing change remotely

8th July 2020

When lockdown was announced, one could describe the kind of change we experienced as cliff-edge change – we’d gone over the edge in an instant, so now what do we do? Almost overnight we, along with thousands of other workers, had to operate from our homes, which is understandably a mixed bag experience of IT, environment and circumstances. Being change management professionals does not mean we’re immune to its effects – change challenges all of us. It’s something the brain finds stressful, albeit to varying degrees depending on the individual.

Like many, we have adapted our ways of working to continue providing change management support and activity from afar. The heartening news is that – actually – we find it works really well! As we have collectively gone over the cliff together, and as we continue to learn and feel our way forwards to a new paradigm, I would like to share below some of the most positive aspects we have found about managing change remotely. This includes how they have helped to reshape our change management practices in a constructive, productive way.

Assessing change and its impact

I have often found in my change work that it’s important to be clear about what is changing and what stays the same. This simple mechanism appeals to a wider audience – from those who are wary of the change, through to those who relish it (and for the latter, even they have their limits, so it provides some familiarity for them too). One of the things we found stays the same is the analytics of assessing changes. These seem to carry on pretty much as they would have if we were co-located together – we can do it all via tools such as Zoom, Webex, MS Teams, etc. It really isn’t that different from sitting side by side with a sponsor or presenting to a team. In fact, online tools can make assessment more collaborative and effective than ever before. We’re not just delivering a presentation when we assess changes; it’s a collaboration to understand changes and size them, gain insight into who is impacted, spot potential obstacles and resistance points, and ultimately develop an effective change strategy. It isn’t a one-way conversation – so we continue to collaborate remotely, each participant commenting on and enhancing the product. We have found this kind of activity continues without breaking stride.

This is good for improving our understanding of changes that are yet to get underway, but what about ones that were in-flight when we fell off the cliff?

Coaching virtually    

One of the most valuable things we can do for our clients and in support of those going through a change is to provide a coaching function. It’s part of the change management professional’s toolkit. Moreover, given the magnitude and deeply emotional nature of what we’re all going through, our clients and colleagues seem to be craving even more human connection right now. Simply reaching out to ask how someone is doing, showing that you care about them and that you are available for coaching or change leadership support, seems very much appreciated right now.

However I have a bugbear about how throwaway the term ‘coaching’ has become. Too often it’s used interchangeably with mentoring and teaching, assuming that everyone can do it, has the skills, knows what they are doing and wants to. The NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI) defines coaching as “facilitating positive change by improving thinking”[1] – something that people going through change can benefit from. I like this definition because it suggests that situations can be improved by shifts in our thinking.

Remote coaching is nothing new – we’ve been coaching people using good old-fashioned telephones for decades, so elevating this to a high status activity of remote change management is, well, a no-brainer. Using video-conferencing facilities we can coach individuals or groups. If needed, just turn the video off and go audio only for a more subtle and reflective experience. In fact, sometimes people may find it easier to be open and honest where there is a degree of separation, rather than when you are sitting in front of them.

“But how do we know our clients will do what they say when we’re not there?”, I hear you ask. Absolutely no less guarantee than if you were stood by them in my experience! On that basis it shouldn’t matter whether we are near or far. What is important is accountability. This is one of the most underrated contributors to making changes. I know this from changes in my personal life (such as training with goals, check-ins with other people, committing to stick to things, etc.). Through coaching we can help our clients to stay accountable using a variety of approaches. Again, none of them are new – they just seem more impactful and relevant right now. There are multiple ways to improve accountability, from implementation intentions (‘if X happens, I’ll do Y’, e.g. ‘when I have my morning coffee, I’ll do five push-ups’), to being really specific and using SMART[2] goals, making future contracts with yourself, or starting small.

“But what are we coaching them to do?”. That’s a good question…

New ways of working

Lying dazed together after falling off the cliff, this is where the change work starts. What happens next? For sponsors and middle managers, whatever they do next will also be done remotely, or at least partially so. As for employees and groups impacted by change, this presents the same issue – whatever it is, how we do it will be different from before lockdown. So, when it comes to demonstrating ability to change and adopting or embedding changes, there is a shift needed there too.

What can we do? Dial empathy up to 11 in our coaching and change work, endeavouring to understand those we hope to help. Work with them not through the lens of our own expectations, but with patience and impartiality, in the knowledge that the starting point for any real change isn’t where we are, but where they are.

