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The role of HR in change management in the workplace

6 min read
What exactly is change management? And how can you overcome resistance, get your employees to buy into your strategy enthusiastically and make change a success?


What is change management?

All companies need to be able to change to keep up with growth, demand, technology and disruption. In HR terms, change management looks after a company’s most valuable asset during a change: its people.

Change management is sometimes referred to as ‘the softer side of change’, as if getting employees to embrace the transformation is easier than the so-called ‘harder’ technical, legal, and financial processes. In reality, leading people through change is the harder task; how the workforce accepts, adapts and rises to new challenges makes a business succeed – or not.

What is HR’s role in change management?

HR is ideally placed to play a central role in change management, because it knows the people. HR has recruited, trained, tracked, supported and, we hope, listened to the employees, whether in person or through feedback survey data. HR is also a business’s communication hub, co-ordinating meetings, information about and training for the change as it develops.

Behind the scenes, HR can:

  • track staffing levels, employee engagement and key performance indicators (KPIs) that affect return on investment (ROI).
  • help analyse the potential impact of the change on the whole business.

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What is the role of employees in change management?

It’s a dismal job that never changes. Most employees relish variety to add to their professional development, responsibility and experience. Generally, people don’t mind change, but what they do mind is being changed, with no say about a new direction.

A smart company will have a work environment that by default encourages employees to suggest innovation and initiate change. Then, when a major change needs to happen, they can be involved and trusted to give valuable input. Employees who are engaged and feel included in decision-making are more likely to be excited by change and make it successful.

What about resistant employees?

Some people are naturally resistant to change or moving away from the comfort of the status quo. Others have their own reasons for being resistant, such as:

  • Not being made aware of the reasons for the change
  • Concern about its impact on their current job
  • Poor change management in the past
  • Lack of commitment and support from managers
  • Worry about losing their job

Managing resistance needs to be part of a change management strategy.

Communicate clearly and early; help employees understand the reason for change; use ‘change champions’ to big up the change and gauge reaction to it; train and empower managers to support their teams through the change.

Getting employees to buy into change

Involving employees in change, and getting them enthusiastic about it, is critical for the transition to be as smooth and effective as possible. These six steps are a useful checklist:

  1. Make a change strategy plan: this needs to be done early in the process and involve as many people as possible: the C-suite; managers at different levels, who can then support their teams through the process; employees.
  2. Pitch the change with a compelling story: before, or early in the change process, communicate clearly to employees what’s going on. The story must tell why the change is happening, the impacts on the business and the objectives it will meet. An accompanying roadmap and timeframe will give tangible, reassuring structure and schedule to the change.
  3. Communicate effectively: every detail that needs actioning must be crystal clear and sent to the right people. It’s important to follow up these communications with the human touch – face to face or conversations – so everyone knows exactly what’s expected of them.
  4. Be transparent as the change happens: Some things will go to plan, others may not. It’s important to communicate successes and failures to employees to manage expectations and allay concerns. Employees have more confidence in leadership that acknowledges mistakes and uses them as learning opportunities.
  5. Gather feedback throughout: For change to be a success, it’s important for employees to know that their input is being heard and acted upon. Include anonymous feedback surveys at various points along the change roadmap, and perhaps a dedicated change channel where people can chat, question and submit ideas.
  6. Show appreciation: A time of change can be difficult for employees, who may feel sidelined, ignored or unappreciated. Increase motivation by encouraging peer recognition or giving incentives such as bonuses.

Change management surveys

There are several types you can deploy along a change management journey:

  • Employee engagement surveys: Use tailored questions to reveal perception of the change management strategy; measure morale, performance and turnover; assess opinion of leadership, direction and resources; identify concerns and address them before they cause disengagement; solicit ideas from employees; benchmark engagement before and after the change.
  • Pulse surveys: Short, quick and specific, these are useful for gauging feeling about a specific aspect, such as understanding or agreeing with a change.
  • 360 feedback: Peers, direct reports, managers and the employee themselves respond to the impact that change has on an individual.
  • Exit surveys: Substantial change will probably result in some voluntary or involuntary exits from the company. Exit surveys offer honest insights into why people chose to leave, so that any issues can be addressed.

Change management done well – an HR-centric example

Although Lord King’s restructuring of previously loss-making British Airways happened back in the 1980s, it was way ahead of its time and remains a textbook example of how people-centred change management can turn a business around:

  • A huge, unsustainable staff of 60,000 was reduced to 38,000 by voluntary severance and natural exits
  • ‘Putting People First’, BA’s self-esteem training for customer contact staff, improved customer experience
  • The ‘Managing People First’ programme trained managers in motivation, trust, vision, and responsibility
  • ‘A Day In The Life’ programme broke down change-impeding barriers between different groups
  • Use of staff surveys and customer feedback revealed increase in customer satisfaction and profitability
  • Introduction of profit sharing

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