COVID Accelerates Everything: Including Change Fatigue

How can our organisations cope with a coming tsunami of burnt out workers? The signs are all there that the transition to hybrid/remote working is not as painless as the Zoom and Teams enthusiasts are making out.

How can our organisations cope with a coming tsunami of burnt out workers? The signs are all there that the transition to hybrid/remote working is not as painless as the Zoom and Teams enthusiasts are making out.

Just under half of managers believe their employees may be at a higher risk of ‘burnout’ due to changing work patterns. ‘Burning the Candle: Strategies to Combat Workplace Burnout’ found that 47% of managers fear their employees may suffer from ‘burnout’ due to the challenges COVID-19 has brought.

Despite 35% saying they have been more productive whilst remote working, 87% have felt more pressure to keep productivity levels high to prove the case to their employers to allow remote working to continue.

Separately, in a survey by Perkbox, more than half (58%) of employees said changes to the furlough scheme and future uncertainty over the world of work had negatively affected their mental health, leaving them with rising levels of stress and anxiety. 46% said they had felt disconnected from their team and business over the past month.  Only 15% had experienced no negative effects on their wellbeing in the past month.

Ouch.

Admittedly these are the early days where we are still pushing through the pain barrier – but it does seem that we are seeing the rise of a kind of e-presenteeism with the assumption that remote work means always available. Why is it that employees feel the need to prove their worth to employers by going above and beyond working hours?

For me there are a few factors at play here:

Managing Through Uncertainty

COVID-19 is a complex problem in a complex system and we haven’t done the best job of training middle managers about complexity and uncertainty. A lot of people are unsure about their future right now and one of the ways people deal with stress and uncertainty is to make themselves busy. Busy is the new status quo. Ask anyone how work is during COVID and I pretty much guarantee the reply will be “really busy”.

The problem is that busyness isn’t productive. And it makes everyone else busier.

Instead of fuelling a culture of busyness we need to encourage leaders to make sense of our complex situation by acknowledging the complexity, admitting we don’t have all the answers, and reflecting collectively.

Being A Digital Leader Has Never Been More Urgent

Five years ago I posed a series of questions for prospective digital leaders.

  • Do you actively listen and respond to what internal and external communities are saying?
  • Do you use digital technologies to source new ideas for your organisation or team?
  • Do you put opinions out there rather than press releases? Are you known for provoking debate?
  • Do people you’ve never met come to you for advice on the strength of your online presence?
  • Do people tell you they value the resources and information you share?

Arguably we have failed to prepare our leaders – which is why people are mistaking two hour Zoom meetings for collaboration. COVID has accelerated them into a future they were wholly unprepared for.

As Matt Ballantine writes “We urgently need to do something about how we meet. I have a hunch that most meetings were rubbish before lockdown, but that the side conversations and sense of being with others that happened alongside the business of the meeting made them valuable. Zoom and Teams has stripped most of that side benefit away, so we are just left with the useless meeting. We’ve lifted and shifted office working practice into digital tools, and it’s left us wanting.”

I like Zoom and Teams – but they are not digital transformation. If you think you’ve mastered digital leadership by being able to change your Teams background you’re sadly mistaken.

Understanding that digital leadership is now just leadership is an urgent requirement.

THE ONSET OF Chronic Change Fatigue

Many people had change fatigue before COVID, but post-pandemic we need to review how many things we can conceivably handle at any one time.

No organisation, large or small, can manage more than five or six goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective.The best organisations don’t try and do everything. They focus on a few differentiating capabilities. Doing less, not more, requires a cultural shift. It involves finding your ‘irreducible core’ of services and then constantly refining and innovating against it.

There’s a window of opportunity here for organisations to pause and reflect before they go full steam ahead with their existing strategies. Otherwise we risk returning to the old normal which most people want to get away from.

And let’s remember that some change is manufactured just to give people things to do rather than being strictly necessary. In the post-normal preserving the things you truly value is more radical than constant tinkering.

Nobody resists necessary change. So the final word has to go to Peter Vander Auwera:


Cover photo by Christian Englmeier on Unsplash

People Aren’t Sick Of Change. They’re Just Sick Of Change Programmes

I don’t buy into the idea that humans intrinsically hate change. I just think that by the time we’re in our 30s or 40s, lots of our experience of change – particularly in the workplace – has been more negative than positive. Instinctively rejecting it is a learned response – Tom Cheesewright

People , we hear, are tired of change. They have change fatigue.

We are sometimes told that people will resist our ‘change efforts’ or even need to be assessed for their ‘change readiness’. Change readiness, in case you’ve not had the pleasure, is the “ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimize risk, and sustain performance.”

Failing your change readiness assessment could be seriously career threatening. 

Despite this so-called change resistance all the evidence shows that people want change on a scale like never seen before , both in our wider society and the workplace.

What is to blame for this apparent ‘change paradox’?

My contention is that there are some similarities with how change – or rather the lack of meaningful change that make people’s lives better or easier – manifests itself in our communities and in our offices.

Simply put, people’s experience of the delivery of change is often far from what they have been promised.  This is put even more simply by Peter Vander Auwera – “people don’t resist change, they resist bullshit”.

The Big Problem With Change Programmes

The birth of the management change movement dates back to the 1960s and 1970s when big consultancy began to see a vast new market – convincing organisations of the benefits of ‘transformation’.

The philosophy proposed that there’s always a better version of you out there in the future and by following a series of best practices, toolkits and templates that version of you can be easily realised.

However change is not just about going from one point to another, reaching a mythical ‘to be’ state and stopping there. The most important thing is what takes place from point A to whatever happens next – and that will almost never be what you predicted or what it says on a Gantt chart. None of us can predict the future and nobody can possibly know the butterfly effect when you begin to change things.

That’s why large-scale transformations become too big to fail – resulting in a ‘wall of silence’ when objectives don’t get met. They simply cannot deliver on what was promised. So what’s the point of doing them?

We Need Trojan Mice, Not Trojan Horses

img_0591
Image courtesy of @whatsthepont

Chris Bolton has written an excellent series of posts (links in here) on the concept of Trojan Mice. Trojan Mice is a phrase Euan Semple used in his blog about ten ways to create knowledge ecology .  Unleash Trojan Mice. Don’t do big things or spend loads of money. Set small, nimble things running and see where they head.”

For Trojan Mice think of small safe to fail tests and learning exercises rather than big change. Trojan Mice are small, well focused changes that address a problem but are introduced in an inconspicuous way. without the fanfare of transformation. They are small enough to be understood and owned by all concerned.

This is grassroots change rather than top down. And because the change is being made by people close to the problem they don’t resist it – they lead it. 

Many organisations don’t like this approach though because it is , by definition, unpredictable.  Trojan Mice will eventually deliver rewards; but you may not get what you were expecting.

I’d argue that big change never gives you what you were expecting anyway – so you may as well embrace a bit of uncertainty and release the mice. It’ll cost you a lot less money – that’s for sure.

Towards A Community For Change

Change does not always happen where, when or how we want. Organisations are just collections of people but we often forget that and make it more complicated than it needs to be.

I don’t know how change happens where you live but where I am people just connect with each other over shared interests and they try things out. There aren’t any spreadsheets that I know of.

The problem with employing lots of Change and Transformation people is that they often start changing and transforming lots of things that never asked or needed to be changed or transformed in the first place.

Grass-roots change presents senior managers with a paradox because it means directing an approach to change without insisting on or even approving specific solutions.

However , if we are to bridge the gap between the appetite for change and the experience of change delivery, we need fundamentally new approaches.

People hate change?

No, they don’t. They hate to get changed by other people.

%d bloggers like this: