Change catalysts

Kurt Lewin’s change model explains why employees embraced the change to remote working at the beginning of the pandemic; there was a clear perception that change was needed. Finding the ‘why’ behind your change will be harder this time around.

The following data is reported as at Q2/2021

“We fear change.” A line from the 1992 cult comedy Wayne’s World, but also a mantra firmly bedded deep within the human psyche. In fact, psychologically, we naturally fear change because we are unable to anticipate the outcome. We have a collective fear of the unknown. Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, says that people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty. Which is why the next decisions leaders take on workplace will be critical.

In the early part of 2020, the world experienced the largest, sudden change of ways of working in modern times. Thinking back, it almost feels like the shift happened over night. Organisations across the globe were forced to think on their feet and send their knowledge workers home while CRE, IT and HR teams were working hard to make it happen.

Leesman data suggests that the transition went quite well. With data from almost a year and a half of home working at hand, we can conclude that a large proportion of employees have had quite an outstanding experience working from home. The average home working experience, measured by H-Lmi, across the 221,841 home workers who have responded to our survey since the start of the pandemic, is 73.8, where a score of 70.0 or above is what we would classify as outstanding.

Organisations were either already well equipped, or managed to mobilise fast, to ensure that their employees had the digital tools they needed to work away from the corporate office. We see this in 80.9% of employees agreeing that they have the IT devices and tools they need, and 90.6% agreeing that they have access to the software applications and programmes they need to work from home. And even though Zoom-fatigue is now a thing, we can only conclude that video conferencing is generally better supported from the comfort of our homes (89.4% say it’s supported) compared to in the office (66.9%).

Adaptation certainly also happened at the individual employee-level. Employees did their best to get through the situation, even though we do know that the sense of connection to your colleagues and the organisation has suffered. Our data suggests that, where possible, employees have made the effort to carve out space for working at home, if possible. In 2019, 34% of the respondents who could work from home reported that they work from a non-work specific location at home, compared to 25% after approximately 18 months of home working (at the end of June 2021).

All in all, what we saw in early 2020 was the largest and fastest change in ways of working so far. As a change programme, it gets an A+. But now there’s another change ahead, and this one may be just a bit trickier.

Kurt Lewin was a German-American psychologist, born in Poland before later emigrating to the United States. He is known as one of the pioneers of modern social psychology.

Lewin’s well-known model of how to implement change involves three steps: unfreezing, changing, and refreezing.

The unfreezing phase entails creating the perception that a change is needed, then moving towards the new in the changing phase, and then solidifying the new behaviour as the norm.

The first phase is absolutely crucial because change resistance – or change critique as I prefer to call it – can often be caused by a lack of understanding of why the change is needed in the first place. This is why we may find that the change to fully remote working was – albeit a massive undertaking – still the “easier” change to implement. The spread of COVID-19, declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), completely dominated every single newspaper and news broadcast, and countries were locking down. Nobody could escape the seriousness in what was going on.

Therefore, there was a very clear external trigger that caused an evident need to unfreeze the status quo. When leaders had to ask their employees to pack their laptop bags and work from home, very few asked: “Why?”

The change was justified and also well sustained by the logistical magic of many support teams working incredibly hard. And even though the duration of the refreeze was unknown (and still is in some parts of the world), people adapted.

Fast-forward to the present day and those same leaders are now planning for what working will look like when COVID-19 is not posing any restrictions on work and life. But what is the trigger to unfreeze this time? What is the reason to kick-start the second considerable change programme in less than two years?

Without a clear external trigger that justifies why another change is needed, we may see more change critique this time around. The average employee has had an outstanding experience working from home; they may not have a perception that change is needed at all.

Also, the timing of this change may get challenged by many, as we’re working with an unfreeze with blurred lines as opposed to the very clear message that most governments gave that now was the time to act. How does one justify that now is the time to start moving towards the desired new status quo, as opposed to waiting slightly longer?

With many organisations yet to define their future workplace strategy, what the end-goal of this change is, is also not that clear. In a recent poll of decision makers in real estate, 29% told Leesman that they were in the early stages of planning their post-pandemic strategy. And a third (34%) said that their strategy was in place, but it has not yet been communicated with their employees.

We have clearly seen in our data that employees have very different preferences regarding where and how to work in the future; out of 80,634 employees who have responded to the question about the number of days they prefer to work in their office workplace post-pandemic, 16% want to be back in the office 4-5 days per week while 37% want to go to the corporate office at most 1 day per week. These numbers vary from one organisation to another, and between departments and functions within the same organisation.

Where the big shift early 2020 had a clear objective—everyone who could needed to work from home—this time there is no one single evident solution, making this change even harder to design and implement.

What is clear though is that the office workplace will now need a clear purpose and employees will need a clear reason to go to there. Gone are the days when one would get up in the morning, shower, have breakfast and then head to the office almost as by default. Instead, every day will involve a decision of not only what are my priorities today, but also where do I do them.

It will therefore be crucial that every organisation looks for the right solution for themselves and their employees. And our poll of CRE leaders shows just how bespoke these decisions can be. The poll found that 41% had not made a decision on whether employees will be given free choice over when they use the office, but 37% say they will be offering complete freedom to their workforce.

We should keep in mind that, as opposed to the change we did in the beginning of 2020, this change project will be a lot fuzzier, and ultimately slower. It will never reach a point of completion; change will be continuous and will require constant monitoring and adaptation. The change from office to home working was clear, enforced and happened almost overnight. It’s very important to accept that this refreeze will take time, and due to everything we’ve learnt and uncovered through the pandemic, there is no clear route back to corporate workplaces.

And as with any organisational change programme, it will be important to listen to your employees along the way. Two-way communication will be crucial to create a sense that change is needed from the remote-first life that most of us have been living for longer than any one of us would ever have imagined, and to find the right solution that will be embraced by the entire organisation. Without it, the workforce will remain uncertain, and will still fear change.

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