Is change always for the better?

Research often cited by McKinsey & Company has found that the vast majority (70 per cent) of change management schemes fail to meet their goals. Change doesn’t come easily of course. Humans are creatures of habit so the success of any proposed change will take a great deal of investigation, preparation and communication.

The most common pitfalls are employee resistance and lack of management support. But many aspects of organisational change also impact the workplace. Before planning change, organisations have to understand how these changes impact employees and why it is so common to come up against employer resistance.

Employee experience – a subjective reality

In order to understand the challenges, it is important to see the situation from the point of view of the employee. A study by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2017 found that 55 per cent of people who said they experienced organisational change at work reported feeling chronic stress, compared with 22 per cent reported by those who weren’t experiencing organisational upheaval. These employees also have less trust in their employers and are more likely to say they will seek employment outside the company in the coming year. Inevitably, this is a result of multiple factors. Scepticism, both in the motivation for the change and the outcome, plays a significant role. Almost one-third (31 per cent) believe that management’s motivation for change is something other than what the staff are told and 57 per cent believe that the changes implemented will not have the desired effect.

However, neither the APA report nor the study often cited by McKinsey & Co. sit perfectly with the reality of the outcome. Leesman has independently measured the employee experience in 533 workplaces that have completed a workplace change. Our latest study has focused on 346 workplaces that were measured post-occupancy – after a refurbishment or relocation – to determine the effectiveness of workplace change programmes. The findings suggest mixed results with just 41 per cent of new workplaces delivering an exceptional employee experience. In general, respondents have a more positive view of their workplace after a relocation or refurbishment with a high number believing that their corporate image has improved. However, as many as 40 per cent of workplaces have not been able to maximise potential and 19 per cent were deemed failing. This would suggest that while there are fewer ‘failures’ than McKinsey & Co. cites with regards to wider change programmes, the majority of workplace change projects are not reaching their potential.

Who benefits?

Different demographics react differently to workplace changes. Those in roles with a higher degree of complexity (doing a wider variety of tasks during a working day) register a lower satisfaction with their workplace generally but a greater improvement in satisfaction after a workplace change event than those in low complexity roles. One explanation for this could be that new workplaces tend to have more variety in working spaces for activities such as quiet working, large meetings and recreational activities. However, the availability and quality of the different spaces is not uniform. Leesman’s research scored the post-change workplace average well on collaboration spaces but the average score for noise or places which facilitated private conversations was low. Once again, this suggests that change management schemes are not catering to all needs.

A failure to effectively plan for all needs ties in with employee resistance. It might be the case that a workplace looks fantastic on paper and abides by all the research into the ideal workplace, but it will still be lacking if managers fail to communicate with employees and understand their primary needs.

Two of the key factors that determine how an employee responds to change are control and predictability. Lack of both goes a long way to explaining why employees working through organisational change exhibit signs of stress. Large and complex changes can be difficult to explain to a workforce, which could explain why as many as 29% of respondents in the aforementioned APA survey report suspect that their employer’s motives for workplace change were different from what the employee had been informed. While effectively implemented communication may not actually offer the workforce control over the workplace change, it offers a perception of control and a better position from which to prepare for modifications to working patterns. The APA study found that trust and engagement have a huge role in the workplace culture and accounting for more than half of the variance in employee wellbeing.

Are employee concerns justified?

There is some evidence to suggest that the stress employees feel is justified. As described, the research shows that those with more complex roles feel a greater improvement in new workplaces and that collaborative activities, such as meetings and team projects, benefit the most. Tasks which require quiet spaces including individual thinking, private conversations, and spreading out paper score the lowest post organisational change. This is despite research that suggests that the most important factor in workplace effectiveness is individual focus rather than collaboration.

Understanding the precise culture and needs of employees and how these factor into workplace experience is necessary for creating the optimum workplace experience. A wide array of variables impact experience. Leesman’s framework proposes that these factors fall into the categories of the workplace: process; behaviours; needs, requirements, and preferences; organisational structure and dynamics; and expectation.

Communication, communication, communication

Out of Leesman’s framework, the second factor, process, focuses on the importance of communication with employees. Accepting and buying in to workplace change is easier for those who understand the reasons behind it, so having an open dialogue is a key part of transformation management. Engaging and involving employees will encourage this. In addition, they can guide change to most appropriately meet their needs.

McKinsey & Co.’s outlook on change management programmes may have given an overly pessimistic view but the Leesman report demonstrates that most organisations are still far from reaching full potential. What makes an ideal workplace is not set in stone. Creating the ideal workplace comes about from understanding that experience is subjective, which means facts and figures are not enough to address the needs of all employees. Effective workplace change management with open communications channels are at the core of creating a fantastic workplace experience.

Tim Oldman, CEO, Leesman

Twitter: @LeesmanCEO

Tim Oldman

Tim Oldman

As the founder of Leesman, Tim sought to offer the property market the first truly independent, unified and standardized pre and post occupancy evaluation tool. He started his career in 1991 as a designer in the gritty world of transport design. By 2003, Tim had moved away from the front line of design, having developed a greater interest in the business strategy of workplace. In 2006, he joined Swiss furniture giant Vitra as Director of Workplace Strategy, commissioning several milestone research projects. By 2009 he was working as an independent advisor to several leading global organisations, advising leadership teams on the alignment of their workplace strategies. This led to the exploration and development of new models, tools and theories and ultimately to the founding of Leesman in 2010. The Leesman Index is now the largest independent workplace effectiveness database containing over a quarter of a million employee responses. As CEO, Tim is responsible for the creative and strategic development of the Leesman brand in the UK and internationally, and for exploring the opportunities to develop parallel focused products for the Higher Education and Healthcare markets.