Why people are at the heart of change management

6 June 2016

After almost 25 years we have recently taken the big step of uprooting from our spiritual home of London Bridge, packing up our office and heading for the distant and exotic shores of Canada Water. A relatively small move I suppose, but a big change nonetheless. So what does an office move – something which has an impact on every member of the company – actually involve? Well, excitement, dread, planning – lots and lots of planning! Managing expectations, having expectations, overcoming challenges. There was the massive clear out of the stationary cupboard, full of objects for which no-one can identify a use, but nevertheless have had a seemingly very purposeful place on the middle shelf for… forever? And not forgetting an obligatory tech meltdown which could test the patience of a saint!

Then of course there’s the people, in fact it’s the people who are actually moving, the office is just something that sits around them, the office is their tool.

So often something like an office move feels logistical, physical, like everything can be planned out, ordered and arranged. But the most important factor when managing the changes involved in something so critical to daily working life as a new physical environment, is to ensure that the people are at the heart of the change.

We didn’t initially make the choice to move ourselves. We’ve counted London Bridge as our home and begrudged market forces taking the decision out of our hands. We were very happy there and wanted to look at all the options available. We researched…and researched, but soon it became clear that this decision is being taken out of the hands of many SMEs in central London, and we realised that it is what it is – a sign of the times and we might as well make the most of it and embrace the change! That was me and Winnie (our Operations Director) on board; we just needed to win over the other 18 members of the Steps team.

Recently a friend of mine left a job that he was happy in and in which he had just received the promotion he’d been working towards for two years. The reason? They were moving the location of his office – his daily place of work, his second home. At first I assumed they must’ve moved out of London entirely, so I was surprised to hear that they had only moved 8 miles away, from the heart of Zone 1 to the border of Zone 2. He described the area as “up and coming but yet to get up and arrive”, so naturally I asked if that was the reason he had quit, but it wasn’t. The actual reason, as he put it was “they just sprung it on us a few weeks ago! Told us that one department was being scrapped altogether and the rest of the departments are all being put in an open plan office. Time to move on.” I could tell his overarching feeling was one of not being valued, and that the sudden logistical change put upon him had manifested as a personal grievance. He hadn’t quit his job because he couldn’t accept change, he quit his job because “people don’t resist change, they resist being changed”. (Senge, P. 1990)

When it became apparent that we might need to move, every member of Steps was informed and brought in on the conversation – despite the Management Board not knowing yet if it was going to happen. This of course caused people some anxieties – what sort of area would we move to? Will it take me ages to get there? Will I even be able to get there? But it felt important to let people know as early on as possible that this might happen and share all the information about why it was a possibility and what potential alternatives there might be. We asked everyone to put ideas on a message board – however outlandish they appeared, as we wanted to consider all options and we wanted everyone to be part of that thinking.

Then came the dreaded rent review. Since our last one The Shard has shot up next to us, a substantial chunk of the western world’s media have set up home next to it and the area has been re-branded as ‘The London Bridge Quarter’… we were moving! I was conscious that this news might not necessarily be good news to everyone, that this could cause a wave of anxiety and frustration which wouldn’t be unreasonable, since many possibilities lay ahead and there’s no bigger fear than that of the unknown! But that didn’t happen, the response was positive and supportive and the news seemed to be expected. It was apparent that by that point most people had already come to terms with the possibility – that they were all mentally prepared to enter a period of uncertainty, and so when the news was shared, the response was not a case of anxious questions and requests, but a case of ‘right, let’s do this’. The prospect changed from one of a hassle that had been put upon us, to an exciting new chapter, a change that we all owned together.

After finding our office, designing it and project planning the move, we had to prepare for new ways of working in the new space. Having come from an environment of 50% hot desks and 50% permanent desks, we would now require nearly everyone to hot desk and for some that meant giving up their permanent workstation. Hot desking comes with an array of pros and cons and whether it’s best or not depends on each individual workspace – but for us it seems like the best way to create a flexible, functional and comfortable working environment.

Staff were consulted about this change well in advance of the move and much like the move itself, the new ways of working were received with an air of ‘ok, let’s all make it work’. Despite the variety of obstacles which come with everyone getting set up and comfortable with almost every computer, everyone has worked really hard to make it work and deal with the snagging issues, especially during the first two weeks, when technology chose to really test us!

So now we’re living in our new home and the thing that stands out the most to me during this whole process is that people are at the heart of change management, not processes, procedures and plans. In a recent conversation with a Change Management consultant, he said “So many people talk about change management in terms of processes and structures, but they forget who those processes and structures are for”.

When people own something, they can work to change it. We don’t have to choose, and in fact we don’t often get to choose, the changes which happen around us, but if we can see the need and own the process, then any change can be an exciting journey and a fresh new beginning.

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To find out more about embedding change, read about our Steps to Change Model.

Antonia Condon >>