COVID Insights, Perspectives April 7, 2020

Managing Change When You Least Expect It

by Emily Klein and Lisa Pool

This year marked a time of collective excitement and enthusiasm as companies embraced a call to rethink their institutional footprints. From corporate offices, to healthcare and education, to science and technology—major players in every sector have been redesigning their facilities to foster employee creativity, innovation, and collaboration, all while meeting the increasingly mobile needs of the workforce.

And then came COVID-19.

Perkins&Will employees quickly shifted to a work from home model

While the world has seen pandemics before, few anticipated the impact of this global virus and the swift decisions that it has forced us to make. In a matter of days and weeks, most of us have left our offices for home. We have stepped fully into remote work, regardless of individual or corporate readiness.

For some industries, the pain is less; employees can work anywhere, and they are supported by robust digital platforms, a business continuity plan, and a plethora of well-worn collaboration tools. For those companies, remote work is a way of life.

For other industries, those for whom 100% remote work is not the norm, this is a watershed moment. It is a shock to the corporate nerve system that will result in either a dramatic uptick in work from home arrangements, or, alternatively, a heightened level of resistance to working remotely.

For those of us in the latter group, what does it mean to adapt quickly to a remote work model? And, beyond immediate health and safety practices like social distancing and sanitizing, how will we safely bring employees back into the office? These workplace strategy questions are surfacing every day. The answers will emerge from strategic thinking and intentional leveraging of change management strategies to thoughtfully prepare for, manage, and reinforce change.

Embrace Adaptation

First, we must invest in technology, increase our bandwidth, and focus on cybersecurity for our digital platforms. Collaboration and communication tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype, and Slack are seeing an explosive increase in employee use, which is a good thing for team productivity—and an even more pressing reason to keep data and corporate assets secure from intrusions.

Beyond technology, companies that reinvent process workflows as a result of remote work will gain efficiencies with lasting impact, long after the crisis phase has passed. Leaders who engage in weekly communications with employees will find that candid conversations—ones that acknowledge the human aspects of change—can inform a course of action for business continuity, both at work and in their personal lives. These collaborative teams will have an easier time adapting to this unprecedented time and uncertain economy.

Online calendar of training for remote work best practices

Anticipate Change

Scientists and epidemiologists predict continued waves of infectious outbreaks before a vaccine is brought to market, and companies are becoming increasingly aware that we may never go back to old ways of business after the COVID-19 era. In the near term, organizations should plan for what happens when some employees start to re-populate offices, while others continue to work from home. This hybrid state of working together will require a multi-modal approach to communications planning, paired with ongoing learning and development.  Giving employees the opportunity to help shape these changes empowers them to be stakeholders in the outcomes and allows them to co-author how hybrid teams can work optimally together.

At Perkins&Will, we continue to build a platform for employees to communicate and learn virtually. In the Boston studio, we run a program called Perkins&Will University, which trains young and emerging staff on critical design and management competencies. When this shifted from in-person to digital, we created an online calendar and repository for classes to promote ubiquitous access to upcoming and past recordings.  Virtual design discussions that normally occurred weekly in our physical studios are now being held online, leveraging the tools laid out by our design applications teams.

In the near term, organizations can assemble a cross-functional team of leaders to design strategies for engaging this hybrid workforce in ways they have not done before: assembling a change management governance to design and implement change, creating change milestones for the next one to three months, using live polling to gauge employee feedback, and creating a roadmap to drive behavior change that encourages acceptance and adaptation to newer ways of working.

We also need to address employee fears about coming back into the workplace. Beyond sanitizing and social distancing protocols, a staggered return strategy should also consider the following: employee risk thresholds in coming to higher-density offices, the use of public transportation, air quality concerns, and employees’ home situations. Finally, a comprehensive return to work strategy must plan for any future outbreaks over the next 12-18 months.

With peaks and valleys of COVID-19 outbreaks happening across the globe, we can’t predict what will happen in the weeks and months ahead. A growing body of research underscores our neuro-biological need to socially connect as humans, and we face unique challenges now figuring out how to do this differently—from remote schooling, to telemedicine, to optimizing productivity among dispersed teams. What we do know is that embracing adaptive virtual cultures and anticipating and managing change will be essential workplace strategies to employ in the uncharted waters ahead.