Why change fatigue from 2020 threatens the business changes needed to survive 2021
— January 7th, 2021
Almost overnight, COVID-19 changed the world. To survive, organizations had to adapt at a pace few had experienced before. In 2021, the global stage is set for continued transformation, but many employees are feeling overwhelmed, burnt-out, and longing for a return to the old normal.
So, what’s the solution?
As we blink and rub our eyes in the early morning light of 2021, hopes are high that this year will be nothing like the last. Collectively, we’re slowly emerging from a crisis, but the truth is that this really is a new dawn; we can never go back to the way things were.
For many, the new year brings a moment of opportunity, as having the world turned upside down certainly lends a fresh perspective. Business leaders are now seeking to continue and embed the rapid transformations of 2020, whether that’s through tweaking their brand positioning, re-structuring their operating model, or introducing new leadership.
But while the possibilities may inspire, the reality may be a different story.
We’re familiar with the McKinsey statistic, 70% of change programs fail, with communication as a key cause. But that statistic is based on the pre-pandemic world, not today’s remote and hybrid working environment.
The scale and pace of change businesses experienced in 2020 may have given the C-suite confidence that their people can adapt quickly when they really have to.
But in 2021, implementing those big, game-changing initiatives risks change saturation for those businesses already reeling from the pandemic, and increases the chances that employees will soon be suffering from change fatigue, if they aren’t already.
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This means that alarm bells will be ringing for anyone whose job it is to lead, deliver, or communicate transformation.
Why? Because making change happen today is about more than just systems, processes, channels, and messages. It’s critical that we find new ways to connect employees to a meaningful purpose, and to one another.
Strategic communicators are only too aware that it’s the informal networks and relationships built over time, through bumping into colleagues at the coffee machine or in corridors between meetings, that play a critical role in reaching people, influencing attitudes, and building commitment towards change.
And it’s these relationships and networks that are deteriorating after such a sustained period of distancing.
Combine this with the finding that many employees are simply overwhelmed by the volume, velocity, and variety of change they experienced last year, and it’s no wonder they may want to close their eyes and cover their ears to the realities of more transformation.
Behavioral science tells us that context is king; when the environment changes, we need to reframe our approach – we can’t do things in the same old way and expect the same results. So, how can we, as communicators, rethink our approach to help employees overcome change fatigue and unlock businesses’ potential? We believe that connection is the key. And it’s a key that works on more than one door.
At an enterprise level, we know that building connectivity into the corporate culture, whether that’s between employees, to a cause or purpose, or to leaders, can counteract change fatigue. The neurological response to the fear of change narrows perspective, blocks people from imagining the future, and stops them from finding creative solutions to problems.
Creating a culture that connects employees with their leaders and helps them to frame the future in more positive ways can not only support their mental wellbeing, but allows them to be more successful in their roles.
From a comms standpoint, there’s so much we can do with this, from introducing more opportunities for interaction in meetings, to supporting our leaders to better listen and emotionally engage with employees, to creating digital and gamified solutions that build connections across geographical, functional and hierarchical borders.
And better connection can also help us to counteract change fatigue as part of a change team. In a large-scale transformation, there are often multiple groups involved, from external consultancies, to HR and functional teams.
This means an increased risk of different frameworks and language; complex stakeholder networks for each part of the jigsaw; and misaligned, confusing activity. The result? Employees’ experience of change is fragmented and confused, leading to increased stress and potentially higher levels of resistance.
The more employees experience a cohesive approach across all touchpoints of change, from leadership, to communication, to training and technology, the more receptive they will be.
As a change team, we bear a joint responsibility to ready and support employees for change, so we need to be well-connected to create a coordinated and holistic response.
We need to find substitutes for all the more casual get-to-know-you activities that once came so easily to project teams, so we can build the team cohesion that leads to better collaboration.
Dealing with multiple changes can also take a heavy emotional and mental toll on us as individuals. There’s a reason that self-care was a hot topic for many last year; we strove to find balance as we negotiated the, often fuzzy, borders of work and home life.
This focus on self can help us now as we face into this year’s challenges.
It’s more than just making sure we get enough exercise, eat the right things, and stay in touch with our circle of friends.
Studies have shown that maintaining a powerful sense of connection to ourselves and to our core purpose can help to build individual resilience, so we can face change with increased equanimity.
It’s an argument for dialing up, not down, extra wellbeing support. We should be creating opportunities for individuals to reflect on and live their purpose every day.
This is our moment; many change and communications professionals are starting the new year with a renewed sense of appreciation from stakeholders, who recognize how critical our work has been to withstanding everything 2020 threw at us. Now, we can build on that increased trust and respect, looking afresh at how we frame and deliver change to limit the impact that change fatigue will have on our people.
It will take courage, imagination, and a willingness to look outside our usual practices, but it’s in our gift to cultivate human connection and to help our businesses, and our people, to make change happen in an uncertain world.