Change management for shifting demographics

Why engaging employees in workplace transitions has never been more important
Thursday, March 17, 2016
By Michelle Ervin

The collaborative, ever hopeful millennials, focused on self-fulfillment, have already made a dramatic impact on the office environment as they have entered their working years. And the influence of their presence there will only increase in the coming years, as furniture consultant Julia Rosen illuminated in an IIDEX seminar on change management.

This year, in the U.S. at least, millennials are projected to make up more than one-third of the workforce, noted Rosen, citing a Workforce 2020 study. By 2020, they are forecasted to account for close to half the workforce.

Faced with the gravitational pull of this demographic cohort, it’s easy for organizations to forget that they have to juggle the unique needs of a handful of different age groups. Those groups include the loyal, pragmatic veterans, the optimistic, career-driven baby boomers and the realistic gen Xers who want work-life balance, as Rosen characterized them.

“So if we’re making bean bag lobbies, does that make sense for everyone?” she asked rhetorically.

The demographic shift happening in the workplace, particularly that expected to occur in the next five years, is one of many reasons to do change management, said Rosen. In essence, the workplace strategy is about engaging employees in transitions before, during and after they occur.

The alternative is to do nothing, to impose change and leave employees to their own devices to adapt. But there are definite downsides to unplanned transitions, as Rosen detailed — potential drops in productivity and loss of talent among them.

The furniture consultant recounted the story of a company that decided to move its more than 150 employees from a transit-friendly location in Toronto’s downtown core to a midtown location most accessible by car. Employees were notified via a sign posted in the office.

On move-in day, only one of the more than 150 employees showed up at the new location: the employee who had posted the sign. The employees — many of whom commuted by transit — didn’t know where the new location was, nor did they want to pay the additional transit fare it would take to get there.

Ultimately, the company foot the bill for shuttle buses between the downtown core and its new office.

“Let’s talk about the cost of change management and the cost of shuttle bus runs for two years, six times a day,” said Rosen.

A structured change management program would have involved consulting employees on their current commutes and preferred locations as part of pre-move planning. The workplace strategy also recognizes that employees want information on everything from the big picture, such as what their new office space will look like, down to administrative details such as how to pack and label their boxes.

By providing a variety of forums for real input, including committees, focus groups and surveys, these programs foster buy-in across all levels of an organization, from employees through to senior executives. Rosen underscored the importance of the commitment of leadership.

She recalled working with a design team in a previous role to install workstations for a company that was transitioning to open-concept offices. When she returned a week later to evaluate how employees had adapted to the space, she said she immediately sensed that something was different. After consulting the plans, she realized that the management team had hired contractors to erect floor-to-ceiling walls around its offices.

One of the reasons that employees resist change, said Rosen, is lack of communication, about who it affects, why it’s happening, when it’s happening. Had there been a conversation about what the transition meant for the organization, this scenario might have played out differently.

Post-project follow-up is important, as is putting in place the protocols to ensure changes stick, she said. For example, a transition to shared workstations may mean introducing policies stating that employees can’t leave sweaters on their chairs or personalize their desks with photos. Such policies may prove unpopular, which is why it’s critical to provide proper support and training when asking employees to change their behaviour or use new technologies.

Even after projects succeed, added Rosen, change management programs should remain in place.

“Like all good business strategies, workplace strategies evolve constantly, requiring ongoing monitoring and refinement,” she said. “Be prepared to continuously grow your program, changing with your evolving workforce and emerging trends.”

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.

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