Change Management in a Virtual World: Bringing Change Back to People (Part One)

Crises and unanticipated disruptors reshape businesses permanently, pushing an organization’s change capability to its limit. As the world of work navigates volatility and is thrust into virtual ways of working, traditional change management itself is also turned upside down. Reimagining change management for a new virtual world creates an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen the organization’s capability for change through a more people-centric, intentional focus—one in which employees are empowered to help design the path forward. In this blog series, we explore how you can apply the conditions created by remote work to enact higher-value change in your organization.

Change leaders have traditionally relied on opportunities to bring people together in physical spaces to brainstorm, share ideas, and build support for new initiatives. In fact, in change management best practice research conducted by Prosci, respondents consistently cite face-to-face interactions as the most effective form of communication in times of change. In the physical setting, leaders have widely used town halls, symposiums, and lunch-and-learns to engage the organization, and change leaders often gained invaluable insights through informal hallway conversations and meetings in the physical workspace.

Virtual ways of working have challenged these norms, forcing leaders to evolve how they engage teams and rally them around what comes next. In doing so, they have an opportunity to significantly improve the effectiveness of change management through more intentional engagement and greater inclusion. Virtual working arrangements eliminate the communication and community advantage for those who are co-located, establishing a more level playing field. Yet, through remote working, leaders can no longer make use of environmental prompts to accelerate change adoption, including hallway chatter, signage, and informal, in-person pulse checks on employee sentiment. Because the opportunities for engagement are more limited, leaders will need to be more purposeful in prioritizing the initiatives that matter most.

In part one of our series, we distill key learnings to enable more effective change management and strengthen change capability in the virtual setting.

What we’ve learned: Being more intentional in the way we deliver change

Getting the project team engaged in change management can make or break an initiative, and we’ve seen this connection between the project team and the change team becoming exponentially more crucial when teams are no longer co-located. Change is often forgotten even when teams are physically present, and working virtually only emphasizes this gap.

Despite this inherent challenge, we've also found virtual working has helped improve the clarity of plans, direction, and speed of execution as teams have recognized the need to share information more proactively. Leaders can no longer assume that team members will absorb information in the office by osmosis.

In this new environment, structure and organization play even more of a driving role in the success of change management. Attention spans are shorter online, making preparation and clear objectives imperative. Where we’ve seen change work well, change managers and leaders have approached each intervention (e.g., training and engagement sessions) as though they're producing an interactive event or show, rather than running a meeting. 

While intentional, structured checkpoints and engagement improve adoption, change leaders should strike a careful balance to give employees breathing room between meetings. Design a dedicated channel and process for asynchronous input and feedback, such as a Teams channel or virtual bulletin board, to keep the lines of communication open. This new channel can also help keep the volume of meetings in check.

What we’ve learned: Making change authentically people-centric  

We’ve also observed that virtual ways of working establish a more level playing field, and leaders have new opportunities to make sure all employees feel included. With digital channels, those who tend to be more introverted can think about their questions and compose feedback more comfortably in a virtual setting. Powered by tools such as Ideaboardz, a more diverse group of people can contribute to the pool of ideas.

The virtual work world lends itself well to the more equitable treatment of all employee groups. Through digital channels, all employees—even those who may have historically self-identified as "outsiders"—have equal access to the same information and avenues of collaboration. For example, employees working outside of a company's headquarters may have felt excluded or disenfranchised as a result of physical detachment from the hallway conversations, daily buzz, and interaction taking place there. Now, with all employees operating in a remote setting, change solutions must be designed to accommodate and account for the needs of all disparate audiences.

Virtual work also challenges traditional hierarchies and the paradigms of positional power. As employees gain a glimpse into leaders’ homes and interactions with family during remote video meetings, they’re likely to perceive leaders as more approachable than in traditional corporate settings. Leaders can use this opportunity to strengthen trust bonds with employees, ultimately inspiring them to move more productively through changes.

Armed with these learnings, change leaders can enact more intentional and people-centric change to increase alignment, improve adoption, and accelerate the realization of results. In the next blog of our series, we’ll explore how you can put these core insights into practice in your organization.