How to Manage Employee Resistance to Workplace Change

How to Manage Employee Resistance to Workplace Change

Workplaces are constantly evolving, which, in turn, means that they are constantly changing. If there’s one thing we know about organizational change, it’s that people are predisposed to defy it.

Resistance to workplace change is the reluctance to conform to changing organizational circumstances. Even if the intention is to improve employee experience, some of them may neglect it believing that it will not bring any benefit. The friction intensifies when changes take place too frequently or there’s insufficient support throughout the transition.

Therefore, as pointed out by a leadership professional Robert Tanner, resistance is rarely irrational. Evident in actions such as criticism, failed commitments, and open dissatisfaction, it comes from a perspective that makes perfect sense to the opposing party. Not feeding that perspective with top-down decisions, poor communication, and inexistent KPIs is the most efficient way to contain provocations.

Division between policies and expectations

Last month, Apple's CEO Tim Cook sent an email informing staff about the upcoming change. Starting in early September, its employees will have to come into the office three times a week: on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. 

However, the employees are pushing back against the new requirements. After one fully remote year, they want more flexibility. According to the internal letter obtained by The Verge, “it feels like there is a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about location-flexible work and the expectations of the team”. 

Even before the pandemic, Apple was known for its conservative approach to telecommuting. But seeing other tech giants like Twitter and Facebook implementing the “work from home forever” policies makes Apple’s employees feel “not just unheard but at times actively ignored”.

This situation is a real-life example of the tension that occurs when changes are introduced without consulting the people they impact first. Getting back to the office is not even that important. The real problem (and the reason for resistance) is a deep division between the management’s policies and employee expectations.

Therefore, avoid sudden top-down decisions to maintain the integrity of the community. Instead, invite everyone to participate in a short opinion survey, a town hall meeting or a face-to-face conversation touching upon the objectives of change. It won’t make everyone happy, but it will begin an inclusive discussion. This way, you can open the door to constructive criticism and prevent irrational, resistance-driven alienation.

Communication for motivation

Communication is not only about keeping things clear. Deep down, it is a powerful tool to increase employee motivation and adaptability. 

In the 1980s, Scandinavian Airlines identified the need for organizational change as the company was losing a lot of money in a stagnant market. After coming up with the set of actions, the company prepared the “Let’s Get in There and Fight” booklet for its employees. Through allegories and illustrations, it defined the organization’s vision and explained how storm clouds had struck the business and how everyone can help it to recover. 

Not your typical corporate communication - but it worked. With everyone on board with the change, Scandinavian Airlines managed to increase its earnings by $80 million in only one year. On top of that, it was highlighted as the best business travel airline by Fortune magazine. Crisis averted.

40 years after the Scandinavian Airlines experience, communication for motivation remains an indispensable tactic to introduce organizational change. If you are experiencing resistance, consider going the extra mile. Design an internal communication strategy that enables employees to envision your goals. Powerful storytelling can make even the harshest skeptics relate to the bigger picture. 

Public KPIs

No matter what approach you take to implement changes, there must always be a way to measure success. In business language, it means the establishment of clear, measurable key performance indicators (KPIs). 

The problem with these indexes is that they often remain behind the board room’s door. Some information, especially related to employee or customer data, may not be for public disclosure. But there is plenty of information to satisfy employee curiosity and inspire them.

Keeping your KPIs for change public and aligned with your team can help mitigate resistance because it displays the best of change - tangible results. How do you measure productivity and how changes affect it? Which changes turned out to bring the most value this year? Where does your organization stand in comparison to competitors? You may collect even better ideas about what interests your teams directly from them - just ask during the next town hall meeting.

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In the upcoming year, employees will be returning to workplaces only to find them changed. Whether it’s revised promotion policies, a shift in seating arrangements, or hybrid work, doubts and reluctance will emerge naturally. Therefore, the ability to manage employee resistance to workplace transformation will be essential.

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