Empathy is hard. But it is also rewarding and helpful. If you have ever been on the receiving end of an empathetic ear, you will know what a gift it is to be listened to and have space held for you so exquisitely. Any kind of meaningful, sustainable change is hard, as it takes someone away from what is familiar. Uncertainty and concern are natural reactions to this and should be factored into any resistance[3] planning. The difference now is that the connection necessary to affect a fundamental shift in someone becomes more elusive with distance.

Uncertainty is not the only stressful experience that will accompany the bleary-eyed gazing from the bottom of the cliff either: the NLI highlight social/physical distancing as incongruent with our natural tendencies as herd animals[4]. They also suggest that our sense of being in control is adversely impacted.

While it’s no replacement for face-to-face engagement, remote change management is a means by which we can close the gap and (re-)create that connection. The rest comes from a greater emphasis on understanding not only where someone wants or needs to be, but also what they’re expected to leave behind in the process – the cost of change, if you will.

While unprecedented, the current crisis is an opportunity to evolve the change management profession and practice. This will happen through creativity and innovation, alongside a desire to understand others, and recognition that change isn’t a linear process with a clear end-point, but a constant that relies on empathetic relationships between people to be effective. It isn’t an individual process, but a collective one. More than any technological shift, this is how change management evolves for the future. It’s less the channel we use to communicate and more the space we hold for one another within it. The rise of remote working won’t change that reality; if anything, it makes it all the more relevant.

“But how do we make this change?”… Well, getting the right people together – even virtually – is one key element in getting this right.

Online workshops

Workshopping very often comes the way of change practitioners for designing, facilitating, managing, etc. I like to think it’s because we’re the ‘people people’ 😊. Like so much else, workshops are largely virtual now. But in contrast to the unsatisfying, clunky videoconferences of a decade ago, today’s online events can be truly awesome. For some (us included) it’s new, but there are many organisations who were doing them long before the pandemic hit. Virtual workshops require thoughtful design and logistical support to make them soar (and it’s near impossible to fly solo), but the result can be excellent, with multiple virtual breakout rooms, live polls, voting sessions, and interactive whiteboards. I have been involved in international workshops with 40+ delegates from the USA to Japan, and they have worked seamlessly.

A huge plus is that you can control the timing far better with automatic countdowns. And there’s the ultimate power of muting everyone – use it sparingly! This way of working also has the benefit of promoting collaboration at a time when few would want to be in a single venue having to keep 2m apart, wearing masks and disinfecting everything. If properly invested in and designed, online workshops can exceed the in-person experience, something the NLI attests[5].

There are other systemic benefits as well. Depending on how many people are involved, it can be possible to see everyone at the same size at the same time and get an egalitarian perspective, rather than having some delegates in the foreground and some at the back. And while we (quite rightly) set ground rules that discourage interruptions and overlapping conversations in person, the same limitations do not necessarily have to apply online – people tend to take it in turns to speak so we can all hear; however encouraging participants to use additional methods of communication such as reaction emojis, polls, etc., enables an additional parallel way of working. And provided you have a copilot to monitor it, the chat features of most videoconferencing facilities allow everyone to comment at the same time too, not just the loudest voice 😉.

So in summary

We have found a number of unexpected positives to the sudden, unplanned changes to our ways of working. From our collaborative approach to assessing change, through virtual coaching and developing new ways of working, to online workshops – as long as we have the right technological tools and an intent to engage empathetically we can do everything we need to remotely. We aren’t saying that there aren’t benefits to face-to-face interaction, but in these uncertain times when a full and sustained return to ‘normality’ is hard to predict, it’s good to know that we can still make a difference, helping our customers to adapt to and manage change effectively.

 

by Will Izzard, CMC’s Head of Change Management

 

Footnotes

[1] The NLI cover this in their Brain-Based Team Coaching programme: https://neuroleadership.com/our-events/brain-based-team-coaching-skills/.

[2] Specific Measurable Attainable Relevant Timebound – it’s not new but, when it comes to accountability, being precise like this in multiple dimensions is very effective.

[3] Resistance is a popular term in the change management lexicon, but I use it with caution. We’re talking about natural biological reaction to difference, rather than stonewalling.

[4] https://neuroleadership.com/your-brain-at-work/coronavirus-faq-what-science-says-leaders-should-do/

[5] https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidrock/2020/03/04/5-ways-science-shows-us-how-to-work-better-virtually/#f9375a15a8da