Why micro changes can be HR’s secret recipe for success

Signe Bruskin outlines her research into the role of making small adjustments in wider organisational transformation projects

In 2016, I initiated a research study with the clear intention of studying the digital transformation of a Nordic bank. With a background in HR, the agreement with top management was straightforward: unravelling the transformation from the inside through an employee perspective. However, two months in, I was constantly met by employees and leaders asking the same question: what transformation? when asked how they had experienced the transformation so far. Even though the transformation had been running for two years and was top of mind for top management, it wasn't for the 20,000 employees and leaders. Thus, I decided to rescope the research project. Instead, I spent three years studying what organisational changes matter to employees and leaders. And the brief answer is micro changes – the small changes affecting their everyday work life.

Imagine that the coffee bar in your company is shut down. What happens? A clamour among employees. Now, imagine that a new strategy is announced in the same company. What happens? Nothing. The only reaction is a shrug. The longitudinal ethnographic study I conducted revealed that micro changes such as shutting down the coffee bar, getting a new desk or a colleague resigning are the organisational changes that matter the most to the employees. Why? These changes influence the everyday work of the individual, which is crucial to employee wellbeing and engagement at work.

Micro changes often seem like banalities from an organisational perspective, but they are radical to employees. One example is that employees didn't see the resignation of one of the top managers as a radical change. One said: "I don't care. Business as usual. I will do the same tasks tomorrow at the office." But when asked what he had experienced as a radical change, he said: "Last month, my favourite colleague left. It will never be the same." Seen from an organisational point of view, this was just one employee out of 20,000 employees resigning. But it mattered to him. This micro change influenced his everyday work life and, thus, his engagement and mental wellbeing at work.

Five types of micro changes

Micro changes can be categorised into five types:

  • Everyday: changes in our workday; eg, removing the coffee machine
  • Routine: changes to our work processes; eg, a new IT system
  • Physical: changes to a physical room; eg, getting a new office
  • Relational: changes to work relations; eg, a close colleague resigns
  • Identity changes: changes to professional identity; eg, getting a new job

All identified micro changes can be put into at least one of the five categories. Still, many will be overlapping in types; eg, employees reacting to homework as a radical change might be both a reaction to the micro change being physical and relational at the same time. It’s about more than just another physical space but also a lack of contact with colleagues.

What is worth noting is that a particular micro change is only radical to some organisational members. What is a radical micro change to one employee is not necessarily radical to another. Susan might think Karen resigning is a radical change, while Peter pinpoints getting a new office. This makes it much more challenging to deal with micro changes compared to a more classic view on organisational changes, grounded in an objective understanding of change, where we all agree that the change – such as the digital transformation – is the most important one. As an employee once said: "Brilliant strategy, boss – by the way, the coffee machine doesn't work." Showing employees care about the corporate strategy; however, micro changes often overshadow the strategy, such as when the coffee machine doesn't work – making it more difficult for leaders and HR to deal with micro changes. 

Micro actions

The good news is that micro changes can be seen as fuel for strategic changes. Because as soon as organisational changes influence everyday work, it grabs the employees’ attention. Thus, there is a potential to work proactively with micro changes or initiate micro actions. As an example, let's say a company just launched a new sustainability strategy. The employees say it's OK, but they actually don't care. At the same time, they complain that the coffee from the coffee machine tastes different. What if they knew that as part of the new sustainability strategy, all coffee machines now use organic coffee beans? They might be more accommodating to the change in coffee taste, and they get a better sense of the sustainability strategy. That micro action might be just 1 per cent of the more significant strategic change, but it might be a crucial one. By that, micro changes create an opportunity to work proactively with strategic changes by breaking them down into more concrete changes that directly influence the individual – making the fluffy strategy at eye level, which creates a potential for applying micro changes as strategic weapons in succeeding with the upcoming strategic changes.

HR’s role

The change leadership paradox of action vs doubt can help us understand HR’s role. Action has often been seen as an essential change skill in organisations, whereas doubt has been seen as a disadvantage. However, when it comes to micro changes, it is vital to balance the two. 

First, it's essential to acknowledge that there will always be micro changes, so the aim is not stability but instead to know how to handle and even work proactively with micro changes. So, taking action, working with micro actions, is essential. Remember that, when it comes to micro changes, all employees become change agents. It's not only a few who can influence the change, as we often see when it comes to strategic changes, but, instead, micro changes affect all organisational members and everybody can initiate micro changes. HR has a vital role in ensuring that employees feel they are empowered to work proactively with micro changes.

At the same time, doubt plays a crucial role. As mentioned, it differs from person to person what is experienced as a radical micro change. We all have blind spots; we cannot see all relevant micro changes, and we tend to focus on the ones we think are radical ourselves, overlooking what is radical for our colleagues and employees. Therefore, it is essential to listen, not only to act. Supporting and listening to a colleague's opinion about a micro change might be a better solution than inviting the whole team for a workshop to deal with the micro change. Other times, a reaction to a micro change might be the tip of the iceberg, showing a more significant problem where most employees think it's a radical change, thus making it crucial to take action. In the end, the role of HR is to balance the two: to act and to listen.

Managing micro changes

  • Remember not to underestimate the importance of micro changes. They are crucial to employee engagement and mental wellbeing at work.
  • Listen and be open to what micro changes employees view as radical. Be aware of not just mirroring your own.
  • Utilise that we are all change agents and have the possibility of influencing micro changes.
  • Balance the paradox of action vs doubt.
  • Break down the strategic changes into concrete micro changes to ensure they are engaged in the organisational changes.

Signe Bruskin is a speaker, external lecturer at Copenhagen Business School and author of Micro Changes