Implementing change in the workplace has long been a challenge for management teams both in Ireland and around the world. Naturally, many resist change as it interferes with autonomy, and introduces an element of uncertainty to the workplace. Add Brexit into the mix and its ability to unsettle even the most resilient of workforces can hinder even the most straightforward change programmes from a people perspective. Furthermore, the digital age has introduced an unsettling era of change that is fast moving and unfamiliar. With advances in areas such as Automation and Artificial Intelligence, it is easy for employees to be unnerved by new initiatives and pushed into a state of inertia. However, it is important to ensure that employees remain central in change efforts, in order to maximise the chances of success and making it sustainable.
Previously, visionaries such as Frederick Taylor and his ideation of Scientific Management would have prioritised processes and systems over people. Taylor himself is quoted as saying:
‘‘In my system, the workman is told precisely what he is to do and how he is to do it, and any improvement he makes upon the instructions given to him is fatal to success.’’
This outlook is echoed by others throughout the 70’s with the opinion that ‘‘People are trouble, but machines obey’’, or ‘‘Robots don’t strike”. Although Taylor experienced impressive success with his approach across much of the 20th century, it is important to understand that this approach is inherently outdated. The issue with this formalised outlook is that it fails to utilise one of society’s most precious assets, which is the skill and creativity of its people. A people-centric approach to change ensures present-day initiatives avoid the same pitfall.
A common issue with modern change efforts is that new initiatives, such as unfamiliar technologies often lie outside the skillset of incumbent workforces, which creates an obvious tension between management and employees. A people-centric approach helps to re-align such change as an opportunity, rather than a threat.
One way to achieve this is by creating a healthy learning culture. As mentioned previously, the digital age has accelerated the rate of change, meaning formal training programmes often struggle to keep up. As such, a continuous learning culture with broadly available training is paramount in order to repeatedly enhance employees’ skills, and sustain a talent pipeline.
Another important element in a people-centric change model is to engage employees in the transition, rather than simply guide them through it. By presenting the change as a pathway to professional and personal improvement, employees will not only get on board with the change initiative, but also contribute to it.
This approach can essentially be viewed as a means of growing your workforce. When cross-referencing the required skills for change vs the current skill sets of your workforce, it is important to think beyond the talent market when addressing shortages that may result due to the volatility of today’s markets and a potential Brexit. Instead, by looking to grow your own talent pool, you can facilitate a cooperative change process; and one, which is rewarding to both you and your employees. Ultimately, management must communicate change as a genuine opportunity for their employees, and not as a threat. By inspiring employees with the why, you can help minimise resistance on the how.