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Employee involvement in change can be messy – but it’s necessary

11 Apr 2017 By Mark LaScola

While it’s hard work to get staff involved in making decisions, the payoff in engagement is well worth it

There's a buzzword currently circling the business world: change management. When organisations restructure, implement new technologies or make significant changes, leaders turn to HR or change management professionals for help. ‘Help’ in this situation usually means multiple forms of one-way communication and training. But is that the only way to go?

There is, believe it or not, another approach to consider – one that will have substantially more practical benefit to you, your employees and your organisation.

When tackling major changes such as a top-to-bottom redesign, leaders and HR teams will eventually have to get their entire workforce to buy into the adjustments. But is it better to ‘pay now’ and bring employees into the process from the start? Or is it better to ‘pay later’ by crafting the change behind closed doors and unveiling it once it's complete?

The pay later approach is usually a compliance-based decision. With fewer voices in the process, work can move much more quickly in the beginning, with approval only required from a few leaders needed to create a finished solution. The trouble begins when leaders descend from the mountaintop with stone tablets dictating the organisation’s future to everyone below. Implementation becomes a nightmare, because the announcement often comes off as sudden and extreme to those who weren't involved in crafting the solution. What might have been a smooth process is derailed once it reaches the masses.

Alternatively, you have the pay now approach, in which the entire organisation is brought in from the beginning. The effort to secure employee buy-in is put in early so employees understand and accept their place come implementation time. Roll out is seamless, and staff more readily accept changes because they had a hand in their creation.

Unfortunately, many business leaders fail to see the ramifications of keeping employees out of these conversations. They often don't realise they have another option. But, just as often, they're listening to the wrong people.

There's also been a prevailing opinion – mostly driven by the consulting world – that any solution must be expert-driven, and avoid any collaborative problem-solving or opportunity to give employees a say in addressing the hairiest company challenges. Meanwhile, executives enlist HR and internal change professionals to complete the job of keeping staff happy and engaged.

HR leaders understand that traditional change methods, with perks such as free cake or movie tickets, aren't what truly get employees head-and-heart engaged. Yet a 2014 survey ranked the UK 18th out of 20 countries for employee engagement – probably because of misguided initiatives like these.

The key to genuine engagement and quick, sustainable change adoption is to stop all the nonsense, and bring employees in on relevant, meaningful discussions about the business they're working in. Make them a part of fixing problems, and give them the authority (within reason) to do what needs to be done. In projects where there is a high degree of involvement from leaders and employees, change is adopted more quickly, and return on investment is therefore generated more quickly – and engagement scores skyrocket.

Nespresso is a perfect example of this approach in action. Its UK team was preparing to move to a new office. In a culture where even a 10-minute longer commute can be a deal breaker, its leaders wanted as smooth a process as possible. So employees were brought into the process, and given free rein to make the space their own. The company even offered to offset the added commute costs for two years for every employee. By the time the actual move occurred, teams were itching to experience their new space.

Inviting employees into the change process may be messy, but it's the best way to ensure a smooth transition. Give teams the opportunity to invest themselves into the organisation’s future, and they'll be thankful for it.

Mark LaScola is founder and managing principal of ON THE MARK, an organisational design consultancy

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