In 2022, the average employee experienced 10 planned enterprise changes — such as a restructure to achieve efficiencies, a culture transformation to unlock new ways of working, or the replacement of a legacy tech system — up from two in 2016. While more change is coming, the workforce has hit a wall: A Gartner survey revealed that employees’ willingness to support enterprise change collapsed to just 43% in 2022, compared to 74% in 2016. Navigating the pandemic asked a lot of employees — and while they delivered, it came at a cost. Relentless sprinting means many employees are running on fumes. To create more sustainable change efforts, leaders must prioritize change initiatives, showing employees where to invest their energies. They also must manage change fatigue by building in periods of proactive rest, involving employees in change plans, and challenging managers to help build team resilience.
Business transformation will remain at the forefront in 2023, as organizations continue to refine hybrid ways of working and respond to the urgent need to digitalize, while also contending with inflation, a continuing talent shortage, and supply-chain constraints. These circumstances, which require higher levels of productivity and performance, also mean a lot of change: In 2022, the average employee experienced 10 planned enterprise changes — such as a restructure to achieve efficiencies, a culture transformation to unlock new ways of working, or the replacement of a legacy tech system — up from two in 2016, according to Gartner research.
While more change is coming, the workforce has hit a wall: A Gartner survey revealed that employees’ willingness to support enterprise change collapsed to just 43% in 2022, compared to 74% in 2016.
We call the gap between the required change effort and employee change willingness the “transformation deficit.” Unless functional leaders steer swiftly and expertly, the transformation deficit will stymie organizations’ ambitions and undermine the employee experience, fueling decreased engagement and increased attrition.
The irony is that many of the goals of transformation — redesigning teams and structures, automating drudge activities, reengineering corporate culture — seek to ease burnout and fatigue and increase efficiency. Unfortunately, many leaders are approaching change management by applying short-term fixes, which is unsustainable.
The Big Pitfall: Moving Too Fast
The most common mistake when it comes to change management today is trying to build momentum for transformation by hitting the accelerator. A 2022 Gartner survey found that 75% of organizations are adopting a top-down approach to change, where leaders set the change strategy, create detailed implementation roadmaps, and deploy a high volume of change communications. Their goal is for workers to buy into the new path and for managers to lead the charge as champions and role models for their teams.
Unfortunately, navigating the pandemic asked a lot of employees — and while they delivered, it came at a cost. Relentless sprinting means many employees are running on fumes. Gartner research reveals the following:
- Fifty-five percent of employees took a significant hit to their own health, their team relationships, and their work environment to sustain high performance through the disruption.
- Only 36% of employees reported high trust in their organizations, with onsite workers reporting the least trust.
- Half of employees reported struggling to find the information or people they needed to do their job on an ever-increasing volume of tasks.
Toward a More Sustainable Transformation
To get the most out of the change energy in your organization, Gartner analysis finds that leaders need to focus on two elements: prioritized change and managing fatigue.
Prioritized change means leaders show employees where to invest their energy by communicating their backlog of priorities, including change initiatives. Without such guidance, employees are likely to give 110% for each change, resulting in a blowout.
Many leadership teams already rank the most important organizational projects and initiatives, but that knowledge often isn’t shared beyond leadership team discussions. Communicating this more broadly can help teams more effectively manage their energy and efforts.
For example, IT leaders at The Cooperators, a Canadian insurance company, publish their priority progress list to all employees every month. The visibility helps employees understand the mechanics of the business, informing real and important judgments about where they should focus their attention.
Leaders must step back and consider the employee experience when determining the optimal speed for implementing change initiatives. For example, IT leaders at Sky Cable, a Filipino telecom, created guidelines for minimizing fatigue arising from a constant flow of technology changes. Their guidance includes “Design solutions to be visually like old solutions,” and “During periods of high change, minimize process changes that disrupt employee work.” They create a release calendar synched with the change efforts outside their own department. As a result, IT leaders can spot the best times to deploy new improvements.
Prioritized change can help leaders identify any changes that should be scrapped altogether. If a change is always at the bottom of your backlog and you continually delay it, it’s probably not critical.
Managing Change Fatigue
While organizational change management (OCM) is table stakes, fatigue management is a new change management muscle that executives must build. Three actions can prevent the risk of change fatigue:
1. Build in periods of proactive rest to sustain change energy.
Remote and hybrid working has collapsed the distinction between work and life. In 2022, “workers [were] still effectively giving away the equivalent of more than a working day (8.5 hours) of unpaid overtime each week: less than in 2021 but still more than pre-pandemic,” according to payroll company ADP. But Gartner analysis shows more time working does not result in higher performance.
Rest does increase performance — if it’s proactive. Organizations must rethink how they approach rest, embedding it into the workflow to prevent burnout. Proactive rest should have three characteristics:
- Available: There is a robust set of options for employees to use to rest and stay charged. These could include no-meeting days, defined working hours, planned “down time” within projects, or all-company days off.
- Accessible: Employees are encouraged to take advantage of the available tools and resources and to rest guilt-free.
- Appropriate: Those rest tools meet the individual needs of employees.
According to Gartner research, rest that is available, accessible, and appropriate contributes to a 26% increase in employee performance and a tenfold reduction in the number of employees experiencing burnout.
2. Move away from a top-down approach and open source your change plans.
Open-source change management embraces employees as active participants in change planning and implementation. It requires three shifts in thinking:
- Involve employees in decision-making. This isn’t about allowing employees to vote on every change; it means finding ways to infuse the voice of those most impacted into your planning. Gartner research has found that this step alone can increase your change success by 15%. It makes change management a meritocracy, where you increase the odds that the best ideas and inputs are included in decision-making.
- Shift implementation planning to employees. Leaders often don’t have enough visibility into the daily workflows of their teams to dictate a successful change approach. And leaving the workforce out of change implementation can increase resistance and failure. Gartner research has found that when employees own implementation planning, change success increases by 24%.
- Engage in two-way conversations throughout the change process. Instead of focusing on how you’ll sell the change to employees, think of communications as a way to surface employee reactions. Holding regular, honest conversations about the change will allow employees to share their questions and opinions, which will drive understanding and make them feel like they’re part of the commitment to change. Gartner research has found that this step can increase change success by 32%.
3. Reimagine the role of managers in change.
Many managers are struggling to balance the needs of their leaders with the expectations of their employees. On top of this, managers are overwhelmed with change, too, making it difficult for them to effectively role model all the changes. Only 57% of managers report having enough capacity in their day-to-day work to support their teams through change.
Instead of asking managers to champion each and every change, leaders should instead challenge their managers to act as resilience builders. Managers who build their teams’ ability to self-navigate through change can increase employee sustainable performance by 29% and protect their own performance at the same time.
These managers know that they don’t always have the time or skills to demonstrate what change looks like. Instead, they ensure their teams learn by doing. They identify their employees’ strengths and motivations, and they connect them to colleagues with the relevant experience that they can best learn from.
Taken together, the strategies of prioritized change and fatigue management will advance the fuel economy of your 2023 transformation efforts, reducing drag and building momentum from employee energy.
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