Our way of operating changed drastically in 2020 as COVID-19 forced most federal government employees to work from home. Adapting to this was a major adjustment. Leading change in this environment can be difficult, as the virtual environment reduces a manager’s opportunity for informal and face-to-face activities (e.g., stopping in a hallway and casually explaining some of the details to a team member).
That being said, there are some things that managers can do to try to make a virtual change process succeed.
Key practices to follow as we lead change in a virtual/hybrid work environment
Creating a virtual/hybrid work culture
One of the first things we want to do is to establish a virtual/hybrid work culture for our change team and leadership team.The formal culture of the organization is now more adaptable than ever and we may want to de-emphasize some aspects of it, if only temporarily, to strengthen its flexibility.
To create this new culture we want to focus on the values and norms we want (e.g., keeping cameras on as much as possible, expectations for not responding to emails during off hours) and reinforce these regularly.
We can also encourage our teams to help colleagues to understand and buy-in to the change by instilling the value that everyone is a leader. This is incredibly important for success in virtual settings as everyone has the possibility to influence the change effort.
There are various workplace models and approaches, and these can shift over time. Depending on how dispersed (e.g., geographically) a group is, ensuring everyone is, and feels, included is critical. This means ensuring all members of the team regularly participate in and have the opportunity to contribute equally to discussions about the change.
As a leader, it’s important that we are mindful of a potential imbalance in sharing information, especially when it comes to informal discussions. Actively involving all individuals/groups in discussions, or ensuring that a colleague can share what was said, can go a long way in ensuring the information is conveyed to all involved parties.
By doing so we can ensure that we have a diversity of perspectives throughout the change process and that all members of the team stay connected to the greater whole and can be active, contributing members of the team, while remaining engaged in the change process.
Addressing concerns and resistance
We need to guard against employees feeling isolated and concerns left un-addressed. Extra effort is needed to tease out issues and concerns that are blocking people’s commitment to the change being proposed. Questions and concerns are the engine for successful change, so we are encouraged to move towards that tension rather than ignoring it or moving away from it.
In a non-virtual workplace there is time for gossip and informal exchanges among those who understand the change and those who don’t, as well as a host of other ad hoc forms of communication.
In a virtual setting, all interactions must be planned with specific timeframes for accomplishing tasks. Virtual leadership requires more structured information-sharing and problems that are identified often cannot be addressed until subsequent virtual meetings. Further, the rigours of virtual engagement can make it slower than in-person engagement. Therefore, it is wise for managers to allow longer timelines for each phase of their change process.
That being said, there are several characteristics of a virtual workplace that we can take advantage of. For one, people tend to feel less intimidated by hierarchy than they would in the traditional office setting. They are more likely to speak up or type a comment which all participants can see, rather than just whispering to a colleague sitting beside them.
So, what we want to do is encourage a very rich exchange during these discussions. These are great ways of getting a wide breadth of feedback. One way to do so is to always solicit employee voice and written feedback and advice on every engagement meeting. If we make this a habit they will come to video meetings prepared. We can also use quick turn-around survey tools to gauge progress and to get feedback in real time.
Tools and training
We want to take time early in the process to get employees comfortable with the virtual tools and technology we will rely on in our change effort. As well, we should centralize our change-related tools and support documentation using online collaboration tools so that employees can access these at any time.
As far as is possible within federal government rules we can differentiate ourselves by creating an online brand for our change communications and products. People working virtually are swamped by emails and texts and our messages can get lost. By branding we can improve the visibility of our change communications. Along these lines we can also create some simple templates with our branding, such as for messages and briefing products. We can also create a simple change progress dashboard so that employees and leaders can see its progress.
With our understanding of how to lead change in the public service and in a virtual context, we next pivot to building trust and fostering a dialogue as key behaviours of leading change.